Translating Myself and Others
by Jhumpa Lahiri
image of Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri
Ever since I read This Little Art by Kate Briggs two years ago I have been fascinated by translating literature and how it can be a metaphor for so much of life: how we translate ourselves to others, how we formulate ideas from thought to expression, and how the substitution of a word (person, space, thing, etc.) for a similar word has a branching effect of all communication thereafter. Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri is a more complex beast of these ideas.

Reference-heavy, Lahiri uses her experience of translating from Italian to English and back again to illustrate, tightly and granularly, what translation is.

I don’t think this is a book for everyone. In fact, I don’t think it’s for most people. I exist within its audience and I recognize that having an interest in translating literature is a niche place to be. I admit I missed a lot of the trees for the forest in this book; it focused my thoughts on what it means to translate, whether literally or metaphorically, in my own life more than it helped me think holistically about the examples Lahiri used. I don’t speak Italian and I had never heard of most of the works Lahiri referenced, but I was forced to think about what lives in the difference of expression. What is lost in the transfer of ideas, the transfer of thought from one person to another? The conversion of thought from one person’s thoughts in one language to the same person’s thoughts in another language? The conversion of thought from one person in 2016 to the same person in 2022? When we translate ourselves from one state to another, we create multiplicities of ourselves that become greater than the sum of our parts.

As I also noticed when I read This Little Art, any book about the translation of words can get muddy quickly due to the fact that the author is well-versed in the navigation of words. The weight of language rests on a single sentence: the result of a potentially infinite process of elimination. This was the case with Translating Myself and Others as well. The nature of language is linear, becoming divergent or concentric only when sentences start to stack on top of one another, bleeding into each other and stretching each other out. We read left to right. We speak in one direction. Meaning comes to exist word by word, building out a one-way framework of an idea. When you bring translation into the mix, or even a different form of expression in the same language, a multiverse of thought unravels.

In her readings of Antonio Gramsci’s Letters from Prison, letters and diary entries from Gramsci when he was arrested and imprisoned in 1926 by Italy’s Fascist government, Lahiri discusses how different forms of expression (in this case diary entries versus letters to his family) are two single strands of the same thread, a “splitting of matches.” Gramsci was a student of translation as well, and he kept his own notebooks while in prison:

Gramsci’s literary production in prison was divided between the massive number of letters and the massive number of notebooks. The meaning of each body of work is augmented by the reading of the other. They are two texts in conversation, and conversation is the basis of any translation.

Every piece of us is a derivative and iteration of another expression of ourselves. The translation, in this case, is across multiple personal, intimate languages. In the case of personal translation, we own the context in both instances, perhaps strengthening the integrity of the translation and making it as air-tight as possible.

In a chapter titled “Where I find Myself,” Lahiri talks about her experience translating one of her own Italian novels, Dove Mi Trovo, into English. The original plan was to let Frederika Randall, an Italian-to-English translator, do the work since the soul of the book could be altered too much if Lahiri was the one to go back over her own work and spend time translating it, seeing its flaws with wiser eyes and resisting the urge to fix them. She wanted to stay far away from the process, comparing the responsibility of translating her own book to performing open heart surgery on herself. But after Randall translated the first dozen pages, it grounded Lahiri to see the novel’s English counterpart, and she decided to take over.

The act of altering, amending, or adjusting art once it’s out in the world is a sticky one. Once people experience a movie, a song, a painting, should it be changed to the point that the original one no longer exists? Translation is a bit of a different animal, since, I guess, the book technically remains the same in the original language, but can an author translate one of their own works from one language to another without adjusting it to the point of having a significant radius from the original? Should a book be translated by its author, who, granted, is the only one who truly has the context to tell the story as it’s intended to be told, but can see the glaring imperfections of a less mature writer?

We write books in a fixed moment in time, in a specific phase of our consciousness and development. That is why reading words written years ago feels alienating. You are no longer the person whose existence depended on the production of those words. But alienation, for better or for worse, establishes distance, and grants perspective, two things that are particularly crucial to the act of self-translation.

Self-translation affords us the context, but does it sacrifice the original meaning?

My copy of Dove Mi Trovo in Italian is now a dog-eared volume, underlined and marked with Post-its indicating the various corrections and clarifications to be made. It has transformed from a published text to something resembling a set of bound galleys. I would have never thought to make those changes had I not translated the book out of the language in which I conceived and created it. Only I was capable of accessing and altering both texts from the inside. Now that the book is about to be printed in English, it has traded places with the finished Italian copy, which has lost its published patina, at least from the author’s point of view, and resumed the identity of a work still in its final stages of becoming a published test. As I write this, Whereabouts is being sewn up for publication, but Dove Mi Trovo needs to be opened up again for a few discreet procedures. That original book, which now feels incomplete to me, stands in line behind its English-language counterpart. Like an image viewed in the mirror, it has turned into the simulacrum, and both is and is not the starting point for what rationally and irrationally followed.

Is the act of self-translation pure? If the original is altered in the name of “tightening it up” to the point of empirical change, where does that leave us as those who experienced the original? Spending time with and replicating a Thing that you created years ago creates a deeper relationship with that Thing. You are collaborating with yourself, going back to who you were in that phase of life. It yields an intimacy with the Thing and with yourself. The artist has every right to do so, but it leaves us as the audience on shifting ground, the degree of change perhaps making us reevaluate our experience of the Thing, for better or worse.

Translating Myself and Others is a demonstration of the fragility and possibility of reality — so loosely tethered to the ever-evolving boundaries of language. We are the languages we carry, the metaphors we assign to our lives, the infinite descriptors and sentences we have available to us.