Friday, May 26, 2017

Jhumpa Lahiri on (non-)self-translation

In the preface to her language memoir In altre parole /In other words, translated into English by Ann Goldstein, Jhumpa Lahiri explains why she opted against self-translation:
"Writing in Italian is a choice on my part, a risk that I feel inspired to take. It requires a strict discipline that I am compelled, at the moment, to maintain. Translating the book myself would have broken that discipline; it would have meant reengaging intimately with English, wrestling with it. rather than with Italian. In addition, had I translated this book, the temptation would have been to improve it, to make it stronger by means of my stronger language. But I wanted the translation of In altre parole to render my Italian honestly, without smoothing out its rough edges, without neutralizing its oddness, without manipulating its character," (pp. xiii-xiv)
Rejecting self-translation into the dominant language thus offered her the possibility to protect her new literary language. In the chapter L'adolescente peloso / The Hairy adolescent she shares her experience of having self-translated one of her short stories, an experience which led to the ultimate rejection of self-translation:
"I imagined that it would be an easy job. A descent rather than an ascent. Instead I am astonished at how demanding I find it. When I write in Italian, I think in Italian; to translate into English, I have to wake up another part of my brain. I don't like the sensation at all. I feel alienated. As if I'd run into a boyfriend I'd tired of, someone I'd left years earlier. He no longer appeals to me." (p. 117)
She recalls the overwhelming richness of her dominant English in comparison to her Italian and the urge to protect the latter:
"The two languages confront each other on the desk, but the winner is already more than obvious. The translation is devouring, dismantling the original text." (p. 117)
Self-translation forces her to face her split identity:
"As I translate this short piece into English, I feel split into two. I can't deal with the tension; I am incapable of moving like an acrobat between the languages. I am conscious of the unpleasant sensation of having to be two different people at the same time - an existential condition that has marked my life." (p. 119)

Although the self-translation into English felt like an "obligation" (p.119), she acknowledged that "traveling between the two versions turns out to be useful. In the end, the effort of translation makes the Italian version clearer, more articulate. It serves the writing, even if it upsets the writer" (p. 120)


In other words is a beautiful testimony of falling in love with a foreign language, of the struggles to conquer it while - despite - all the efforts remaining an outsider forever.

Quotations are taken from:
Lahiri, Jhumpa: In other words. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Bilingual Edition. London/New York: Bloomsbury 2017

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