More Than a ‘Mere Echo’

English versions of foreign literature must stand on their own

Viktor Kirilko (Flickr/visavis)
Viktor Kirilko (Flickr/visavis)

Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri; Princeton University Press, 208 pp., $21.95

In 2012, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and short story writer Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome to develop her Italian, a language she had long studied and loved. Before long, a funny thing happened: she stopped writing in English and started writing in Italian. She reflected on this transition in her 2015 book, In altre parole/In Other Words, translated into English by Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator, and in 2018, she published her first novel in Italian, Dove mi trovo. Lahiri also became a translator herself, of Italian authors like Domenico Starnone, as well as of her own work.

Translating Myself and Others brings together a series of essays in which Lahiri tries to think through what translation has meant to her, how spending time thinking and writing in a foreign language “[opens] up entire realms of possibilities, unforeseen pathways” that “guide and inspire the writer’s work, and possibly even transform it.”

Lahiri’s critical prose is lucid but formal, much of it translated from Italian, which may account for the occasional feeling of rhetorical distance. The collection includes a brilliant disquisition on literature and the optative mood in ancient Greek, and a lyrical deep dive into the prison letters of Italian writer and philosopher Antonio Gramsci, works that probe not only what it means to translate but also the meaning of freedom itself. A number of the essays originally served as introductions to her translations of Domenico Starnone, and they are master classes in translation theory and in critical writing about translation, leaving me eager to seek out Starnone’s work.

Metaphors for translation accumulate across the essays. Translation is like swimming, a series of doors, a form of blindness, a kind of graft, a process of dismantling, of “rendering … invisible,” like walking down “numerous scary corridors … grop[ing] in the dark,” “an act of doubling and converting,” ghost-making, a metamorphosis, looking in a mirror, performing transplant surgery, turning somersaults underwater, a tennis match, an act of substitution, being in transit, a marriage—though she draws the line at developing the “apt but abused metaphor of the translator’s task as traveler.” But this proliferation is not messy or accidental; Lahiri uses metaphor and metamorphosis to power some fascinating and insightful writing, including a beautiful meditation on her mother’s death.

An essay on Ovid’s Metamorphoses (which she is currently co-translating with the Princeton classicist Yelena Baraz), and specifically the story of Echo and Narcissus, stands out for its marriage of erudition and insight. All translation is, of course, a transformation. In some quarters, it has been seen as a lesser literary form, a “mere echo” of the original text. But the verb Ovid uses for what Echo does, after Juno has cursed her, “is not repetere [to repeat] but reddere, which means, among other things, to restore, to render, to reproduce.” Lahiri asserts that a “translator restores the meaning of a text by means of an elaborate, alchemical process that requires imagination, ingenuity, and freedom.” And yet, because the translator comes second—that is, after the author—translation is thought to be an imitative occupation. This kind of hierarchizing between “what is authentic and what is derivative” has consequences even beyond the act of translation, “influenc[ing] not only how we regard literature but how we regard one another.” Who belongs, who doesn’t; who “got there first,” who just arrived, and under what circumstances?

“When it comes to self-translation,” Lahiri writes, “the hierarchy of original and derivation dissolves. To self-translate is to create two originals.”

But Lahiri—and this is typical of her thinking—is dissatisfied with the too-easy reading of Echo as translator and Narcissus as author, regarding only himself and his own text. (This is not slander: “The best of writing comes from unflinching introspection,” she writes.) A good translation must become its own text and be read as if it could stand on the same terms as the original.

After all, the act of writing itself is (if you remember your Plato) to produce a copy of the world, an echo of something experienced or encountered off the page. Lahiri is in the privileged position of being able to attest to the realities of both positions. As a writer, she rejects the notion that the words she puts down are “ ‘my words’—I merely arrange and use them in a certain way.”

Her experiences translating her own work give rise to the last part of the metamorphosis essay. “When it comes to self-translation,” she writes, “the hierarchy of original and derivation dissolves. To self-translate is to create two originals: twins, far from identical, separately conceived by the same person, who will eventually exist side by side.” As a writer who translates myself as well as others, I can attest that translating my own work troubles easy assumptions about what translation is and can be, further destabilizing ideas about hierarchy and primacy.

Lahiri wagers that writers who don’t translate as part of their practice will be at a “disadvantage … locked, Narcissus-like, for good or for ill, in an ongoing state of self-reflection.” Whereas the writer who translates “will both appreciate the limits of any one given language—a crucial awareness, in my opinion—and also take a great leap. … For to translate is to look into a mirror and see someone other than oneself.”

There is some repetition across the essays, a byproduct of her pulling together a collection of previously published work. We are told numerous times how much Italian has meant to her, how she came to write in it and translate from it, how Italians themselves keep her at arm’s length, appreciating that she writes in “their” language but, still, keeping the language for themselves. If there’s any hint of sexism or racism embedded in this kind of patronizing appreciation, Lahiri doesn’t stop to consider it; a straniera is a straniera. Translation has a long tradition of imperialism and colonization behind it and was for centuries the purview of the educated class, but the politics of the act don’t get much attention here. Lahiri focuses more on the personal rather than the sociological or financial implications of her move to Italian.

Then there are the political implications for an English-speaking writer to go toward a language that is not English, when English is the foremost language of worldwide publishing; many who write in languages other than English want to be translated into English, for the prestige, the money, and the ability to connect with so many more readers worldwide—even as the number of works published in English translation remains dismally low.

Still, this may only be a preliminary work on this subject; one senses that Lahiri has tapped a rich vein. I hope that a more developed treatise, one that will engage with the politics and privileges of translation as well as the writing of other translator-theorists, is yet to come.


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Lauren Elkin is an award-winning Franco-American writer and translator, the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City, No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute, and the forthcoming Art Monsters: On Beauty and Excess.


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