Jhumpa Lahiri Discusses the Dualities of Self-Translation

May 7, 2021

By Jon Garaffa ’20, Humanities Council

What is it like to translate your own work into another language? Pulitzer Prize-winner and director of the Program in Creative Writing Jhumpa Lahiri recently discussed her latest novel Whereabouts, which is now available in English, at an event hosted by Labyrinth Books and co-sponsored by the Humanities Council, Lewis Center for the Arts, Department of French and Italian, Program in Translation Studies, and Princeton Public Library. Featuring Lahiri in conversation with Alessandro Giammei, assistant professor of Italian Studies and Comparative Literature at Bryn Mawr College, the event focused on Lahiri’s self-translation of her new novel from Italian to English.

Whereabouts was initially published in 2018 with the Italian title Dove mi trovo — which translates to “where I find myself” in English — and follows an unnamed woman who wanders an unnamed city contemplating her solitude and her place in the world.

After reading two chapters from her book to a large online audience, Lahiri recounted notions of home, transit, and change as central themes of the novel. “It’s not a simple thing to say ‘Oh, I just pick up and make my home wherever I happen to be,'” she said. “What is considered ‘home’ can be considered fluid and a choice,” she added.

Giammei, a former Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, asked Lahiri about the inspiration for the city in the book. Despite Lahiri’s connection with and love of Rome, she intentionally left characters and places unnamed, allowing for a “collage” setting with many layered elements — textured landscapes and shifting vignettes — to emerge in the book.

In this and her other works, Lahiri explores the experience of immigrants who encounter a culture very different from that of their homeland, and their process of grappling with their new surroundings. This reflects her own experience as a daughter of Indian immigrants, who encouraged her to embrace her Bengali roots and heritage as she grew up in the U.S.

Similarly, Lahiri recognized two different states of mind that she had to enter to translate the book. “Translation was being very conscious that I was two people: that I was the writer who had written Dove mi trovo, and that I was also the translator, who was also a writer in the English language, who would reconstruct the book,” she said.

Giammei hailed Lahiri’s novel as part of  the tradition of authors “born again” into the Italian language — authors not raised with Italian as their native language but coming to love the language and taking it up as their own.

Lahiri’s previous novels include The Namesake (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) and The Lowland (Penguin Random House, 2014). Her first short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies (Houghton Mifflin, 1999), won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her second short-story collection, Unaccustomed Earth (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), debuted at number one on the New York Times best-sellers list. Her other honors include the National Humanities Medal.

In the 2020-21 academic year, Lahiri co-taught the course “Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities: Ancient Plots, Modern Twists” (HUM 470 / CWR 470 / CLA 471 ) with Professor of Classics Yelena Baraz. In fall 2021, Lahiri will be the first Creative Writing professor to co-teach “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture” (HUM 216-217).

In April, Lahiri wrote in Words Without Borders about her process of self-translation. Read the article here.

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