Jhumpa Lahiri on Translation as a Path to Self-Discovery
For Jhumpa Lahiri, translation is not only a means to understand language and the world more deeply, but also to forge a newfound sense of place. Born in London to Bengali immigrants who moved to the United States when she was 3, Lahiri grew up in what she has called “a linguistic exile.” This spurred in her a profound sense of alienation and a longing for somewhere that felt like home. Then, during a 1994 trip to Florence, Italy, she made a profound, life-changing discovery: She fell in love with the Italian language and came to realize that it could serve as an essential gateway to exploring her life and identity further—or to, in other words, get beyond any imposed self.
In 2004, after studying Italian while in graduate school in the mid-1990s, Lahiri began meeting with an Italian tutor in Brooklyn, and in 2012, upon being selected as a writer in residence at the American Academy in Rome, she went a step further, moving her family to the Eternal City. Over the next decade, she wrote almost exclusively in Italian, and while living full-time in Rome, from 2012 to 2015, primarily spoke the language, too. After publishing her book In Other Words (2015), written in Italian first and later translated into English by Ann Goldstein, she began to feel comfortable, or at least confident enough, to begin translating most of her Italian writing herself, including her 2021 novel Whereabouts, originally released in Italian as Dove mi trovo in 2018. (Whereabouts was the first published Knopf book to be translated by its own author.) A vivid sense of rhythm permeates Lahiri’s ethereal, exacting, and often somber Italian sentences and paragraphs. A visceral, potent energy rises up on the page, reflective of the strong emotional tenor she feels when engaging with the language.
In her decision to embrace writing in Italian, Lahiri took a giant leap of faith. Some warned her against it, practically considering it career suicide. But she remained unmoved. Lahiri’s need to express herself in Italian was irrepressible. Despite her many triumphs until that point—including winning the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (1999), and having her popular novel The Namesake (2003) turned into a Hollywood film—pivoting to Italian brought about a new flood of creativity. Since 2015, Lahiri has, as she points out on this episode of Time Sensitive, produced more books than there have been years, including The Clothing of Books (2016) and her most recent, Translating Myself and Others, which was published by Princeton University Press in May. Also during this time, she has translated three novels by Domenico Starnone into English, edited The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories (2019), and begun co-translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Latin.
Today, Lahiri splits her time between Rome and the U.S. She recently left Princeton University, where she had taught creative writing since 2015, and next fall she’ll be returning to New York, for a position at Barnard College, her alma mater. She’s spending the current year in Rome. The vitality Lahiri continues to gain from Italian and translation only seems to grow. Her first book of Italian short stories, Racconti Italiani, or Roman Stories, will debut in the fall. (Knopf plans to publish an English version in 2024 with a to-be-announced translator.
On this episode, Lahiri speaks with Spencer about translation as a political act, the vocabulary of architecture, and language as a portal to understanding one’s place in the world.
Lahiri recalls the first seven years of her life and how it shaped her relationship with language. She also remembers a formative trip to Florence, Italy, in 1994, and the visceral, multisensory response she had to the city’s culture, history, and native tongue.
Lahiri discusses the most recent seven years of her life, and how time shifts for her depending on the language she uses, whether Bengali, English, or Italian. She also details how living in Rome led to her recent prolific output, and shares her deep affinity for Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Lahiri expands on the connections between translation and time, and how the Italian language led to her writing poetry. She also talks about translation as a political act.
Lahiri speaks about growing up in Rhode Island, her early years as a reader, and the trajectory of her life as a writer, including a pivotal fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Lahiri discusses the acts of writing, translating, and swimming as tools for navigating identity, thinking deeply, and understanding life.
Lahiri considers how Italian Renaissance architecture brought about more fully her love of Italy and its language. She also talks about the freedom she finds within the constraints of translation.
SPENCER BAILEY: Joining me in the studio today is the author and translator Jhumpa Lahiri. Welcome, Jhumpa.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Thank you.
SB: So, to begin, I wanted to open up this conversation with a specific period of time: seven years. You were born in 1967 in London to Bengali immigrant parents, who, in 1969, moved to South Kingstown, Rhode Island, where you were raised.
JL: Actually, in ’69, they moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
JL: Yeah. My father got a job at M.I.T., and we lived for one year in Cambridge, close to Central Square. Actually, I went to see the house recently. I had never gone to look at it before. Anyway, and then in 1970 my dad got a job at the University of Rhode Island, and we moved there.
SB: Could you speak to these first seven years? I mean, what about these years in particular proved so formative to shaping you—your life, your work, and your relationship with language?
JL: Well, so the first seven years of my life, to me… I remember a portion of them, but essentially I was an only child until I was over seven years old. I was aware that my family’s trajectory involved movements. I was aware that my parents’ emotional center was not where we lived. I was aware of a certain loneliness, personally and also within the family. I was aware of a lot of creativity in that there was a lot of energy put into connecting with people on my parents’ part—connecting with people who would make them feel more at home, would bring them happiness, and would make them excited.
I was also aware of an extreme precariousness to everything. Until I was seven, we were moving from rented place to place. The first house I remember living in, I was about …. It was 1970, so I was 3. So between the ages of 3 and 7, we lived in that first house I remember in Rhode Island. Then we moved to another faculty apartment and then eventually to a house. But by that time, I was over eight years old and I had a sister. So those first seven years were very specific, in that sense, that it was just the three of us.
SB: Would you describe it, for you, as a period of solitude?
JL: Largely, yeah. I think that I would describe it as a period of essentially being with my mother, who took care of me. My father went to work. My mother did not work outside of the house. She had some interesting projects, babysitting, and she was an Avon lady. So she had discreet activities, but essentially I was with her. Then I was sent to school. So the whole kind of slow and, on my part, reluctant entry into the world, into society, happened in those years. I have memories of being sent to nursery school, of having to go into various school contexts, going to kindergarten, so on and so forth. I was very aware of that. And I learned how to read in that period.
SB: Growing up, you had what you’ve described as this “long clash” between Bengali and English. You’ve also described it as “a linguistic exile” and “a continuous sense of estrangement.” Can you tell me a little bit about your early relationships with these languages and how they evolved over time?
JL: Well, I didn’t speak any English, essentially, until I had to go to school. So I remember my mother putting me in front of public television and that there was a purpose to my watching these programs. All the wonderful educational programs in the seventies, so Sesame Street, [The] Electric Company, et cetera. That was my contact with America. Well, that was my contact with the English language. It was also my contact with any kind of American reality: people, how they looked, how they dressed, how they spoke, how they behaved. But the rest of my life, because I feel that during that period my mother was the dominant presence in my life, Bengali was certainly the dominant language in that period.
I remember being—well, I was—horribly shy and nervous to talk to people and to make connections. I imagine there was something about my having to not only separate from my mother, my family, my home, but also to do it in a different language. So I think both of those things were feeding off of one another, to add to sort of the general sense of anxiety or estrangement that I certainly felt. I was a rather anxious and estranged child. I was very serene, if you can be anxious and serene at the same time. I didn’t express anxiety on the outside, but I felt it on the inside.
SB: And you had to live between these two places. Everyone, of course, has their home life and their school life, but for you, this was drastically… There was a line between the two, and that line was language.
JL: It was. And then there was Calcutta—Kolkata, now. But there was the third place. That place would… Well, first of all, we went to the place. So there were these trips, which back then, from my childhood point of view, were epic journeys to go to visit my parents’ home and world. Then there was, of course, all the correspondence. The letters, the lifeline for my parents, which was coming in the form of letters, largely in the form of letters, occasionally a telegram. No phone conversation unless it was a dire emergency. And even then, it was prohibitively expensive. I feel like the thought of making a phone call to India back then was like the thought of my deciding right now, I think I’ll just take a cab to Los Angeles. It was just… Yes, technically, maybe you could do it, but you wouldn’t, right, because it would be so seemingly beyond the realm of possibility.
SB: Did Calcutta form a sort of mythic imagination in your mind? Did you have this heightened idea of it because of that distanced relationship?
JL: Well, I remember going. So the first time I traveled, I was too young to remember. That was in 1969. It was just before my parents moved from London to Cambridge [Massachusetts]. And that summer, my mother took me to Calcutta for the first time. I don’t remember that trip at all. The second time we went, I was 5. That was a very traumatic trip because when we got there, my mother’s father had just passed away, and she didn’t know until she got there that he had passed away eleven days before. So I have memories of that trip because that trip lived on in the mythology of my family as such a difficult period.
Then the following year, we went back again in ’73. I was 6. We went back that year. So, yeah, that’s still within the seven year period. That was a time of a lot of violence and political turmoil, some of which I rework in The Lowland. I have memories of that period and the general fear and tension in the air and within families. So it was a real place, it was a concrete place, to me.
Essentially, I was living in a recreated Calcutta in my house. We had a completely sort of sealed off, practically sealed off, home environment. It was very strange when an American person would come over to our house. I remember my mother babysat for the son of my first grade teacher, who was a lovely woman, Miss Molly. I don’t know how it worked out, but she would bring her son who was a little bit younger than I was over to our house, and my mother would look after him. One day, she came over for dinner, and I just remember what an event it was because someone from outside of our world, outside of our culture, was coming to eat in our home. Of course, it was documented in their photographs and things, but I remember the sort of tension and excitement that accompanied that event because it was so rare.
SB: In a way, it was like your two selves sort of colliding, too.
JL: Yes, it was. It was because she was my teacher and she—
SB: School comes home.
JL: Yeah, school came home. It was sort of the collision of two worlds. I spoke to her in English, and I learned how to read with her. I learned… The first real progress I think I made as a reader, I was making with her, I imagine, in her class.
SB: So a third language—Italian—eventually comes into the picture. In 1994, you visited Florence with your sister, and basically decided immediately that it was a language you needed to build a relationship with, that you wanted to begin studying, and so you did. And in 2003, you first visited Rome and immediately felt what you’ve called [in In Other Words] “a sense of rapture, an affinity.” Then in 2012, you at last made the leap and moved to Rome with your husband and two children. What did learning Italian, and eventually writing in Italian, offer you that Bengali and English could never?
JL: Well, it unmade me and it remade me. We’re going back to an origin story, I think, and the need to rework that origin story. I think that’s a broad, sweeping way of thinking about it, but I think that’s what was happening. It was the need to have some agency, perhaps, in calling myself who I was or being who I was, or something along those lines. The idea of who I was was always so contested. I think that I wanted to move beyond that agon and create an alternative to that narrative. I think those are the broad, I would say, psychological, existential ways of reading what eventually happened, which was so extraordinarily surprising to me. I wasn’t expecting it at all. Not at all.
SB: I won’t ask why Italian, because you wrote a beautiful essay on it that’s in your new book [Translating Myself and Others]. But you sum it up this way. You say it’s “to open doors, to see differently, to graft myself onto another.” I’m wondering, with that in mind, and with your visceral response to Italy and the language, I’m wondering, what was it about Italy, and about the sort of sensory experience of Italy—the sounds, the smells—that pulled you in?
JL: Mm-hmm. Well, I think it’s more aligned with a place like India, just generally, right? There’s a sense of vitality in the every day and ongoing sort of quotidian gestures that I associate more with spending time in, say, Kolkata—a sense of community that is very anchored, very rooted, very much a part of one’s daily experience of life. I think there’s a basic awareness of the past, and of the deep past, that is very much part of the present moment. So I picked up on those things. I think no matter what, even today, a place like Rome, which is so incredibly stratified temporally, it is in contact with the East. It is in contact with the East in a way that the United States never felt. The United States felt completely, utterly detached with continents and an enormous ocean in between. Whereas I feel like, if one wanted, one could get in a car and drive and get from one place to the other. I think there’s something about that just symbolically.
I was obsessed with maps when I was a child. I’m still kind of obsessed with maps, but just sort of looking at the map and the world and how it’s configured. I was always very aware of these things, very aware of geography. So although they’re two very different places, India and Italy, of course, and Rome and Kolkata are very different cities in many ways, but there’s more of a… I find, I found—I still find more common ground between those two places. There was something about Rome that kind of felt like that third point on the triangle that was going to allow… If we think of the precarious existence, sort of balancing on that point, but it needs to be anchored by the two other points. So that’s what Rome feels like to me. That’s what Rome is to me.
SB: Going back to where we started with seven years, I was wondering if you could speak to the most recent seven, which you’ve spent between Princeton [New Jersey] and Rome. How are you thinking about these three languages, this sort of linguistic triangle? Would you say Italian has become your dominant language?
JL: For some things, yes. I think it’s become the dominant language of my work in the past seven years and it becomes the dominant language when I’m in Rome, when I’m in Italy. Next year, I’ll be in Rome. Soon, I’ll be in Rome. I’ll be in Rome for the year, and Italian will become my dominant language, just in terms of the sheer amount of Italian I will be speaking every day, and the kinds of experiences I’ll be having every day. But it shifts. It shifts depending on where I am. When I come back to the United States, English becomes a dominant language, even though there’s all of this ongoing work and life in Italian. I don’t think a day has passed in the past seven years in which I haven’t communicated or expressed myself or something in Italian. That is not the case for Bengali anymore. I can go for days without Bengali if I don’t have a conversation, because it’s a conversational language. It’s an oral language. If I’m not having a conversation with somebody, I’m not using the language in the same way.
SB: Do you find that time shifts for you between these three languages? Do you think differently when you’re using those languages?
JL: Well, I sound different. Languages have driven intonations, as you know, different registers. I noticed the other day, I was having a conversation with somebody and then an Italian colleague walked by, and I just stopped to greet him. I noticed my…everything shifts. Everything shifted. My register shifted. I think my expression probably changed. I was aware of that. I was aware that when I was speaking in English, there was kind of a more… I don’t know. There was a kind of more, kind of placid… Like this, right? Then, when I speak in Italian, I can hear myself speaking in Italian, and there’s a different everything—there’s a different rhythm, there’s a different attitude. The same with Bengali. I’ve always been aware of that, though, because I’ve always been switching between two languages from the first seven years.
SB: Just speaking of these most recent seven years, I think it’s worth pointing out how incredibly productive you have been. It’s astounding. Multiple books, from In Other Words; to The Clothing of Books, which was this great short little book about book covers; to the translation work you’ve done, translating three of Domenico Starnone’s novels, The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories; and your new book, Translating Myself and Others. Tell me about all of this output, all while teaching as well.
JL: Yeah. Well, I think two of the most important books I would add to that list, Whereabouts, or Dove mi trovo, which was the novel I wrote, the first novel to emerge from Italian, and then there was a book of poems also.
SB: In Italian.
JL: Yeah. I just finished a book that I think we have to include in this seven year period because if we’re starting the clock from….
SB: Let’s say 2015.
JL: Yeah, it works. This book [Racconti Italiani, or Roman Stories] that I just finished is going to come out in the fall, a book of short stories in Italian. So that, too. I know, I mean, it’s crazy. I don’t understand how it happened, because I think that it’s more books than years if we count them up.
SB: Yeah. [Laughs]
JL: It is more books than years. I don’t know how it all emerged with such incredible, just kind of one after another. I will say that when I go to Rome, still it’s a place of unparalleled energy for me—energy and inspiration. A lot of these projects come out of my time in Rome. Even the year—I had one year of leave in these past seven years, and that’s when I wrote the book of poems, and drafted a number of the stories that are in this new book [Racconti Italiani, or Roman Stories], and finished the Penguin anthology that came out that year, and Dove mi trovo came out that year. I don’t know. Well, I guess there was a pandemic in between. That year, I might not have translated the third Starnone had it not been for the pandemic. I think I translated Confidenza, Trust, because of the situation, because of the pandemic, so maybe that contributed as well.
JL: It’s like being in paradise. Yeah. I already worry about when it will end. It won’t for a while because we just finished the first five books and there are fifteen books. We just finished one draft, and I imagine there will be many, many drafts. It just feels like the most glorious, creative, and intellectual pleasure of my life. I’m so happy and grateful to be reading this poem that has meant so much to me—reading it in its entirety, reading it in Latin, reading it and being guided by someone who really knows the Latin, so that I can really, fully, as fully as possible, understand what it is.
SB: What is it about this idea of metamorphosis that you find so meaningful, or that connects back to your own life, your own work, this project of learning Italian?
JL: I feel that if I have a personal philosophy, if I’ve arrived at a personal philosophy, it would be metamorphosis. I think Ovid’s philosophy is that of change. That change is life and life is change, and without change, there is no life. Then declining that change and understanding what it means in all the possible contexts. At this point in my life, I have come to understand that the key to understanding and reading life is through the idea and the fact and the reality of metamorphosis, and thinking about it in so many different ways. That’s why the poem continues to gain meaning for me personally, or explain life to me. I imagine people have relationships—people who are religious—have relationships with texts, right?
SB: It’s a compass.
JL: Yeah. That gives you exactly your coordinates, decodes life, gives life meaning, gives you inspiration, and gives you the strength to go on, and so on and so forth. I think The Metamorphoses has become that text for me.
SB: This year marks a decade since you started writing in Italian and since you went to live in Rome. How do you think about your time spent in Rome? On the subject of time, having spent all this time there, do you feel there’s a sort of “Rome time”? A time that might be distinctive from, say, “Princeton time” or “New York time”?
JL: Absolutely. I mean, time operates in a very different way when I’m in Rome. I’m very aware of that when I’m in Rome, as opposed to say Princeton or New York. I haven’t lived in New York now for six years. New York has its own temporal reality, I think. But I’m acutely aware of how one day in Rome feels like a couple of weeks in Princeton. There’s a dilation of time each day, and I think it’s because I feel so comfortable and happy there. There are so many movements to the day that feel like very concrete points, if we’re mapping out a day.
It is one of the things that strikes me. So I keep a journal. I have kept a journal for many, many decades. I’m always writing in my journal when I’m in Rome. I’m always—even if it’s just to note things, I’ll say, I did this, then I did that, and then I saw this person, and then I took a walk there, and then I did that. Even if it’s a very ordinary day—even if it’s just a typical day of nothing special happening, no big occasions—just a day when you wake up, you shop, have a coffee, come back, work, swim, and go to the gym. Just a normal day. There’s still these beautiful peaks and valleys. The day’s a landscape, and there’s space to the day. I don’t feel that at all in my Princeton life. My Princeton life feels very constrained and very fast. I feel like I wake up, the day happens, I come home, and the day is ending.
JL: It’s a very different rhythm, totally different rhythm. Time moves more quickly, absolutely, in Princeton, for me. Maybe not a bad thing [laughs], I don’t know.
SB: Let’s turn to the act of translation. How do you think about the role of time when it comes to translation?
JL: Well, I mean time is ruling everything. I think translations exist outside of time, and I think translations are putting times into conversation. Because unless you’re translating simultaneously to the publication of a book, a bestselling author is coming out… Then you have the fleet of translators all over. That’s nearly simultaneous even though the book’s already been written, mind you. The translators are there so that the book can be launched in many languages at the same time. But normally, that’s not happening. Normally, there’s already a lag. There’s already this little bit of jet lag going on, even with Starnone’s novels. They come out, he writes them—he writes them in a moment. I come to them in my moment. But then, when we open up the question of what it means to translate across time, what it means to translate [Italo] Calvino or Lalla Romano or whomever, or Ovid in this case, then translation is also a conversation about times. Two different times. You’re working across time and you’re thinking so much about time—the time the work was written, and the time you’re trying to bring the text into, and thinking about your time, and thinking about that time, and thinking about how to best make these times mesh. That’s one question, certainly, in terms of time and translation.
The other thing is, because there is no definitive translation, I think even as one produces a translation—at least when I’m producing a translation, working on a translation—I’m very aware that this is a translation in its moment, in my moment, and that either I or somebody else can then come back to it and retranslate it and re-propose the book in the same language, in another time. I think translation loosens the threads of time, in a way, and creates webs that are very interesting, that aren’t corresponding to our more linear sense of, okay, today’s today and yesterday was yesterday and tomorrow’s tomorrow, and I’m moving through this.
SB: It’s like an entanglement.
JL: Yes. It’s much more complex with translation. Everything’s more complex with translation.
SB: Tell me about your own slow, winding path to self-translation. I know your first translated book In Altre Parole, or In Other Words, was translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, but since then you’ve translated all of your own works and your writing.
JL: Yeah, almost. Almost, but not all. I’ve had help. I’ve had other people translate. In this new book, my husband translated one of the pieces and a graduate student at Princeton translated one of the pieces. I looked at them and adjusted a couple of things. In the new book of stories that’s about to come out, I translated two thirds of it, and another translator translated three of them, Todd Portnowitz at [Alfred A.] Knopf—he works at Knopf; he’s a translator and does independent work as a translator. So I’ve worked with him on this newest project. But yes, but Dove mi trovo I decided to translate by myself, though I was prompted by the work that Frederika Randall had done. She gave me a little sample of what it might be like in English, and then I decided to translate it by myself. I haven’t been totally by myself. There are always others generally in the picture.
SB: But I guess, generally speaking, how do you view this evolution of self-translation? I understand, from what you’ve written, early on it was quite challenging for you to do that.
JL: Yeah. Early on, it was absolutely distasteful—
JL: —and I didn’t want to do it at all. So I didn’t. It felt so deeply discombobulating and distressing and a sort of unraveling of something that I was trying to very much knit together, which was Italian. But now, there is a sort of eagerness to do it in spite of the fact that it’s so arduous and crazy-making at times. Even though I don’t have that pleasure factor of translating myself, because I’m not fed by my own work in the same way that other people’s work feeds me, but I appreciate it for its rigor.
What I appreciate about it now is that it’s now become the best way I’m able to edit myself in Italian. That’s why I translated, very quickly and intensely, translated the last stories in this new collection called Racconti Italiani, Roman Stories. I translated them myself because I knew I had to deliver the Italian version, these stories were relatively new, and I wanted to get them as good as I could get them in Italian. I realized that if I translated them to English, all of the imperfections were going to come out very quickly, and they did. So it was fantastic. I’m really grateful that I have the means to do this now, but I also feel very daunted and sort of, Oh God, is this going to be the rest of my life? Am I always going to be caught between these two languages now for my literary production, at least on the Italian side?
If I were to write something in English, I don’t think I would want to translate it into Italian to see. In that sense, English will inevitably remain a language in which I have more general horsepower—just a greater range of tools and breadth and vocabulary on the whole thing. But certainly, for the Italian writing. Now, when I wrote my poetry book—this was three, four years ago—I was in Rome and I wrote a book of poems, kind of an interesting book in which there’s some prose, there are some poems, and there’s a kind of framing text, and so on and so forth. When I wrote that book, I wrote it completely in Italian, completely thought it in Italian, lived it in Italian, imagined it in Italian. It never occurred to me, Oh, I want to translate some of these poems to make sure. I think it’s more with prose that the translation comes out. If I write it in Italian and the translation into English, at least in the case of these particular stories, was very helpful to me. Again, I don’t know what will happen with the next project. For now, I don’t have to think about it because Ovid has completely overtaken my life. I won’t have to worry about it for a while.
SB: It was in Italian that you realized you had an engagement and interest in writing poetry, right? That never occurred to you in English.
JL: Never, never. Because poetry was a different language to me, and it is a different language. I felt as a person—as an English-language person, reader, speaker, student, whatever—I loved poetry. I read poetry and I studied poetry, but I felt that it was the language of others, and that I had no key to that door. But Italian, in the Italian house, I also discovered the poetry door, and it opened—it yielded—when I stumbled into it, which is interesting. I’ve translated a couple of those poems into English, which is strange, very strange.
SB: Philosophically, I find that translation makes for a really great metaphor, and your novel The Namesake was adapted—or translated, really—into a film by the director, Mira Nair. I was wondering if you view her work and what she did with that film as a translation, and if, in some sense, you view the world, everything around us, as some form of translation?
JL: Yeah. I think it can become, again, a much broader key to understanding pretty much everything. I certainly think of Mira’s work as a translation and interpretation of my novel. That’s absolutely what it was. If we think about translation as translation meaning movement, translation meaning change, what is not moving and changing constantly? From our organism to the water levels, to the air and the clouds and these birds, and this time that we’re spending together, what is not moving and changing? In that sense, yes, I think we can think of translation as a central word and a central activity and a central aspect of life. I think one of the reasons I felt inspired to put this book together was that I do think translation is the center of the solar system. I call Ovid my sun. He is my sun, the sun of my solar system. S-U-N. But I think translation in general has a reputation as being anything but the center. It has a reputation of being out there on the margins, sort of the Pluto of literary activity, right?
SB: Right. Translators are not celebrated the same way so many other artists are.
JL: No, no. I think recent years have been good for translation and translators, and that’s really wonderful to see more attention, more excitement, more respect, more understanding of what goes on when one is translating. Just the devotion of it, and the discipline of it, and the marvel of it, and the fact that translators are the people both at the center of the literary solar system, but who also go all the way to the nether lands.
SB: You’ve written about how translation is a political act. You look at the war in Ukraine right now, and the role that those translators are playing, and how important that is to understanding the story of what’s happening in the world.
JL: Absolutely. Actually, many years ago—this is kind of random, but—I was asked by my friend and editor, Askold Melnyczuk, who is of Ukrainian descent, to co-translate some stories from the Ukrainian. It was one of my earliest translation projects. I don’t know the language, of course, but I was asked to translate off of a preexisting translation, which isn’t quite editing. I think it’s sort of asking the translator in that situation to really get inside of the story as a writer. Because a translator is a writer, of course, among other things. You mentioned Ukraine and translation, and I just remember working on that project. Of course now what is happening is entirely dependent on translation for our understanding. So many things are dependent on interpretation and someone who is able to see both sides and understand both sides, which is why I’ve always been so fascinated by the figure of the interpreter.
SB: Yeah. Your first book.
JL: Indeed. That title came from someone I met who worked as an interpreter—I’ve talked about this—in a doctor’s office. My father spoke at some point about how he was very interested in languages. He studied Chinese. He was a Chinese language scholar in India. He was very serious about it. He was going to go to China. He was very dedicated to his study of Chinese. Then eventually he studied Russian. He studied various languages when I was growing up.
I was always fascinated by his foreign dictionaries that were in our house. I still have some of them. He had a French dictionary. I don’t know how much he ever studied French, but his name is in it. Of course, he knew English. I have some memory of him saying, at some point, “I wanted to be” or “I aspire to be” an interpreter. And he would’ve been had he gone to China—he would’ve been interpreting from Chinese. Then he ended up not being able to go for political reasons, because there was a border dispute between China and India. He was unable to go and fulfill that vocation, I would call it. So I think the character of the interpreter also is drawn from my sense of my father and his own interest in foreign languages—especially when I was younger. I found it a fascinating aspect of him.
SB: So, in some sense, do you view the trajectory from that, to Interpreter of Maladies, to learning Italian as a sort of natural osmosis almost?
JL: I think so. I think it’s all connected. Absolutely. If you want to go back and thread the popcorn pieces, there is. Yeah, you can.
SB: Well, let’s go back to your upbringing in Rhode Island. As you mentioned, your father was a librarian and your mother was an ardent reader of Bengali literature and a poet herself who wrote poems in Bengali. You grew up reading library books. You’ve written how your early reading sort of happened outside of time—that you were ignorant of the market, of current events. Around age 15, you started reading Russian literature. You also read [Nathaniel] Hawthorne, whose writing years and years later would serve as the epigraph of your book Unaccustomed Earth. [Editor’s note: The epigraph, taken from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, reads, “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil.”] I was hoping you could speak a little bit about this trajectory as a reader and how you think about your time spent reading, both as a child and now.
JL: Well, reading has always been my life and sort of the basic purpose of life, in some sense. Beyond the obvious basics of survival, of eating and sleeping and being sheltered, I would say reading then comes right there. I have no other survival kit, so that was and is how I survive, is reading. But I also feel, and I think I’ve talked about this in something I wrote, about how reading for me, because I learned how to read in another language that was not my home language and not my parents’ language, that reading was both part of the survival package, but also betrayal. It always felt like a betrayal. Turning my back on them and discovering things about a world that they were suspicious of, and already feeling like that sort of translator figure who was going to have access to another world that….
SB: Books became a portal.
JL: Books were a portal. Books were also very exotic, in a way. I didn’t grow up in a house full of books or anything like that. Our house was rather spare. I know if we go back to the first seven years, my memories of our homes, those places we inhabited, did not have very many things. A sense of people who have arrived from very far away with few possessions. A light footprint. So the books that were in the house, I was very aware of. I was aware of these dictionaries that my father had. I was aware of an English dictionary. I still remember what that looked like. It had a kind of maroon cover. An English dictionary. They used to pull that out to play Scrabble with their friends.
I was aware of a couple of the early books that my mother brought over from Calcutta that were very important books for her to have in our home. Then eventually, we had more suitcases that we could bring. The suitcases got bigger and my mother would go to Calcutta and buy like forty books and lug them back to America. Then there was more space and there were shelves, and the shelves were filled. So now she left behind all of these books that are in my father’s house. But in the beginning, the books were scant, and therefore they made more of an impact in a way because I was very intrigued by them.
We lived along a sweet little street in Kingstown, Rhode Island. Our house was on the street and then maybe fifteen doors down was the public library on the corner, where I would go for story hour. I would be read to. I got a library card, and I could check books out. I would go and check books out. I eventually worked at that library. It was my first job as a high school student. I wanted to work there. I did. It was very formative for me, that place.
SB: What about the trajectory of your writing life? I know you wrote stories in notebooks as a kid and drew the covers [laughs], but it wasn’t until 30 that you really started writing in earnest. Is that correct?
JL: Yeah. I would say it wasn’t until I was 30 that I felt that I dared call myself a writer. That was thanks in large part to my time at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown [Massachusetts, on Cape Cod], where I was a writing fellow for seven months. That was transformative. That was a metamorphosis. I changed from being unsure of what my calling was in life to being very sure of what it was. I started writing. Yeah. I was very, very gun shy. I was very nervous and hesitant to call myself a writer until that time. Even though I was writing, kind of, sort of, in some fits and starts. I wrote most of the stories in Interpreter of Maladies before I was 30. But I still didn’t really feel like I could walk into a room and say, “I’m a writer.” I mean, I wasn’t. I was, and I wasn’t. I was writing, but there’s this whole thing of the [“writer”] label and what it means. Does it mean you’ve published a book? I feel that I know many people who’ve never published a book who are very much writers—deeply, profoundly writers. People I learn from, being around them. Writers, they’re a breed, and I don’t think that it corresponds to publishing a book at all.
SB: I agree. It’s storytelling in many ways. The mode that that takes could be a variety of mediums.
JL: Sure. It can also mean maybe you work on something and you just don’t publish it, or it doesn’t get published for whatever reason, or maybe you don’t even want to publish it. Who knows.
JL: They do exist outside of the machinery.
JL: They transcend the machinery.
SB: Many artists are writers. Painters, architects, they write in their own way, too.
SB: How do you think about your kind of “writing time” as opposed to “reading time”? How do you view those two modalities?
JL: I think it’s one modality, and sometimes the reading takes over and sometimes the writing takes over. I think of reading as the first, the primary modality. I think if you were to take one away, if I had to take one away, I would take away writing and I would need to read. If I had to. But I think that reading opens the door to writing. Then, if you’re serious about writing, you have to go back into the reading door and you’re just sort of like a translator. You’re in these two places, two dimensions, all the time. Which is very much my life, in terms of my calling, if you will, my creativity. It’s my life now, logistically, because I have two lives in different places, very different places.
It was the learned model from my parents, who, even though they didn’t have an active life in India anymore—they left it; they didn’t have a home there anymore; they had family, whatever, places to stay, but they didn’t maintain a life the way I maintain a life in Rome, for example. But that’s how my mother would always describe their lives, which was that they had one foot in two boats that were moving along the river in a parallel fashion. They were moving through the river of life with this very precarious—somehow sailing, but never in one boat ever. That has become my life now in a different context. But that’s absolutely my life.
Just today I was thinking, I’m now almost 55 years old, and there are two things that many human beings have and love and enjoy to add to their quality of life that I’m never really going to be able to have. One is a pet, like a dog. I was at a dinner yesterday and someone said, “Oh, you should get a dog when you move back to Brooklyn.” I said, “I can’t. I can’t get a dog. I can’t ever get a dog.” I guess I could. I guess people move around with their pets. But just saying, dog and plants. That really strikes me because my mother loved plants. Now we’re moving out of our house in Princeton. I already gave away some of my plants. I’m not a very good [plant] person. I’m not like my mom. She was kind of a magician with plants, but I have a few plants on my window sill. I’ve already given them away because we’re leaving for a year.
Then when we come back—after this year in Rome, I’m going to come back to live in New York. I have a new job now. I’m going to be leaving Princeton. I’m going to Barnard [College]. I’m going to teach at Barnard, my alma mater. So that’s why we’re moving back to New York, but I’ll only be teaching in the fall. In the spring and summer, I’ll be free to go back to Rome. But what does this mean? It means I will not have plants and I will not have a dog. I know it’s really like just two random things, right? But somehow, I feel like they separate me from so many people I know who have plants and/or dogs. Or they have gardens that they can kind of actually, maybe they go away for the summer for a couple of weeks, but they have something that is ongoing, whatever it is—whether it’s their window boxes or their tubs of basil or something. There isn’t this neglect born from absence. I do have, I finally, on my terrace in Rome some lovely kind of cacti and hardy succulents. They can be ignored for a couple of years, probably. And they’re doing well. They give me great pleasure, actually. When I go back to Rome, and I see those plants, I’m kind of in awe of the fact that they persist. But I do think that this two-sided life, it’s certainly become my life from my choosing. There’s something incredibly rich and beautiful about it. I feel so fortunate to have it, and at the same time, sometimes I think about it, and I still feel that ache of: Why am I not a person who can have a dog or lots of plants in my house?
SB: I wanted to bring up time in the context of family. In 2008, you were on Charlie Rose, and you said “the basic fact of any family is that it becomes a ticking clock once you have more than one generation.” I was wondering how you think about this ticking clock in your own life, in the context of your own family.
JL: I don’t remember saying that. I’m sure I did.
SB: It was a nice quote. [Laughs]
JL: Yeah. Writers in general often think about families because they are ticking clocks. They produce just, from the beginning, drama upon drama of what happens. I’m aware my children are now grown, growing quite… My son is 20, my daughter is 17. So those are different ages from certainly when I was talking to Charlie Rose. Again, metamorphosis, right? The situation is so different now. It’s such a different frame that we’re in, as opposed to seven years ago, as opposed to 14 years ago, as opposed to… I’ve also changed my family—my nuclear family that I made with my husband [Alberto Vourvoulias]—I’ve changed the circumstances of that family quite a bit. I wonder about the consequences of all of these movements that I’ve subjected my family to, and continue to subject my family to.
SB: In your novel Whereabouts, the narrator notes that we can’t “escape the shadows our families cast.” I was wondering if you see writing, and also in turn translation, as a method for you of making your way through these shadows, of making sense of them and of life and the world.
JL: I don’t think we can escape the shadows, so there’s no escaping the shadows. But yeah, there’s a sort of awareness and living with them, creating some sort of amicable arrangement with the shadows. Knowing that they’re there. Knowing they’re not going anywhere. They won’t drift away. It’s not like the shadow you see on the street only if the sun is in a certain position, and then it goes away. They’re not like that. Yeah. They’re there, and they haunt you. Self-knowledge, awareness, reflection—these are very important tools we have.
SB: Another tool—and I might be wrong here—but another tool that you use in your life is swimming. In In Other Words, swimming serves as a sort of metaphor for you learning—
SB: —this language, Italian. Swimming appears in Whereabouts, too. The narrator notes, “Every time I swim, I feel cleansed as if from within.” I was hoping you might share a little bit about your time spent swimming. Do you write in your mind while swimming?
JL: Mm-hmm. I do. Yeah, I write in my mind. A lot of sentences and things will come to me. When I’m actively working on something, swimming unlocks. People will say this about running, too. I think [Haruki] Murakami talks about it [in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running]. Joyce Carole Oates talks about running as kind of loosening of the imagination—its own portal, if you will, because you’re in another dimension. And then swimming, you’re really in another dimension, because you’re literally in the dimension of water. You are detached from everything else—all life, responsibilities, phones, sound. It’s a very—
JL: You’re floating, but you’re working. You’re working to stay afloat and move, and all of those things. So definitely, it’s a place where I work out things that I’m working on. I recite things. I recite lines from Ovid when I swim. I try to memorize lines. Often I’ll say, Okay, I want to memorize these two lines, and I’ll get into the pool and I’ll just do that. So yeah, swimming has really taken root, I would say, in these past seven years. It was really in Princeton that I discovered I had access to an amazing pool, which I’ll miss very much, DeNunzio [Pool]. I owe it a great deal. But I’ve always loved the water, and I’ve always loved swimming. I have swam in different pools and places in my life. But at Princeton, swimming became another part of my survival kit, I have to say, and it was essential to my surviving Princeton, and still is.
Yeah, I’m already wondering what the pool situation’s going to be when I get to New York. I know we’re near the Chelsea Piers. Might not be quite on my flight path. But I have to figure something out because it’s become so crucial. I think now that Ovid has become so dominant in my life, in my imagination, in my soul, really, and that book is all about water and fluidity. Everything. Metamorphoses, everything is flowing in Ovid. It’s like this flow—flow of life, flow of time, flow of experience. All of the aquatic imagery is incredible. All the words in Latin for the sea and liquid are so interesting to think about. As I’m translating the poem, I’m very conscious of Ovid’s own relationship to water. Whether it’s rivers, whether it’s sea, divinities who ruled the sea, things that happen in the sea, people who are turned into liquid. I just translated an amazing passage from the end of Book 5, Arethusa, in which she’s transformed into liquid.
So, anyway, yeah, swimming is only increasing in its necessity and profundity in my life. It’s interesting, the first tribe I felt I belonged to in my life was a tribe of writers—and artists, by extension, creative people. I think for the first time I found myself, speaking of Dove mi trovo, I found myself for the first time truly, I would say, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in that fellowship period of seven years, because I was living with other writers, with other artists, visual artists and writers, and I felt that that was… I realized, okay, I belong. I finally felt that I belonged to a tribe in an unquestioned way, where I wasn’t half this, but I was that. And now I would say I belong to a second tribe, and it’s swimmers. So now when I meet another swimmer, there’s a language that we know.
SB: In hearing you say this I was reminded, while I was researching for this interview, this Rome connection that Philip Guston and you share.
SB: Maybe you could share that further for the listeners.
JL: Well, I remember going to see some Guston at the Morgan Library around the time I was just about to move to Rome. So this was around 2012, 2011, somewhere around there. [Editor’s note: The exhibition was on view May 2–August 31, 2008.] There was some of his work up at the Morgan, and I went. So I had a friend, a great influence on me as a writer, the poet William Corbett, who died some years ago. I never knew who Philip Guston was until I met his daughter. The first time I met his daughter, Marni Corbett, was when I was at college. I knew that the name she would mention, Philip Guston, as someone who was an artist, a painter, her parents knew him, so on and so forth. Then I got to know her father. When I moved to Boston, I got to know the whole family. Bill, who was very close to Guston, collaborated with him and they actually made image poems. Bill’s poetry would be part of these drawings that Guston made, and they were all over the house. In any case, because of my friendship with Bill Corbett and his family and Marni, I developed some interest and curiosity about Guston, because I would see these works of Guston in their home.
Anyway, so then I went to see this show, and I think it was even on the little pamphlet or whatever, just mentioning something about how his whole language changed—his visual language changed—when he went to Rome, when he went to the American Academy in Rome. Actually, which is where—the American Academy served as my first landing pad in Rome. I was a resident there for the first three months that we lived there. So I had this in my head thinking, Wow, his whole language changed when he went to Rome. He turned figurative. So again, not realizing that I was going to undergo an analogous metamorphosis, that literally my language was going to change, I was aware of the transformative power of Rome for Guston, just as I was leaving.
SB: Before we finish, I wanted to switch to another long term engagement and affinity of yours, which is architecture. You wrote your doctoral thesis on how Italian architecture influenced English playwrights of the seventeenth century. During this time, you studied Renaissance architecture, from [Filippo] Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel, to the Laurentian Library of Michelangelo. You’re a writer who, I think it must be said, or at least this is how I’ve interpreted some of your work, is very attuned to physical space. Even in this interview, the way you’ve been describing certain moments of your life physically. Do you think your path to and love for Italy and the Italian language began with architecture? In some sense, was it a translation from buildings to words?
JL: Well, literally, it was, because honestly, before I started that dissertation, I didn’t think about Italy very much. It was just there as a part of the broader vocabulary of life. I was aware of it, of course, but architecture was what I hooked onto as a student. Not the literature. That all was to come much, much later. I think I had read some Dante in high school and in college, but it never went anywhere. I never built on it. I had read one or two Italian authors. I’d read some Calvino, but I never… It was like, Okay, yeah, I’m doing this and I’m doing eight million other things. But it was architecture where I started to dig deeper and think about space—Italian space, Renaissance architecture, the language, the vocabulary of architecture, which was very highly articulated in the Renaissance.
Essentially, my dissertation was about translation. It was about how the English were translating those spaces, and importing them, and remaking them on English soil. Then how the playwrights, to go into the literary part of my dissertation, how the playwrights were interpreting and remaking those spaces in their own dramatic works. I think my dissertation absolutely fits under the broad umbrella of everything we’ve been talking about today. I don’t think it’s extraneous to the conversation at all.
I think this is such an interesting question. I haven’t thought about it, but certainly it was space, and the understanding of space, and the building of space, and the naming of space. One of the things I was always interested in was the idea of the courtyard, where so many of these gory Jacobean tragedies are often set in the courtyard.
All of this, of course, then went back another layer to my lifelong childhood obsession with ancient Rome and Greece. I realized that the Renaissance was also translating antiquity. There were all sorts of nice ripples, broad ripples—echos, however we want to call them—in terms of space. So I think, yes. The answer would be yes, I think space was the first thing I was reading in Italian. Visually, I was reading Italian space at a certain moment, and then reading how it was being read, and that was what my dissertation was. Those were the questions that gave my dissertation, I hope, some coherence and lift-off.
I had a lot of fun just thinking about it. I think I already knew then that I wasn’t going to be a serious academic. I just wanted to do something that was very stimulating for me, and very different, very on the edges of my awareness. I really didn’t know very much. I hadn’t studied art history or architecture in college. I mean, a little, I took one or two courses maybe. But when I was in graduate school, I took a course with someone who was very interested in architecture and Italian architecture. A man named Roger Scruton. He was a philosopher, who is no longer living, and I was part of this program. He was part of the faculty of this program. It was partly a broad humanistic course of study. Part of that was looking at these slides of Michelangelo’s architecture, and so on and so forth.
It was in that moment I was thinking about these spaces—The Poetics of Space. It was a famous book, The Poetics of Space. That all came together in my dissertation moment. Those seven years, those were another very specific seven-year patch of my life. I’m always thinking about The Poetics of Space. I’m always thinking about space. Now that I’m going to be moving back into my house in Fort Greene [in Brooklyn], I’m constantly thinking about that space and wondering how I will inhabit that space. I do have some architect friends, but I definitely have that strain in me where I am constantly hyper-aware of the space I’m in and how the space ought to be, or ideally would be. I realized this, and that not all people have that. It’s like not all people like to get in the water and swim laps, so there’s another affinity for people who think about space.
SB: I’d like to close on the subject of freedom and liberty. There’s a short paragraph in your new book that absolutely floored me. You write, “Writing is a way to salvage life, to give it form and meaning. It exposes what we have hidden, unearths what we have neglected, misremembered, denied. It is a method of capturing, of pinning down, but it is also a form of truth, of liberation.” With time, as you go deeper and deeper into your work, into translation, into the Italian language, and just into life, do you feel more and more free, more liberated? How do you think about it in the context of that paragraph?
JL: I must have been writing about Starnone, who’s such an amazing writer. I’ve learned so much from him, not only in terms of my Italian, but about life and how he writes about life. As we get older, I think it is imperative that we start to become aware that one day life will be free of us, or we will be free of life. I think that awareness of mortality that comes, for most people, for those of us who are lucky to live a certain “predictable amount of life,” the perspective starts to shift. I think freedom in that philosophical sense, yes, of: One day I will be free of all of this. One day I’ll be free of this, of this body, and my consciousness. I certainly think about those things more as I grow older, and that’s sort of dwelling on the mortality side of the conversation. But on the other side, on the more vital side of the conversation, there’s a freedom from at least some of the things that I think weigh us down in previous chapters of life. I feel that, as well. Certainly, I feel that along with all of the responsibility that just accumulates and accumulates and accumulates as we move through life.
But I think the question of freedom doesn’t exist without the question of constraints and limits. I think to go back to translation, translation is very much a conversation between freedom and limits. I think people who think, Oh, it’s a lesser art because you’re not free to make the characters and make the plot, it’s a very superficial way of thinking about writing and language. Translations are limitless in their potential. Literary translation, I’m talking about. One can have so many different iterations of a great poem, or of a great story, or of a great novel. And yet, you have the constraint of what it is that you are translating. It’s more the awareness of the freedom and the constraints. So when I say in the book [Translating Myself and Others], “I write in Italian to feel free”—I wrote that many years ago. It’s freedom, and it’s also feeling very much constrained and hampered and limited by what I’m able to do in that language. But with that, I do believe that freedom comes from limits. I don’t believe in freedom without that. It doesn’t interest me without the limitations.
SB: Jhumpa, thank you so much for coming in today.
JL: Thank you so much.
SB: This was such a pleasure.
JL: Likewise, thank you so much for your questions.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on May 19, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Jennifer Grant. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Tiffany Jow, and Johnny Simon.