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Jhumpa Lahiri on Loving, But Not Yet Trusting, the English Language

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, was a treatise on marriages—ones that fail, reduce, deplete, or transform. Twenty-three years after it was published, transformation remains a recurring motif in Lahiri’s work. 

Language, one such source of transformation, is rarely a choice and rather a default, something we seldom deliberate. When Lahiri, at 45, briefly abandoned English to fully immerse herself in Italian in Rome, it was in search of that very deliberation. She found it in In Other Words, an autobiographical work written in Italian as In altre parole (2015) and translated by Ann Goldstein (known for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s work)—detailing her all-consuming longing for one language while experiencing exile from another. Language houses the extent and edges of our worlds, revealing to us ourselves in its limitations. Lahiri’s self-translation seeks to blur those edges by inhabiting multiple linguistic universes, all at once. The disorientation born from that idea informed her novel Whereabouts, which she first wrote in Italian as Dove mi trovo (2018), and later translated herself into English. 

“I was born with a translator’s disposition,” Lahiri writes in her latest effort, a collection of essays titled Translating Myself and Others, “in that my overriding desire was to connect disparate worlds.” In these personal essays, she meditates on inhabiting the identity of both writer and translator. Throughout, she references Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a perfect example of each episode metaphorically being about translation, writing, “All translation must be regarded first and foremost as a metamorphosis: a radical, painful, and miraculous transformation in which specific traits and elements are shed and others are newly obtained.”

Lahiri recently spoke with Vanity Fair about working in the space between languages, and what she’s reading.

Vanity Fair: When you say “I’m a writer without a true mother language” from feeling, in some sense, linguistically orphaned, what do you mean?
Jhumpa Lahiri: I think the original feeling is bad, though, right. When one is a child and feeling somehow not fully mothered by any one language, and I think that was certainly the case for me and so that’s why I push back against this idea of the ‘mother tongue’ and what it represents, which is a kind of pure direct line of descendancy, if you will, from any given language, which was not the case for me.

What do you think it means to be mothered by a language?
To have some sort of full protection and sense of belonging to it. That’s how I would describe it. I mean not having had it, right? [Laughs] Sort of not questioning it, understanding the primacy of it.

How do you understand its lack then; do you understand it as a lack of protection, as you call it?
When people talk about a mother tongue, and that language sort of being an essential point of reference, I don’t have that. So I imagine that I lack it because I don’t share that full unquestioning relationship to a language because I have linguistically hybrid influences, from the beginning.

Is that why you said in your first essay that “my life is a series of grafts, one after the other,” and that you too have become a kind of graft, after writing in Italian?
I don’t know if that’s why. I think that that is something that happened to me but I certainly know many people born among languages and between languages and with various languages who don’t have the same inclination to do what i did and to confuse the language question even more. Some people kinda simplify, and others only add to the confusion. And I think in some sense that’s what I’ve done.

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