Julia Xia '19 Contributing Writer
Jhumpa Lahiri – acclaimed novelist, short story writer and New York Times columnist – visited Mount Holyoke on Feb. 29 to promote the new translation of her book, “In Altre Parole.” During her conversation with Italian professor Ombretta Frau onstage in Chapin Auditorium, Lahiri spoke about her bold experiment with writing in Italian and the power language has to shape one’s identity.
Much of her earlier writing, Lahiri said, came from a deep desire to bring the city of Calcutta back to her family. Novels like “The Namesake” and “The Lowland” explore the experiences of Bengali immigrants in America and their children’s conflicting relationships with their heritage.
She hoped to assuage the wounds left behind by this absence of a home city, “the lack of a place.” Her lifelong negotiation between two cultures and two languages is what led her to a major career change – writing not in English, the language of her already critically acclaimed work, but in Italian.
Despite the challenges of writing in a new language, Lahiri found it to be a liberating experience, one that required no negotiation or compromise. She self-identifies as a “writer without a mother tongue,” and Italian is a “borrowed language.” Like the borrowed library books of her childhood, writing in Italian is something that requires careful handling but also brings her great happiness.
“It is the language of joy for me,” she said.
Lahiri has lived in and experienced many corners of the world. During her childhood she frequently visited Calcutta and took a post-college trip to Florence, Italy. Born in London and raised in Rhode Island, Lahiri has also lived in New York City and Rome for extensive periods of her adult life. Her ability to narrate the complexities of belonging – or not – to a place, has resonated with a generation of readers.
During her chat with Ombretta last week, Lahiri also expressed admiration for Italian writer Elena Ferrante, whose true identity remains a secret. The translation of Ferrante’s novel “The Days of Abandonment” was the last work Lahiri read in English prior to beginning her Italian language immersion in preparation for her move to Rome.
Lahiri recalled the frustration she experienced when promoting her latest book at the time, “The Lowlands.” During this time, she thought of the pseudonymous Ferrante.
“She was so brave to have made this choice,” Lahiri said. Yet, as Lahiri observed, Ferrante’s anonymity “has become a bizarre form of publicity.” Ferrante’s true identity, the topic of almost every Roman dinner party, has overshadowed the content of her work.
Lahiri wondered aloud, “why are we inundated with so much information,” referring to author biographies, photos and videos. She spoke of the books she borrowed as a child from the public library – most of these books had been stripped of their cover jackets and therefore offered no author bios or photos. The work stood alone, independent of the author’s identity.“ I hunger for that now,” she said.
The event also featured a reading of an excerpt from “In Altre Parole,” translated to “In Other Words.” Lahiri read the Italian, followed by Ombretta’s reading of the English translation. The passage they read is entitled “The Fragile Shelter.” In it, Lahiri wrote, “Ever since I was a child, I’ve belonged only to my words.”
Lahiri and Ombretta wrapped up the conversation by discussing the English translation of “In Altre Parole” by Ann Goldstein, who also translated the works of Ferrante.
“I didn’t want the English to sound more polished, correct or fluid than the Italian,” Lahiri said when explaining her reasons for not translating the memoir herself. Wanting to preserve the quirks and imperfections of the original Italian, she decided to entrust the job to another. “Languages, in a sense, are intolerant of each other,” she said, when asked about the intricate task of translation.