In 2016, the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri published In Other Words, the story of her quest to learn Italian, which involved moving with her family to Italy to immerse herself fully in her adopted language. The book builds on that account through eight essays that reflect her early career as a translator.
With the fervor of a true language person, Lahiri dives into the dictionaries. She savors unexpected etymologies. She offers lists of near-synonyms. She dedicates an entire essay to the optative mood in ancient Greek...Above all, she makes herself at home in the unhomey — unheimlich, eerie, uncanny — borderlands between languages ... she does not dwell on what one might call the postcolonial or political aspects of her own biography. Neither is she encumbered by the pieties that often surround writing on translation...The book, instead, is about the consequences of the apparently simple act of choosing one’s own words ... contains a hope for the liberating power of language.
Lahiri mixes detailed explorations of craft with broader reflections on her own artistic life, as well as the 'essential aesthetic and political mission' of translation. She is excellent in all three modes — so excellent, in fact, that I, a translator myself, could barely read this book. I kept putting it aside, compelled by Lahiri's writing to go sit at my desk and translate ... One of Lahiri's great gifts as an essayist is her ability to braid multiple ways of thinking together, often in startling ways ... a reminder, no matter your relationship to translation, of how alive language itself can be. In her essays as in her fiction, Lahiri is a writer of great, quiet elegance; her sentences seem simple even when they're complex. Their beauty and clarity alone would be enough to wake readers up. 'Look,' her essays seem to say: Look how much there is for us to wake up to.
I find myself wondering if this too is translation, the act of summarizing and distilling her many thoughts on the matter in a succinct volume. I would not have thought it so before reading this book ... But while Lahiri’s essays can be arcane and dense to those unfamiliar with the craft, the best of them appeal to something broader ... many of my personal critiques of Translating Myself and Others stem from my unfamiliarity with the subject material, and the projection of expectations onto the narrative ... From a writing perspective there is great joy and intrigue to be found in Lahiri’s ruminations on self-translation, the idea of a living manuscript that inherently changes shape when translated from one language to another, both the new text and the original ... This is a collection to be read in bits and pieces, some of it most suitable for the translators among us, but others broadly accessible. This is a love letter to not only translation, but to literary criticism as a whole. Its existence as art, science, and craft, something to be deeply appreciated.