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Jhumpa Lahiri on how she fell in love with translating and how it shapes her writing

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The writer Jhumpa Lahiri is known for her stories about the immigrant experience, books like "Interpreter Of Maladies" and "The Namesake," rich fictional stories from and of two worlds. Lahiri is less known for the other kind of writing she does - translation. For the last several years, the author and Princeton professor has been translating works from Italian to English, including her own work. And in a new essay collection titled "Translating Myself And Others," Lahiri explores what draws her to translation. She joins me now. Jhumpa Lahiri, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm glad to speak with you again.

JHUMPA LAHIRI: Thank you so much.

KELLY: Clear the air, if you would, on something that I gather annoys you, which is the notion that translation is somehow a lesser form of writing than creative writing.

LAHIRI: Yes. It annoys me because what I've come to realize is that translation is nothing but a form of writing. If anything, it's more of a pure form of writing, if you will, because it's language that is at the center of every choice that's being made. And there's so much creativity and imagination that goes into arriving at the best solution from the translator's point of view.

KELLY: Although, take on the critics who will be listening and saying, but hold on, it's - there's got to be less creativity, less imagination involved. You can't just change the story whole cloth if you're trying to be truthful to the original.

LAHIRI: Well, that is sort of another layer, if you will, another dimension of what a text is, right? I mean, it has the - if we're talking about fiction, we're talking about the characters, the plot, the details. The choices that the author makes is governed by language, right? So language is actually at the center of the text and translation is making that extremely clear.

KELLY: It's kind of like the words are all you've got, which is true of writing in any event. But other choices melt away. And it's just - you're just wrestling with the language, pure and simple. Is that something close to it?

LAHIRI: Yes, it is. And I would say that when you're just wrestling, just, I would say, you know...

KELLY: There's a lot in that just, yeah.

LAHIRI: Yes, there's a lot in that just, but when we're wrestling with language, we realize how infinite the playing field is.

KELLY: I mean, I can hear both that you enjoy it and that it's hard, that it's demanding. And having done some translation myself, that has certainly been my experience. Do you find it makes you a better writer in both languages that you're grappling with?

LAHIRI: Absolutely. Absolutely. I think that my experience translating Italian literature made me a better writer in Italian because it exposed me to ways of constructing sentences, words, rhythms, turns of phrase, what have you that I was only getting by virtue of translating amazing authors such as Domenico Starnone or Calvino or whomever. Translation embeds you inside of the text, and so you also learn things about all of these other aspects of fiction writing.

KELLY: So I want to apply all this to your novel, "Whereabouts," which I got to interview you about when it came out last year, when it came out in English, I should say, because you wrote it in Italian. The Italian title was "Dove Mi Trovo." And then you translated it from Italian into English, which I know you were really resisting. Why?

LAHIRI: Well, I resisted it many years ago when my first Italian book came out, in other words, in English, because in that moment, I felt that I had to remain absolutely disciplined inside of English and sort of create the false notion that I only had one language, which, of course I didn't and I never have. But I wanted all of the energy I had to remain inside of thinking, reading and writing in Italian. By the time I wrote "Dove Mi Trovo," my relationship to Italian had changed. You know, the roots were deeper. I trusted it more. And I felt that working in English was not going to somehow unravel the Italian that I was building and cultivating in my system, in my brain, in my life.

KELLY: So you now have the original Italian. You have the work that you have translated that is in English that I read. You've now gone back and made changes - what? - an updated Italian version. Does it like three separate books? How do you think of it?

LAHIRI: They were very subtle changes, but they are there, so I don't think of it as a different book at all. But I do think of it as a, you know, that it went through another round of - in the edit cycle. And I think what translating myself opened up was the fact that - and I feel this very keenly now with my new book, which I've just finished in Italian - that self-translation is now for me the most rigorous and effective form of editing.

KELLY: Well, and I suppose it circles us back to where we began, which is your strong view that the act of translation makes you a better writer of fiction. You know, to go back to "Whereabouts," you're on version three of self-editing, and you feel like it's getting better. It's helping it.

LAHIRI: Yes, exactly. I mean, it's just constantly moving it toward the book you want it to be. It's very heady stuff, you know. I mean, but it's also destabilizing because, you know, one would like to think, OK, I wrote the book. It's done. It's out. It's in the bookstore. It's done. Let's forget about it. But that's kind of a myth in a way, you know. I mean, of course, we can always go back, and we can always question why we structured a sentence a certain way, why we chose one adjective as opposed to another. You know, and I think that self-translation insists on the fact that writing is really very open-ended. And what I think is really wonderful about the art and craft of translation is that it calls for other translations. And, I mean, every time someone translates something, it's almost like an invitation or even a challenge to say, you, too, could translate this. Let's see what you could do with this. There's simply no such thing as a definitive translation.

KELLY: I love that way of thinking about it. Well, may I wish you many more translations of this book and your others - that would be perfect - by the time you're on version 17?

LAHIRI: Thank you. Yeah. It's a hall of mirrors. But it's a new way of thinking about the literary enterprise, it really is.

KELLY: Well, Jhumpa Lahiri, this has been yet again a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking to us.

LAHIRI: It was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: That is the author and translator Jhumpa Lahiri. Her new essay collection is "Translating Myself And Others." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.