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from the April 2021 issue

Where I Find Myself: On Self-translation

Having written my novel Dove mi trovo in Italian, I was the first to doubt that it could transform into English. Naturally it could be translated; any text can, to greater or lesser degrees of success. I was not apprehensive when translators began turning the novel into other languages—into Spanish or German or Dutch, for example. Rather, the prospect gratified me. But when it came to replicating this particular book, conceived and written in Italian, into the language that I knew best—the language I had emphatically stepped away from in order for it to be born in the first place—I was of two minds.

As I was writing Dove mi trovo, the thought of it being anything other than an Italian text felt irrelevant. While writing, one must keep one’s eyes on the road, straight ahead, and not contemplate or anticipate driving down another. The dangers, for the writer as for the driver, are obvious.

And yet, even as I was writing, I felt shadowed by two questions: 1) when would the text be turned into English and 2) who would translate it? These questions rose from the fact that I am also, and was for many years exclusively, a writer in English. And so, if I choose to write in Italian, the English version immediately rears its head, like a bulb that sprouts too early in mid-winter. Everything I write in Italian is born with the simultaneous potential—or perhaps destiny is the better word here—of existing in English. Another image, perhaps jarring, comes to mind: that of the burial plot of a surviving spouse, demarcated and waiting.

The responsibility of translation is as grave and as precarious as that of a surgeon who is trained to transplant organs, or to redirect the blood flow to our hearts, and I wavered at length over the question of who would perform the surgery. I thought back to other authors who had migrated into different languages. Had they translated their own work? And if so, where did translation taper off, and the act of rewriting take over? I was wary of betraying myself. Beckett had notably altered his French when translating himself into English. Brodsky, too, took great liberties when translating his Russian poetry into English. Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, an Argentine whose major works were composed in Italian, had been more “faithful” when rendering his texts into Spanish. Another Argentine, Borges, who had grown up bilingual in Spanish and English, translated numerous works into Spanish, but left the English translation of his own work to others. Leonora Carrington, whose first language was English, had also left the messy business of translating many of her French and Spanish stories to someone else, as had the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi in the case of Requiem, the great novel he wrote in Portuguese.

When an author migrates into another language, the subsequent crossing into the former language might be regarded, by some, as a crossing back, an act of return, a coming home. This idea is false, and it was also not my objective. Even before I decided to translate Dove mi trovo myself, I knew that the idea of “coming home” was no longer an option. I had gone too deep into Italian, and so English no longer represented the reassuring, essential act of coming up for air. My center of gravity had shifted; or at least, it had begun to shift back and forth.

*

I began writing Dove mi trovo in the spring of 2015. I had been living in Italy for three years, but I had already made the anguished decision to return to the United States. As with most projects, in the beginning, I had no sense that the words I was scribbling in a notebook would develop into a book. When I left Rome in August of that year, I took the notebook with me. It languished in my study in Brooklyn, though in retrospect “hibernated” is the apt term, for when I returned to Rome that winter, I found myself turning back to the notebook, which had traveled with me, and adding new scenes. The following year I moved to Princeton, New Jersey. But every two months or so I flew to Rome, either for short stays or for the summer, always with the notebook in my carry-on suitcase, and by 2017, once the notebook was full, I began to type out the contents. 

In 2018, on sabbatical, I was able to move back to Rome for an entire year for the book’s publication. When asked about the English version, I said that it was still too soon to think about it. In order to undertake a translation, or even to evaluate a translation someone else has done, one must understand the particulars of the book in question, just as the surgeon, ideally, needs to study her patient’s organism before entering the operating room. I knew that I needed time—a great deal of it—to pass. I needed to gain distance from the novel, answer questions about it, hear responses from my Italian readers. For though I’d already written the book, I felt the way perhaps my own immigrant parents felt as they were raising me: the author of an inherently foreign creature, both recognizable and unrecognizable, born from my flesh and blood.

Regarding the eventual English translation, two camps quickly formed. Members of the first camp were those who urged me to translate the book myself. Their opponents urged me, with equal vehemence, to steer clear of the operation. To return to my analogy of the surgeon, I sometimes said, to members of the first camp, What surgeon, in need of an operation, would take the scalpel to herself? Wouldn’t she entrust the procedure to another pair of hands?

Following the advice of Gioia Guerzoni, an Italian translator friend who belonged to the second camp, I sought out the translator Frederika Randall, who worked out of Italian into English. Frederika was an American based in Rome for decades, not far from where I lived: the very part of the city where my book, loosely speaking (though I never specify this), is set. When she said she was willing to translate the first dozen or so pages, so that we could both get a feel for how her translation would sound, I was relieved. I was convinced that she was the ideal person to translate my novel, not only because she was an extremely skilled translator, but because she knew the setting and atmosphere of the book far better than I did.

I thought that perhaps, once she’d finished the translation, I could weigh in on one or two matters, and that my role would be respectfully collaborative. Grandmotherly, which was how I felt when Mira Nair had turned one of my other novels into a film. Perhaps this time I would be a slightly more involved grandmother than I had been to Ann Goldstein’s translation of In Other Words (produced at a time when I was wary of any reconnection with English, and did not relish the role of being a grandmother at all). Deep down, however, I was convinced that when I saw the English version, it would reveal, brusquely and definitively, the book’s failure to function in English, not due to any fault of Frederika, but because the book itself, inherently flawed, would refuse to comply, like a potato or an apple that, decayed within, must be set aside once it is cut open and examined, and cannot lend itself to any other dish.


Italian translation, for me, has always been a way to maintain contact with the language I love when I am far away from it. 
 

Instead, when I read the pages she prepared for me, I found that the book was intact, that the sentences made sense, and that the Italian had enough sap to sustain another text in another language. At this point a surprising thing happened. I switched camps and felt the urge to take over, just as, watching my daughter turn somersaults underwater this past summer, I, too, was inspired to learn how. Of course, that discombobulating act of flipping over, the idea of which had always terrified me until the day I finally figured out, thanks to my daughter, how to execute the maneuver, was exactly what my own book had to do. Frederika, who had lived astride English and Italian for so very long, was bipartisan to the core. She had understood, initially, why I’d been reluctant to translate the book myself, and when I told her I was having a change of heart, she wasn’t surprised. Like my daughter, she encouraged me. As is often the case when crossing a new threshold, it had taken her example, just like my daughter’s, to show me that it could be done.

I was still in Rome—a place where I feel no inspiration to work out of Italian into English—when I came to my decision. When living and writing in Rome, I have an Italian center of gravity. I needed to move back to Princeton, where I am surrounded by English, where I miss Rome. Italian translation, for me, has always been a way to maintain contact with the language I love when I am far away from it. To translate is to alter one’s linguistic coordinates, to grab on to what has slipped away, to cope with exile.

*

I began translating at the start of the fall semester in 2019. I didn’t look at Frederika’s sample pages; in fact, I hid them away. The book consists of forty-six relatively brief chapters. I aimed to tackle one at each sitting, two or three sittings per week. I approached the text and it greeted me like certain neighbors—if not warmly, politely enough. As I felt my way back into the book, and pressed through it, it yielded discreetly. There were roadblocks now and then, and I stopped to ponder them, or I stepped over them, determined, before stopping to think too much about what I was doing, to reach the end.

One obvious roadblock was the title itself. The literal translation, which means “where I find myself,” sounded belabored to me. The book had no English title until, at the end of October, with a few chapters still left to translate, I stepped on a plane to go to Rome. Not long after takeoff, “whereabouts” popped into my brain. A word as inherently English, and as fundamentally untranslatable, as the expression dove mi trovo is in Italian. Somewhere in the air, over the waters that separate my English and Italian lives, the original title recognized itself—dare I say found itself—in another language.

Once I finished the first draft, I circulated it to a small group of readers who did not read Italian, who knew me well, and only, as a writer in English. Then I waited, anxiously, even though the book had already been born over a year before, and was already living, not only in Italian but, as previously mentioned, in other languages as well. It was only after these readers told me the book had spoken to them that I believed that the foolhardy operation I had performed on myself had not been in vain.

As Dove mi trovo was turning into Whereabouts, I naturally had to keep referring back to the original book I’d written. I began to notice a few repetitions in the Italian I wished I’d caught. Certain adjectives I was relying on too heavily. A few inconsistencies. I had miscounted the number of people at a dinner party, for example. I began to mark the Italian book with adhesive arrows, and then to keep a list to send to my Italian editors at Guanda, so that certain changes could be made in subsequent editions of the book. In other words, the second version of the book was now generating a third: a revised Italian text that was stemming from my self-translation. When translating oneself, each and every flaw or weakness in the former text becomes immediately and painfully apparent. Keeping to my medical metaphors, I would say that self-translation is like one of those radioactive dyes that enable doctors to look through our skin to locate damage in the cartilage, unfortunate blockages, and other states of imperfection.


Some people insist that there is no such thing as self-translation.
 

As discomfiting as this process of revelation was, I felt a parallel gratitude for the very ability to isolate these problems, to be aware of them and to find new solutions. The brutal act of self-translation frees oneself, once and for all, from the false myth of the definitive text. It was only by self-translating that I finally understood what Valéry meant when he said that a work of art was never finished, only abandoned. The publication of any book is an arbitrary act; there is no ideal phase of gestation, nor of birth, as is the case for living creatures. A book is done when it seems done, when it feels done, when the author is sick of it, or is eager to publish it, or when the editor wrests it away. All of my books, in retrospect, feel premature. The act of self-translation enables the author to restore a previously published work to its most vital and dynamic state—that of a work-in-progress—and to repair and recalibrate as needed.

Some people insist that there is no such thing as self-translation, and that it necessarily becomes an act of rewriting or emphatically editing—read: improving—the first go-around. This temptation attracts some and repels others. I personally was not interested in altering my Italian book in order to arrive at a more supple, elegant, and mature version of it in English. My aim was to respect and reproduce the novel I had originally conceived, but not so blindly as to reproduce and perpetuate certain infelicities.

As Whereabouts moved through copyediting to typeset pages, with different editors and proofreaders weighing in, so did the changes to Dove mi trovo continue to accumulate—I repeat, all relatively minor, but nevertheless significant to me. The two texts began to move forward in tandem, each on its own terms. When the paperback of Dove mi trovo eventually comes out in Italian—at the time of writing, it hasn’t yet—I will consider it the definitive version, at least for now, given that I have come to think of any “definitive text” largely the same way that I think of a mother tongue, at least in my case: an inherently debatable, perpetually relative concept.

*

The first day I sat down with the page proofs of Whereabouts, during the autumn of the coronavirus pandemic, I went to Firestone Library, at Princeton, booking a seat and taking my place at a round white marble table. I was masked and many feet away from the other three people allowed in a room that could easily hold one hundred. I realized that day, when pausing to question something in the English text, that I had left my battered copy of Dove mi trovo at home. The translator side of me, focused on bringing the book into English, was already subconsciously distancing and disassociating from the Italian. Of course, it is always strange, and also crucial, at the last stage of looking at a translation, to all but disregard the text in the original language. The latter cannot be hovering, as I did when my children first went off to school, somewhere in the building, alert to cries of protest. A true separation, as false as that is, must occur. In the final stages of reviewing a translation, either of one’s own work or someone else’s, one achieves a level of concentration that is akin to focusing purely on the quality and sensations of the water when one is swimming in the sea, as opposed to admiring elements that float through it or collect on the seabed. When one is so focused on language, a selective blindness sets in, and along with it, a form of X-ray vision.

Reading over the page proofs of Whereabouts in English, I began reflecting in my diary, in Italian, on the process of having translated it. In fact, the text you are now reading, which I’ve written in English, is a product of notes taken in Italian. In some sense, this is the first piece of writing that I have conceived bilingually, and so the subject, self-translation, feels especially appropriate. Here, in translation, are some of the notes I took:

1. The profoundly destabilizing thing about self-translation is that the book threatens to unravel, to hurtle toward potential annihilation. It seems to annihilate itself. Or am I annihilating it? No text should sustain that level of scrutiny; at a certain point, it cedes. It’s the reading and the scrutinizing, the insistent inquiry implicit in the act of writing and translating, that inevitably jostles the text.

2. This task is not for the faint of heart. It forces you to doubt the validity of every word on the page. It casts your book—already published, between covers, sold on shelves in stores—into a revised state of profound uncertainty. It is an operation that feels doomed from the start, even contrary to nature, like the experiments of Victor Frankenstein.

3. Self-translation is a bewildering, paradoxical going backward and moving forward at once. There is ongoing tension between the impulse to plow ahead undermined by a strange gravitational force that holds you back. One feels silenced in the very act of speaking. Those two dizzying tercets from Dante come to mind, with their language of doubling and their contorted logic: “Qual è colui che suo dannaggio sogna, / che sognando desidera sognare, / sì che quel ch’è, come non fosse, agogna, / tale me fec’io, non posando parlare, / che disiava scusarmi, e scusava / me tuttavia, e nol mi credea fare.” (Like one asleep who dreams himself in trouble / and in his dream he wishes he were dreaming, / longing for that which is, as if it were not, / just so I found myself: unable to speak, / longing to beg for pardon and already / begging for pardon, not knowing what I did.” (Inferno XXX, 136-141)[1]

4. Reading the English, every sentence that felt off, that had gone astray in the translation, always led me back to a misreading of myself in Italian.

5. Whereabouts will emerge on its own, without the Italian text on the facing page, as was the case with In Other Words. But if anything, the absence of the Italian reinforces, for me, the bond between these two versions, one of which I wrote, and one of which I translated. These two versions have entered into a tennis match. But in fact, it’s the ball that represents both texts, volleyed from one side of the net over the other and back again.

6. Self-translation means prolonging your relationship to the book you’ve written. Time expands and the sun still shines when you expect things to go dark. This disorienting surplus of daylight feels unnatural, but it also feels advantageous, magical.

7. Self-translation affords a second act for a book, but in my opinion, this second act pertains less to the translated version than to the original, which is now readjusted and realigned thanks to the process of being dismantled and reassembled.

8. What I altered in Italian was what, in hindsight, still felt superfluous to my view. The stringent quality of English forced the Italian text, at times, to tighten its belt as well.


In some sense the book remains Italian in my head in spite of its metamorphosis into English.
 

9. I suppose the exhilarating aspect of translating myself was being constantly reminded, as I changed the words from one language to another, that I myself had changed so profoundly, and that I was capable of such change. I realized that my relationship to the English language, thanks to my linguistic graft, had also been irrevocably altered.

10. Whereabouts will never be an autonomous text in my mind, nor will the paperback of Dove mi trovo, which is now indebted to the process of first translating and then revising Whereabouts. They share the same vital organs. They are conjoined twins, though, on the surface, they bear no resemblance to one another. They have nourished and been nourished by the other. Once the translation was in progress, I almost felt like a passive bystander as they began sharing and exchanging elements between themselves.

11. I believe I began writing in Italian to obviate the need to have an Italian translator. As grateful as I am to those who have rendered my English books into Italian in the past, something was driving me, in Italian, to speak for myself. I have now assumed the role I had set out to eliminate, only in the inverse. Becoming my own translator in English has only lodged me further inside the Italian language.

12. In some sense the book remains Italian in my head in spite of its metamorphosis into English. The adjustments I made in English were always in service to the original text.

*

In reviewing the proofs of Whereabouts, I noticed a sentence I’d skipped entirely in the English. It has to do with the word portagioie, which, in the Italian version, the protagonist considers the most beautiful word in the Italian language. But the sentence only carries its full weight in Italian. The English equivalent of portagioie, “jewelry box,” doesn’t contain the poetry of portagioie, given that joys and jewels are not the same thing in English. I inserted the sentence into the translation, but had to alter it. This is probably the most significantly reworked bit of the book, and I added a footnote for clarification. I had hoped to avoid footnotes, but in this case, the me in Italian and the me in English had no common ground.

The penultimate chapter of the novel is called Da nessuna parte. I translated it as “Nowhere” in English, which breaks the string of prepositions in the Italian. An Italian reader pointed this out, suggesting I translate it more literally as “In no place.” I considered making the change, but in the end my English ear prevailed, and I opted for an adverb which, to my satisfaction, contains the “where” of the title I’d come up with.

There was one instance of grossly mistranslating myself. It was a crucial line, and I only caught the error in the final pass. As I was reading the English proofs aloud for the last time, without referring back to the Italian, I knew the sentence was wrong, and that I had completely, unintentionally mangled the meaning of my own words.

It also took several readings to correct an auxiliary verb in English that the Italian side of my brain, in the act of translating, had rendered sloppily. In English one takes steps, but in Italian one makes them. Given that I read and write in both languages, my brain has developed blind spots. It was only by looking again and again at the English that I saved a character in Whereabouts from “making steps.” Having said this, in English, it is possible to make missteps.

In the end, the hardest thing about translating Whereabouts were the lines written not by me but by two other writers: Italo Svevo—whom I cite in the epigraph—and Corrado Alvaro, whom I cite in the body of the text. Their words, not mine, are the ones I feel ultimately responsible for, and have wrestled with most. These are the lines I will continue to fret over even when the book goes to press. The desire to translate—to press up as closely as possible to the words of another, to cross the threshold of one’s consciousness—is keener when the other remains inexorably, incontrovertibly out of reach.

*

I believe it was important to have gained experience translating other authors out of Italian before confronting Dove mi trovo. The upsetting experience of trying to translate myself early on in the process of writing in Italian, which I briefly touched upon in In Other Words, had a lot to do with the fact that I had yet to translate out of Italian. All my energy back then was devoted to sinking deeper into the new language and avoiding English as much as possible. I had to establish myself as a translator of others before I could achieve the illusion of being another myself.

As someone who dislikes looking back at her work, and prefers not to reread it if at all possible, I was not an ideal candidate to translate Dove mi trovo, given that translation is the most intense form of reading and rereading there is. I have never reread one of my books as many times as Dove mi trovo. The experience would have been deadening had it been one of my English books. But working with Italian, even a book that I have myself composed slips surprisingly easily in and out of my hands. This is because the language resides both within me and beyond my grasp. The author who wrote Dove mi trovo both is and is not the author who translated them. This split consciousness is, if nothing else, a bracing experience.


Self-translation led to a deep awareness of the book I'd written, and therefore, to one of my past selves.
 

For years I have trained myself, when asked to read aloud from my work, to approach it as if it had been written by someone else. Perhaps my impulse to separate radically from my former work, book after book, was already conditioning me to recognize the separate writers who have always dwelled inside me. We write books in a fixed moment in time, in a specific phase of our consciousness and development. That is why reading words written years ago feels alienating. You are no longer the person whose existence depended on the production of those words. But alienation, for better or for worse, establishes distance, and grants perspective, two things that are particularly crucial to the act of self-translation.

Self-translation led to a deep awareness of the book I’d written, and therefore, to one of my past selves. As I’ve said, once I write my other books, I tend to walk away as quickly as possible, whereas I now have a certain residual affection for Dove mi trovo, just as I do for its English counterpart—an affection born from the intimacy that can only be achieved by the collaborative act of translating as opposed to the solitary act of writing.

I also feel, toward Dove mi trovo, a level of acceptance that I have not felt for the other books. The others still haunt me with choices I might have made, ideas I ought to have developed, passages that should have been further revised. In translating Dove mi trovo, in writing it a second time in a second language and allowing it to be born, largely intact, a second time, I feel closer to it, doubly tied to it, whereas the other books represent a series of relationships, passionate and life-altering at the time, that have now cooled to embers, having never strayed beyond the point of no return.

My copy of Dove mi trovo in Italian is a now dog-eared volume, underlined and marked with Post-its indicating the various corrections and clarifications to make. It has transformed from a published text to something resembling a set of bound galleys. I would never have thought to make those changes had I not translated the book out of the language in which I conceived and created it. Only I was capable of accessing and altering both texts from the inside. Now that the book is about to be printed in English, it has traded places with the finished Italian copy, which has lost its published patina, at least from the author’s point of view, and resumed the identity of a work still in its final stages of becoming a published text. As I write this, Whereabouts is being sewn up for publication, but Dove mi trovo needs to be opened up again for a few discreet procedures. That original book, which now feels incomplete to me, stands in line behind its English-language counterpart. Like an image viewed in the mirror, it has turned into the simulacrum, and both is and is not the starting point for what rationally and irrationally followed.

© 2021 by Jhumpa Lahiri. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

 

 

[1]Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, vol. 1: Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin, 1984), p. 347.

 

Related Reading:

There Is No Map: The New Italian(s)

Suono e Significato: On Being Translated into Italian

Self-translation / Self-destruction

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