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The PEN World Voices Festival as It Happened: “The Trick of Translation”

By Na Zhong

The “Trick of Translation” panel at the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival occurred on April 21 at SubCulture in New York City and featured Domenico Starnone and Jhumpa Lahiri in conversation with Michael Reynolds.

When you are listening to a language that you don’t understand, you grow more sensitive to the fabric and texture of its sound: the rhyming vowels, the explosive consonants, the inflection, and the cadence. This was exactly what happened to me when novelist Domenico Starnone began to read a passage from his latest novel, Trick, in Italian. The evening had just begun, SubCulture’s underground auditorium was packed, and dozens of overhead lamps cast a reddish light over the space. Jhumpa Lahiri, the novel’s translator, sat beside Starnone onstage and listened attentively, her head lowered, a hand over her mouth. At the end of his reading—which seemed to be a short conversation between the characters in the story—understanding laughter from some members of the audience rippled across the room. This opening felt most apt for a discussion on “the trick of translation”—it revealed how language can be simultaneously inaccessible to one person and transparent to another. 

In Trick, an elderly book illustrator, Daniel Mallarico, returns to his childhood home in Naples to babysit his four-year-old grandson, Mario, for a few days. Slowly recovering from a recent operation and a rebuff from a young editor, Daniel begins to wonder whether he has made the right choice in reinventing himself through art. The passage Starnone and Lahiri chose to read follows Daniel and Mario’s walk through the neighborhood where Daniel grew up. Lost in thought and consumed by fury, he rediscovers the desire to rage instead of feeling ire (a more refined way to describe his primal reaction).

This rumination on language forms one of the pillars for the novel and makes it a tricky business to translate. The complexity of translation was the focus of the evening’s conversation, which was moderated by Europa Editions editor in chief Michael Reynolds. For Lahiri, the point was not to mirror Starnone’s language. She described the idea of “faithfulness” as presuming that something has equal weight on either side of a balance. “But of course that’s not the reality,” she said. “If you translate anything from any language, you’ll realize that [there is an] incredible lack of equilibrium between languages. So it’s an illusion, it’s a trick to get it to seem balanced and fair and poised.”

While language lies at the heart of both Trick and Starnone’s previous novel, Ties, Trick launches a deeper investigation into “the divisions within ourselves linguistically,” as Lahiri beautifully described it. Its bold intertextual experiment with Henry James’s ghost story “The Jolly Corner” is also refreshing. The book’s appendix, which is in the form of a diary, records the illustrator’s contemplation of James’s words as painstakingly and devotedly as Lahiri contemplated both James’s story and Starnone’s work.

Was it a coincidence that a conversation about the tensions between languages and worlds attracted so many travelers who themselves had crossed borders many times over? A man with a shy smile asked Starnone with an almost religious zeal whether it was possible for a foreigner like himself to master Italian in its purest form. A young woman of color born in Italy who later settled in the States wondered aloud what home is and what it means to come home.

Lahiri is no stranger to such experiences; in fact, she is no longer under the illusion that her private feelings of belonging necessarily correspond to reality. She said, “There are people who are born in the fault lines between and amongst things, places, realities, and languages. [What] ties me to Domenico, and to all writers and artists, is that he and I have forged an artistic identity. . . . In that sense, Trick is deeply meaningful to me because it is so much about the figure who pulls back from that home and creates another home in [his] work and art.”


Read more dispatches from the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival

Published Apr 27, 2018   Copyright 2018 Na Zhong

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