'In Italian, I feel a strange combination of both child and adult'Internaz/Flickr

Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London. Her parents chose two official names for her: Nilanjana and Sudeshna. When her family moved to the United States three years later, Lahiri was told at school that her official names were too difficult to pronounce. Her family pet name, Jhumpa, became her only name. Decades later, when her debut collection of stories won the Pulitzer Prize, it was this former pet name that appeared on the cover.

Lahiri writes that she was raised “speaking and living, simultaneously, in English and Bengali, and this meant translating between them, constantly, for herself and for others.” As a result, on both sides of the Atlantic, she felt that she was “on the outside, on the outskirts, on the other side of some kind of barrier or demarcation.” The characters of her early books face similar questions. They are immigrants or the children of immigrants that drift in and out of the Indian subcontinent and the United States, often caught between these two worlds.

For me, writing is a way of acknowledging that I am an observer, first and foremost

Her English fiction thrives on a sense of linguistic restraint that patiently assembles detail and dialogue. Lahiri, much like her writing, comes across as quiet and composed. “It comes back to that essential question of whether or not one belongs to whatever the focal point of being and conversation is, whether that’s a place or a language, or something else,” she tells me. “For me, writing is a way of acknowledging that I am an observer, first and foremost. And [in order] to observe, one requires distance – whether that’s a distance that’s chosen, or one that’s already built in.”

In adulthood, she chose another kind of distance for herself: she moved to Rome with her family in 2012. Soon after, in an act of total immersion, she set English fiction aside and took up writing in Italian. “In the beginning, I just had a little patch of language to work with, without the larger landmass of vocabulary and syntax, ” she says. The process wasn’t easy. But this, Lahiri believes, is true of all writing. “It’s like you’re tapping around, looking for something– some trickle of language,” she tells me. “I think I just followed what I was able to access.”

Her most recent novel, Dove mi trovo (2018) sketches a series of vignettes in the life of an unnamed woman in an unnamed city, each chapter chronicling a different encounter or setting (eg ‘At the Station’, ‘On the Street’). Lahiri has since translated it into English as Whereabouts (2021). Dove mi trovo lacks the distinct sense of place that inhabited her English fiction: the narrator’s own whereabouts, along with other biographical details, remain a secret.

I think I just followed what I was able to access

This is, perhaps, the point. The narrative is unfettered by the complexities of place and biography, distilled to a minimalist syntax, just as Lahiri feels about Italian. “The Italian experience leaves me unburdened, in some sense, by the weight that living in and writing in English has implied to me over the years,” she tells me. “In Italian, I feel a strange combination of both child and adult – and that makes me feel quite bold, at times, in ways that I might not be able to feel in English.”


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Since learning the language, Lahiri has translated the works of over half a dozen Italian authors, as well as her own writings. Her latest collection of essays, Translating Myself and Others (2022), charts her perspectives on language over the course of these projects. “If you’ve never translated seriously, you don’t really understand what language is,” she says. “How language is stubbornly itself, but also transformable. In the act of translation, you yield to the language and all of its rules and regulations and rhythms. At the same time, these incredibly specific systems can open themselves – or can be opened by a translator figure.”

The collection ends with an afterword on her current translation project: the Metamorphoses. “In the day-to-day, year-to-year, decade-to-decade experience of being alive,” she tells me, “the most remarkable thing about life, and sometimes the most painful, is when circumstances change.” The very act of translation is a transformation of sorts, as is Lahiri’s shift to Italian. But change and its aftermath have always been at the centre of her work. In all her books, Lahiri has striven to link disparate worlds, to find points of association and points of divergence. In the Interpreter of Maladies onwards, we meet a series of characters whose stories begin with change, with a struggle for dignity in the wake of cultural displacement. Some of these characters are set apart by their refusal to change, others by their desire for it.