Unconditional Love – Jhumpa Lahiri and Translation

By Stuart Mitchner

“The only way to begin to understand language is to love it so much that we allow it to confuse and torment us to the point that it threatens to swallow us whole.”

I constantly returning to this passionate phrase of Jhumpa Lahiri Translate myself and others (Princeton University Press $21.95). The sense of spontaneous energy behind Lahiri’s use of the word ‘love‘ is in stark contrast to the standard ‘I was struck by’ or ‘I admired’ used in other earlier contexts; in one of the translations she cites, the word love is “simply ‘a vessel in which we put everything’, a hollow placeholder that justified our behaviors and choices”. Here it comes across as fresh, invigorated, unrestrained, unconditional, and even heroic given the challenges she tumultuously brings into play.

The cracked kettle

Lahiri’s beleaguered devotion to language reminds me of Gustave Flaubert’s performance on a similar theme in Ms Bovary: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat the tunes for the bears to dance when we yearn to stir the stars.” In the original it is “Human speech is like a cracked cauldron where we beat melodies to make bears dance, when we would like to wait for the stars.

The English version has a Shakespearian kick that makes Flaubert right word French seems unwieldy; but that’s how the words appear on the page: say them out loud, and it’s another story, another song.

look in the mirror

Lahiri says that “to translate is to look in a mirror and see someone other than yourself”. Even when you’re not the translator, you can imagine Constance Garnett’s bespectacled face in the mirror while reading Chekhov. You know her and you trust her, she gave you the Russians, and in Chekhov’s stories and letters, to which you return again and again, her translations bring you closer to him than any other. Of Garnett’s Turgenev, the first of the Russian giants she introduced to English-speaking readers, Joseph Conrad said, “Turgenev is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgenev.” Ernest Hemingway makes essentially the same point in A moving party. For him, the language of Tolstoy was the language of the Englishwoman who began to go blind while translating War and peace. DH Lawrence remembers seeing her sitting in her garden “putting out tons of her wonderful translations from Russian. She would finish a page, throw it on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. This pile would be so high – really, almost knee-high, and all magic.

Deal with the subjunctive

In an early chapter titled “An Ode to the Powerful Optative”, Lahiri describes the subjunctive as “the grammatical repository of all things imprecise, uncertain, or otherwise incapable of being pinned down definitively”. As someone whose high school English experience was plagued with sentence diagramming, hanging participles, and unruly subjunctives (not to mention a grammarian dad who wrote but never published a book glorifying the Mighty Diagram ), I’m grateful for Lahiri’s solution. Why diagram sentences when you can put all those confusing, tormenting, all-consuming participles and gerunds in the subjunctive storage bin?

Russian mountains

In the same way Translate myself and othersI enjoyed the stories from Lahiri’s 2008 collection, Unusual land. The various positive reviews cited in the Vintage paperback observe that it “manages its characters without leaving fingerprints”, that it “lets them grow as if unguided” and that it “retreats action, gets out of the way”. There’s also praise for his “modulated prose.” Yet when she speaks about translation and translations, her fingerprints are everywhere. To translate Ovid Metamorphoses, “Although I read slowly and hesitantly, I also fell headlong into the poem.” She too hovers and glides, she even gropes: “Translating is walking in many frightening corridors, groping in the dark”, like “walking in a hall of mirrors”. She finds a ‘tipping element’ in the story of novelist Domenico Starnone Thingt, one of the books she translated from Italian, in which she describes “high adrenaline” amusements as roller coasters: “Starnone often stops at the precise moment when the roller coaster, crawling towards the high on its path, stop briefly before descending again.” Each time “the moment of radical transition signals a dive, a swerve, a descent, a reversal”.

In the afterword to his translation of Trust, Lahiri comes straight off the page exulting in Starnone’s “breathtaking vistas… breathtaking anxiety, primal screams and hysterical laughter.” When she says, “Something tells me Starnone is having a hell of a good time writing these tracks,” he’s obviously not the only one having a good time.

With a wary eye

It’s the 100th anniversary of the publication of TS Eliot’s land of waste and James Joyce Ulysses. If you have discovered “Prufrock” by Eliot and Joyce Portrait of the artistby yourself back when you were reading JD Salinger The Heart Catcher, you contemplated with a wary eye the later works reputed to be “difficult”. The fact that I might need a guide, or even a translator, awoke my inner Holden Caulfield, and when, at 16, I saw the Latin epigraph on the front page of land of waste, I strutted through the “cruelest month” with a chip on my shoulder, like Holden through a theater hall full of fainting “phonies” on “the wonderful Lunts”. In “Prufrock”, Eliot simply pulls you on board (“Let’s go, you and me”) and in Portrait Joyce disarms you with the bedtime story of the moocow running down the road.

What really brought my Wasteland-epigraph already seen was the sight of the two masses of untranslated ancient Greek that stood like a closed double door to the “Mighty Optative” chapter. Lahiri however led the way, situating the two quotes in different sections of Aristotle’s work. Poetic on the way to discuss future games of the optative in reference to the doomed couple in Ernest Hemingway’s story “Cat in the Rain”, which is set in Italy, the country where Lahiri found the language she loves.

Translate a country

One thing that drives Lahiri’s writing about translation and translations is the way she dives into the task as if language and country were a living thing, air, light, music and ‘vibe. Although Italy was also the first foreign country I felt this way for, and then Greece, the most memorable experience was India, about which I will paraphrase Lahiri: you love it so much that you let it confuse and torment and threaten to swallow you whole; and the concatenation of forces that make the subcontinent such an immense experience, it is the language that immediately engages, amuses and amazes you, not Hindi or Urdu or Bengali, but the unsightly graft formed from Victorian English on posters and road signs and newspapers and books (Lahiri might see this as an example of “graft”, from the Italian word innesto). Traveling overland from Trieste, I felt at home for the first time in the Neverland of India, part British Empire, part American rock ‘n’ roll, part Hollywood. One of my favorite examples appeared above the title of a yellowed paperback of Northanger Abbey which I bought at an Indian Railway newsstand: “Clever! Compassionate ! Strangely touchy!”

“Every Twisted Word”

Entry of Franz Kafka Translate myself and others in the third chapter, when Lahiri mentions Gregor Samsa in the context of Kafka’s “obsession with the body, physical discomfort, weakness and illness”. She mentions the Diaries in particular, as “a heterodox fusion of observation and narration”, marked by Kafka’s “charged relation to physical space”.

For years now I’ve read and lived in the space charged with Newspapers 1914-1923, which was translated by Martin Greenberg “with the cooperation of Hannah Arendt”. The last entry is dated June 11, 1923, about a year before Kafka’s death on June 3, 1924: “More and more fearful as I write. This is understandable. Every twisted word in the hands of the spirits—this sleight of hand is their characteristic gesture—becomes a spear turned against the speaker. Especially a comment like this. And so to infinity. The only consolation would be: it happens whether we like it or not. And what you like is of infinitesimal help. More than a consolation, it is: you too have arms.

The first two sentences make sense in the context of a book on translation. But any translator can feel a thrill, even a touch of vertigo, when faced with a sentence referring to words twisted and turned “against the speaker”. And given the spread of the scourge of disinformation in May 2022 and the war in Ukraine, anything that threatens Kafka’s “physical space” has unsettling resonance.