Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘Translation is an act of radical change’

Jhumpa Lahiri, 56, is the author and translator of three story collections, including the Pulitzer prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, and three novels, The Namesake, The Lowland and Whereabouts. Whereabouts was her first novel written in Italian (Dove mi trovo), which she then translated into English. Her work also includes a volume of essays, Translating Myself and Others.

Born in London to Indian immigrants and raised in the US, Lahiri speaks – as well as Bengali, English and Italian – “some French and Spanish and I am learning modern Greek. I also read Latin and ancient Greek.” She is the translator of three novels by the Italian writer Domenico Starnone, and is co-translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Latin to English – a text “sacred” to Lahiri, and a project she describes as the most meaningful of her life. Her latest collection, Roman Stories, is translated from the Italian Racconti romani by the author and Todd Portnowitz.

Lahiri now lives half the year in Rome and the other half in New York, where she is a professor at Barnard College, Columbia University. “It’s useless to compare the two cities. They are both wonderful places to live, but if I had to choose I would choose Rome.”

Can you talk about your new collection of stories. You have borrowed the title and concept from Alberto Moravia, who published his own set of Roman stories in 1954. What made you want to do that?
I have read and admired Moravia’s work for many years. Racconti romani struck me as both a fresco and a portrait of the city: a dense assembly of stories that is epic in scope. In fact, his stories were my first encounter with Rome, long before I ever visited. Many years later, Moravia was the first writer I read directly in Italian and fully understood, and when I began to write in Italian, I turned to him to guide me. The clarity of his style and the control and precision of his language taught me how to arrange words and sentences, in a new language, on the page. My title is in part a homage to him, but I also wish to signal some of the differences between his Rome of postwar Italy and the Rome I have lived in and known for the past decade. That said, his characters, like mine, are outsiders or people who have lost their way, almost always in crisis, and often living on the edge.

You’ve previously said translation for you is a metamorphosis, allowing a work to be reborn. Do you see these stories as being reborn in English form?
I think translation is… an act of radical change, an act of reshaping and reforming a text, and in some sense it becomes unrecognisable from what it was once, though its essence remains the same.

Themes of otherness, dislocation and rootlessness recur throughout your stories – are those experiences you’ve had living in Rome?
I’ve never not had that feeling. I don’t know what it’s like to not have that feeling. My early childhood memories are linked to that feeling; [as is] my experience of growing up, my experience of visiting India as a child and as an adolescent, and my experience of visiting London where I was born – everywhere is that feeling, and all of my work has been an exploration of that.

The one thing that’s different is that in Rome I also feel for the first time that it is absolutely my place, and that has not been felt in any other place.

When you say “my place” what do you mean?
I feel absolutely at peace, and my life feels legitimately placed. I have a sense that it is OK to be part of the world, part of the community. I feel that very deeply there … and that’s part of what I think has drawn me into the language and into the culture to the extent that it has. It’s been a transformative place for me. In Rome, I too undergo a kind of metamorphosis, both as a person and as a writer.

In many of the stories there’s a scarcity of names – why is that?
I haven’t been writing with names for a long time now, names are absent in all of my Italian work… it’s because I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the assumptions that readers will immediately make based on the name. So to call someone P in a story, all we know is that this is a woman who was born and raised in Rome, but we don’t know what she looks like, we don’t actually know what her ethnicity is, we don’t know where her parents are from, we don’t know what is the constitution of her blood, if you will. We cannot make assumptions about her.

My mother used to look at the phone directory of the University of Rhode Island every year and she would just go down it with her finger looking for Indian surnames, pinning them and saying, “here’s one, here’s one, here’s one, we’re going to call them, we’re going to invite them over”. I understand that names are ways into a community or ways of feeling like, ”OK, we’re on common ground here”, but I am pushing against those things now.

Which novelists and nonfiction writers working today do you most admire?
I read very little contemporary fiction, almost none, to be honest. But I’ll always look forward to whatever Lydia Davis produces. I’ll always look forward to whatever Domenico Starnone is going to write, being his occasional translator. But really more and more of my energy is inside Ovid.

I’ve also been doing a side translation project of Horace. It is getting back to Latin, it’s getting back to ancient Greek, it’s learning modern Greek, it is going back to my French, it’s rereading Beckett. I mean this is what I do, and that is really where my energy is going.

Which translators do you admire and why?
I admire a series of translators who are also writers, such as Cesare Pavese, Antonio Tabucchi, and Italo Calvino. I admire Kate Briggs’s translations of Barthes, Rosmarie Waldrop’s translation of Jabès and Gayatri Spivak’s translation of Derrida. I admire Anita Raja , who translates Christa Wolf from German to Italian, and Gioia Guerzoni, who translates Siri Hustvedt and so many others. I am grateful to Edith Grossman [who died last month] for her fine translations of García Márquez and other Spanish-language authors, and teach her book, Why Translation Matters, in my translation courses.

What’s the last really great book you read?
The Saga of Gösta Berling by Selma Lagerlöf.

What have your students taught you?
To always remain a student.

Roman Stories by Jhumpa Lahiri is published by Pan Macmillan (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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