Jhumpa Lahiri leaves his comfort zone

For the children of immigrants who speak another language, this process is inevitably more cumbersome than for the children of monolingual parents. Lahiri has always oscillated between the language of her parents, Bengali, and that of America where she grew up. It was natural for her to ponder the meaning of these different linguistic universes – and natural also for her to determine that she would bridge this separation. This determination could be called the first emotional requirement of any translator: “I was born with a translator’s disposition, in the sense that my primordial desire was to connect disparate worlds.”

Yet she does not dwell on what might be called the postcolonial or political aspects of her own biography. Nor is it encumbered by the pieties that often surround writing about translation. Instead, “art is not – should not – be an instrument of change of any kind,” she writes. “Once art marries itself with a social or political purpose, it is bled from its true purpose, which is not to change the world but to explore the phenomenon and consequences of change itself.” The book, instead, deals with the consequences of the seemingly simple act of choosing one’s own words.

Lahiri knows that no words are “our words”. She is skeptical about our ability to escape the trap of reflexive expression. Yet his book also contains hope for the liberating power of language. If we have to use someone else’s words, let’s at least not fool ourselves into thinking they are our own. Let us try, at the very least, to transform the involuntary process of language into a deliberate act.

We are individuals insofar as we can express ourselves in certain patterns, in accordance with specific needs and relationships. Language, like biology or social circumstances, is one such model; and as anyone who’s ever tried to lose a foreign accent knows, escaping these patterns is impossible for almost anyone.

Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Hidden in “Translating myself and others” hides an almost mystical project of self-creation: “Translating is looking in a mirror and seeing someone other than yourself”, writes Lahiri. What is left of us when we strip away the inherited expressive apparatus? If his project, like all extreme projects of self-invention, seems hopeless, his doomed but heroic quest for freedom brings this book to life. She knows that the illusion of freedom is An illusion. But his quest for Italian is about something far more important than synonyms, dictionaries or names. Studying this foreign language is, or can be, a liberation, says Lahiri: “I write in Italian to feel free.

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