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Jhumpa Lahiri on Her New Novel Whereabouts and the Power of Translation

In 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri and her family moved to Rome, where they lived for several years as the novelist dedicated herself to intimately understanding the Italian language. Lahiri had loved Italian for decades, ever since taking a trip to Florence in her 20s. Now, she’s releasing the English version of her new novel Whereabouts, which she first wrote and published in Italian, in 2018, as Dove Mi Trovo. The novel is centered on a woman and her observations about an unnamed European city. While Lahiri has worked in Italian for years now (she recently edited The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories), this is the first book she wrote in Italian and translated to English herself.

Lahiri, the author of The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth, began Whereabouts in 2015 before returning to the United States, and would work on the book during the frequent trips she made back to Rome. “Speaking in a large array of contexts throughout the day, day in and day out, that was feeding the writing,” Lahiri says in a recent phone call. The author, who is also the director of the creative writing program at Princeton University, spoke to TIME about the novel, her experience translating her own work and more.

TIME: How much does where you are in the world matter in terms of writing in Italian or English?

Lahiri: It used to matter a lot. The Italian version of Whereabouts was written pretty much entirely on Italian soil. I would go back and the language became the center of gravity. Now things have shifted a bit, and I feel it’s less impossible to work and think in Italian here [in the U.S.], which has come from the many years I’ve been working in Italian.

What were the challenges of translating your own work?

It was very strange to go back to something I had already written and think about it so intensely. It becomes an interior dialogue between you and another part of yourself.

Did you pick up on things in having to translate your own work that you didn’t think about before?

I discovered my tics, word choices, and ways I was arranging things that I was partial to. Translating is a form of literary criticism as well. You begin to understand the text in a much more distanced and nuanced way. This is true for the works I translate by other people obviously, but here, too. It gave me a much more intense glimpse onto myself and my own writing, for good or for ill.

Were you following the controversy over the translation of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem (in which debate erupted when a white author was set to translate the poem into Dutch and later quit)?

Yes, I did follow that.

What are your thoughts on it?

I found it problematic for a variety of reasons. It goes against what translation at heart really is, which is a bringing together of those who are different, and don’t know one another’s experiences vis a vis language. What’s beautiful and powerful and ethically valuable about translation is this intense attention to the other, and not only attention, but an identification with a sort of transference. It’s a very layered, complex and intimate process to translate another person’s words. What is extraordinary is that ability for someone to bring another person’s words to life in another language without knowledge of the person, the country that person lived in, in spite of all those layers of difference and separation.

From a writer’s point of view, I think about all of the people I’m so incredibly grateful to around the world who have translated my work. I don’t look for the person to be like me. I look for the person who’s going to be able to read me, and that can be anybody. That should be anybody. If we want to reduce the equation to “like, like, like,” we’re losing sight of the incredible strides that we have made and can continue to make as a human race, as a body of people on Earth who speak different languages, who live different lives, who are different, and yet can form connection through that translated text, reach a new readership. I believe this very, very strongly. I teach translation at Princeton, and I talk about these things with my students because I think it’s very important.

Do you have a favorite work of translated literature?

I can’t possibly. Half of the things I’ve read in my life are translated. The vast majority of the books that have shaped me were not in English, which is the language I was reading in for most of my life. So I can’t possibly. I’m looking at my bookcase right now. Every book is translated.

You’re known for novels that follow generations, sometimes all over the world. Whereabouts is much more contained. What’s your process like working on an intimate novel compared to your more sweeping ones?

Every book is born in its own moment and in its own way. This novel was born in these moments when I was able to go back to Rome. I started it in Rome, but I already knew that I’d be moving back to the United States at the end of the summer so I was already a bit on the threshold between one place and another. That experience is what is recounted in some sense in the book—or recreated as a portrait of a character who was in some sense suspended between worlds.

There are so many factors that go into the writing of a book. I can look back at my other books and think: this is a book I wrote when I had really small children, this is a book when I didn’t have children, this is a book when I was pregnant. Those experiences are very profound and shape how the books get written. Unaccustomed Earth was written around when my children’s babysitter could come and give me some time to write those stories. Whereabouts was written because I was able to have breaks from Princeton, get on a plane and go back to Rome.

The isolation the narrator in Whereabouts experiences feels lifted from a pandemic diary. How do you view this character’s thoughts in the context of this moment?

I translated the book before the pandemic, but then I went over it during. It occurred to me that now the book might resonate in a different way because so many of us have been moving in solitude. This idea of what being inside means as opposed to being outside is so charged right now.

How has your relationship to place changed during the pandemic?

I spent most of it in Princeton. I was able to go back to Italy over the summer, but I’d never spent so much time in my house. I’ve inhabited the campus in a different way. It was quite abandoned in the fall and it’s still not at full capacity. I’ve been inhabiting this alternate reality even though it’s all the same place.

You’ve been teaching virtually since March 2020. What are you most looking forward to when you get back into the classroom with your students?

Being able to sit, put my things down on the table, and look at them all and share that space. It just feels precious now.

What was it like being in Italy over the summer?

We went at a very good time—the cases were sort of nonexistent. We quarantined in our house for a couple of weeks as we had to, and then we emerged. People were cautious and relieved—everyone had been through such an intense lockdown. There was very vigilant mask use if we were to go to the store or something like that. It was lovely to be back and we stayed for the months when things were getting really bad here. We did come back and then things got worse in Italy over the fall. We have a life here and a life there. We’re always toggling back and forth in terms of “how’s it like there?” and “how’s it like here?”
It’s been really hard to follow what’s been happening in India with all of my family there. There are these moments where it seems much, much worse here, better there, and then it flips. So there’s this constant worry. Even if things here feel relatively promising and under control, my family has never had a life that’s been contained to this country. We’re constantly thinking, caring and worrying about people in other places. It’s really not until we truly as a planet get on top of this thing that I will sleep peacefully.

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