In our fourth Asymptote Book Club interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri spoke with Asymptote Assistant Editor Victoria Livingstone about her translation of Domenico Starnone’s Trick.
In this discussion about her work and the forging of her own artistic identity, Lahiri reveals why translating Starnone seemed like “a sort of destiny.” Lahiri draws us into Starnone’s fictional world, but also reflects on her own mutable relationship with language and writing, and on the marvelous yet precarious ways in which our lives unfold.
Victoria Livingstone (VL): I wanted to begin by asking you what brought you to translation. I just finished reading In Other Words in which you reflect on your decision to switch from writing in English to writing in Italian. Did you see translation as a natural progression after working between multiple languages and living in Italy? And what drew you to Domenico Starnone in particular?
Jhumpa Lahiri (JL): During the initial part of my stay in Italy, I wanted to translate something, but I didn’t know what it would be. I was reading only in Italian for many years. As my reading progressed, I would think that I would like to translate this person, or that person. Once my Italian was stronger and my reading in Italian seemed to have a larger ongoing purpose and focus, translation was something that really intrigued me.
I was considering it in this vague way and then I read Lacci by Domenico [Starnone] and immediately felt that if I were to translate something, that this would be the book I wanted to translate. I felt very close to it. It spoke to me very deeply. It felt like the natural first step. That’s how it started. When he asked me to translate the book, we were already friends and I felt—I feel now—that it was a sort of destiny. Everything was properly aligned in the moment that I was drawn to the idea of translating and was ready to translate with the appropriate amount of distance. That was when Lacci, which became Ties, won a prize which enabled the translation to be funded. It was a series of fortuitous circumstances that led to the translation of that book a couple of years ago.
What is the memory of reading? How do you remember reading? For me, I cannot simply recall the book in question, but also when I read it, why I had chosen to read it if there was a choice involved, or how I chanced upon it, and most significantly, where I read it: in which rooms and in which seats. I have moved around a lot this year, both travelling and relocating, but at the same time, my memories of reading certain books invoke stillness, the kind where you notice the slightest movement of daylight changing the hours. The off-white of the page and the off-white of the walls. The world outside the door. And you reading. And then there are some books that do not ask for a stupor, but an attention where you want to see or imagine it being made, you want to know what it looked like in its first stages and what conversations transformed it into its finished present state. Well-arranged poetry anthologies have this effect on me. When I heard Robert Chandler speak about The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry at the Place for Poetry conference, at Goldsmiths in London earlier this year, I knew I had to spend time looking at the way he had organized the contents and think back to what he had said about editorial choices, about being both editor and translator, and working with co-editors. How does one take on the challenge of representing 200 years of Russian poetry to be published in 2015 and under the banner of a Penguin Classic? The key, Chandler said was in striking a balance between what is available and what should ideally be available. So he had to go beyond the ‘seductive neatness’ of the four that most representation of Russian poetry is over-fixated on (Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva), and include a few non-Russian poets, and have over fifty contemporary translators work on the anthology. READ MORE…