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Why Jhumpa Lahiri loves translating Italy's 'finest living writer'

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Jhumpa Lahiri may have made a name for herself with award-winning fiction like Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake, but lately, the author has been finding new creative fulfillment in an adjacent practice: translation.

Over the past few years, Lahiri has immersed herself in the work of Domenico Starnone, whom she calls Italy’s “finest living writer.” His 2014 novel Ties was translated by Lahiri into an English-language version that earned universal acclaim as well as placements on several year-end “best of” lists. She didn’t think she’d return to translating so soon, but immediately after she read Starnone’s next novel, released on Tuesday as Trick, she knew she had to dive back in.

Trick is a short, brilliant, deeply moving novel about the relationship between an elderly illustrator and his 4-year-old grandson. Interlaced with cutting humor, the book tackles topics of mortality and family in a complex way, probing questions about what it means to get old as you watch others grow up. The book also has details of Henry James’ work sprinkled in, intriguing at first glance and then, for those that dig a little deeper, essential to the book’s core ideas.

Speaking with EW about translating Trick, Lahiri described the process as alternately pain-staking, gratifying, and immensely educational. “One can read something so closely that it’s only by translating it that you really do feel you’ve gone through the looking glass, that you are on the other side and you’re in that other world,” she says. “I would wish that pleasure and education and marveling — that sense of amazement — for any writer.”

Lahiri caught up with EW about her translation process, the profundity of Trick, and why digging so deeply into another person’s work has made her a better writer. Read on below, and purchase your copy of Trick here.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you first encounter the work of Domenico Starnone?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I met Domenico and his wife in Rome soon after I moved there. We met at a Christmas lunch, and his brother-in-law and his wife were our upstairs neighbors in the building we lived in. His niece used to babysit for my kids who, at the time, still needed a babysitter. We would pass each other sometimes in the entryway and the brother-in-law’s wife, Magdelena, one day said, “Look, we know you have young kids, if you ever need a babysitter.” It was just his totally neighborly thing, a gesture. We then received an invitation to join them and were really touched, and accepted. My family was visiting — my parents and sister had come from the U.S., and I said, “We’re kind of a lot of people,” and they said, “No, please come.” We went up on Christmas Day and there was Domenico. We just met and became friendly and then friends. That’s how I came to know him, and then I started to word his work. The year that [Ties] came out, which I later translated, I was still in Rome and I read it as soon as it was published and loved it.

Why does his work speak to you? Translating him, I imagine, is quite an endeavor.
I think Domenico is the finest Italian living writer; I really feel there’s no one writing fiction as fine, as interesting, as beautiful, as powerful. I think having already translated Ties, I just felt that I wanted to stay inside of that prose and his mind, his way of looking at things and expressing things. His Italian is so beautiful, and such an interesting challenge for me to translate. He’s writing at such a high level, of such a fine register: His vocabulary and the way he phrases things, it’s a challenge that I just feel instinctively that I want to rise to. There’s nothing mystifying about it: It’s always keeping on my toes and enriching my understanding of how the language works and also of how storytelling works. He’s such an inventive storyteller, I’m getting a kind of double-hit when I translate him because on the one hand there’s the part of me that is a perpetual student of Italian and wants to always better my Italian and know more words and ways of speaking and writing. As a writer, I’m also getting backstage deep, special-pass aspects to the way he writes and the way he puts his story together.

What about with Trick, in particular?
I loved [Ties], as I said; I fell in love with it and I wanted to translate it immediately, as soon as I read it. It was the first book I translated. But I think [Trick] is just a one-of-a-kind book. What he’s doing with Henry James, what he’s constructed — the fact that the novel works independently of Henry James, that you could read him as a detail to the novel and on the other hand he is the center of the novel and the key to the novel — it’s such a sophisticated and subtle book, and such a moving book. I also think the premise of taking this sacrosanct relationship — one likes to think, “Oh, grandchildren, the ultimate joy,” and indeed that can be true. But he looks past that: He’s such a courageous writer to be able to look past something like that and look at what’s really behind so many of the ways that human beings relate to one another. That’s what he’s done here: He’s pinpointed the other side, the jealousy and the rage, the fear of dying and aging — what that grandchild represents. Not just the love and the pride that a grandparent might feel, but all of the other things that are perhaps implicit but not talked about … There’s something about his writing that I feel I’m recognizing something. I don’t know what it is. We don’t write the same way at all; maybe it’s simply a matter of the deepest admiration, of wanting to be as close to something as possible as a reader. For me, if it’s in Italian: that means translating.

Take me through your translating process, especially with a book you admire as much as this.
I read the book a couple of times at first, just to read it in different ways and different lights, to get a sense of the various ways it can be interpreted. Translation is a form of interpretation, after all. What I discovered partly into translating the first book was that, for me, it’s really beneficial to read everything out loud. When I translate I read every sentence out loud, and then I translate it; that’s how it comes to me. That’s my method. The first draft emerges in this form where I literally read a sentence and I translate it, and I read another sentence and I translate it, until I get to the end. I go through that various times until I’m satisfied enough. What I did both times was that I read it aloud. Once it was in English, I read it aloud to an Italian friend; we did this kind of mirroring, where I was reading it in English and she was following along in Italian, to reverse the process. And then I read it back to myself in English. Obviously there was back and forth with my editor and with Domenico.

How is he involved in your process?
He’s my friend, and so I ask him stuff. If I’m here, I text him; if I’m in Rome, I go over to his house and bring my notebook and say “What about this word, what about that word, what did you mean by this?” He tells me. I’m very fortunate that way, to have a very good relationship with him. I feel he trusts me and that’s a huge thing, a big responsibility. I just do the best that I can to, to capture what he’s done and recreate it somehow in English — as if he were writing in English. There’s a strange channeling there.

Did you feel more comfortable tackling his work, given that you’d done it once before? Did that alter your approach?
In some sense absolutely, yes. Both [Ties] and [Trick] are very compact, short novels. There’s a certain velocity … I’m very interested in how he plays with time, how it collapses and expands. Those novels have that. And yes: I had already inserted myself in his prose, somehow, so I felt like it was kind of inside of me and circulating in my brain — that they were familiar. Every writer has a signature, right? A fingerprint. They rely on certain adjectives, certain turns of phrase. By the time I translated Trick, there were certain things where I thought, “Oh yeah, he likes that word,” or “Oh yeah, he likes to put the comma here.” There was some familiarity, some sense of “I’ve been to this place.” But of course, it’s a totally different book. And this book does have a dialect issue, which was a new element for me, totally, to think about.

There’s also the Henry James element.
Yes, there’s the whole intertextual component. Henry James is inside of that book. It meant a very different kind of translation. To add to your previous question about my process: There was the whole Henry James component, which involved reading The Jolly Corner a million times in English and in Italian, and pondering and absorbing it in both languages — and then trying to look carefully at Domenico’s novel and see the Henry James … in there. When I had these texts I was so close to them, so at a certain point, I could read Domenico’s Italian and just see the James embedded in there. It was kind of amazing. But that’s what he did. I do hope that the reader will go the extra step — absolutely to enjoy the novel for what it is independently, a fully-functional and beautiful work of art — because I do think that what he’s done with James, his dialogue across time and space, is so interesting. Ingenious on his part. And such an interesting cultural comment as well: thinking about translation and other cultures and other languages and influences and all of those things that are so important.

You’ve touched on it a bit, but more broadly, what is it about translation that satisfies you, as a writer and a thinker?
Translation is such a profound thing to do. I come very late to translation; I translated my first book two years ago. It’s an interesting shift, move, to now incorporate the translation work. I just think it’s just feeding an entirely different set of needs in me. And obviously, as I said, to keep my Italian in a constant state of growth, it’s been amazing. I just find it very satisfying, I find it very important — I feel it goes hand in hand with writing. It teaches the writer how to write in a way that nothing else can because you are inside of something. You’re not outside of it anymore. One can read something so closely that it’s only by translating it that you really do feel you’ve gone through the looking glass, that you are on the other side and you’re in that other world. I would wish that pleasure and education and marveling — that sense of amazement — for any writer. For me, it is so exciting, to be able to do this and to think about storytelling in an entirely different framework. It’s with an intimacy that I didn’t have before. It’s clearly a selfish component. [Laughs] I am a writer and writers are always hungry to know new tricks, as it were — new strategies, new techniques. I think translation gives you that access.

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