In February of 2016, I welcomed a group of students at Princeton University to a seminar dedicated to literary translation. I was eager to teach the course, but even more eager to learn from it myself. For it was precisely during that period that I was about to face my first formal translation project: the novel Lacci, written by Domenico Starnone and published in 2014, which I had read in Italian and loved.
The translation of Lacci was part of an ongoing phase of metamorphosis in my life. In 2012, I had moved to Rome with the objective of improving my Italian. The following year I began writing in Italian, and this experiment led to In altre parole, composed in Italian and published in 2015. I felt bold and adventurous, but in the back of my mind, in bypassing translation, I also felt that I had skipped a crucial step on the path to acquiring and genuinely knowing a new language.
When Starnone, whom I befriended in Rome, proposed that I translate Lacci, I accepted with enthusiasm, but also with apprehension. It was one thing for me to undergo a transformation from writing in English to Italian. It would be quite another to transform from a writer of my own novels to a translator of someone else’s words. In some sense, the thought of undergoing this second metamorphosis felt more radical than the first. It came with a sense of responsibility I had not previously had to consider. And it required not only skills but a state of mind with which I was less familiar.
In planning the first translation seminar at Princeton, I asked myself how to begin, how best to introduce and open up the conversation. I had read many essays, many theories of translation in the past. I could easily have begun by citing essays by Walter Benjamin or by Vladimir Nabokov. Instead, I turned to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a work that never fails to illuminate life’s mysteries to me. Let us keep in mind that Ovid’s masterpiece is itself a translation, in a broad sense, of Greek mythology, inspired perhaps by the Roman poet’s travels to Greece as young man, and his study of the ancient Greek language and culture. Like almost all Latin poetry, the Metamorphoses is a work that grows out of an encounter with, and rerendering of, a preexisting literature composed in another tongue.1 Within the poem, I thought immediately of the myth of Echo and Narcissus, and it began to orient me, providing me with certain keys with which to begin exploring what it means to translate a text from one language to another.
I began, on the first day of class, by saying that all translation must be regarded first and foremost as a metamorphosis: a radical, painful, and miraculous transformation in which specific traits and elements are shed and others are newly obtained. In this sense, I told the class, nearly every episode in Ovid’s great narrative poem can be read metaphorically as an example of translation, given that creatures are constantly changing states of being. That said, the myth of Echo and Narcissus is particularly resonant when considered from a translator’s point of view, and it speaks to me personally, acutely, about what it means to shift from writer to translator and back again.
Let’s begin by refreshing our memory of the myth, found in book 3 of the Metamorphoses. A doomed love story, it is one of a series of tales in Ovid in which both the lover and the beloved are transformed. Echo, a mountain nymph known for her sonorous voice, is enlisted by the philandering Zeus to distract Juno by chatting with her. When Juno learns that she has been deceived by Echo’s talkative nature, she condemns her to say only a portion of what other people have already said. Her capacity to speak is altered, reduced to a partial repetition of words previously generated by others: “Nevertheless, when chatting, her powers of speech / were no different then than now; that is to say, / she could only repeat, from several words, the very last of them” (“et tamen usum / garrula non alium quam nunc habit oris habebat, / reddere de multis ut uerba nouissima posset,” 359–61).
Translation has always been a controversial literary form, and those who are resistant to it or dismiss it complain that the resulting transformation is a “mere echo” of the original— that too much has been lost in the process of traveling from one language into another. Ovid’s story draws attention to the nature of this loss, or impoverishment, as personified by Echo, a figure who inspires the word, also Greek in origin, to explain an acoustic phenomenon: a sound that, as a result of moving in a certain way and encountering a barrier, “returns,” replicating a portion of the original sound. We must be careful, however, not to equate the word echo with simple repetition. The verb Ovid attributed to Echo, once condemned, is not repetere but reddere, which means, among other things, to restore, to render, to reproduce. It can also mean to translate from one language to another.2
At first glance, it seems that Echo, who starts out as a talented storyteller, is converted, thanks to Juno’s curse, into a translator. For, like Echo, part of the translator’s task is to “listen” to a text by carefully reading it, absorbing its meaning, and repeating it back. The translator reproduces words already written by duplicating them. Like Echo, the translator’s art presupposes the existence of an original text, and also presupposes that much of what makes that text beautiful and unique in the original will be impossible to maintain in another linguistic context. In Ovid’s myth, Echo’s condition is clearly a punishment, a deprivation of her own voice and words. But she who translates, ideally, converts this “punishment” into a stimulating challenge, and often a joy. The translator “repeats” and thus “doubles” a text, but this repetition must not be taken literally. Far from a restrictive act of copying, a translator restores the meaning of a text by means of an elaborate, alchemical process that requires imagination, ingenuity, and freedom. And so, while the act of repeating, or echoing, is certainly pertinent to the subject of translation, it is only the starting point of the translator’s art.
Let’s proceed with our myth. Echo, one day, falls in love with Narcissus, and as a result her condition, already compromised, turns tragic. Lacking her own words, she is unable to call out to Narcissus, whom she desires. When she eventually approaches him, he repudiates her, and in a cruel comedy of errors, Narcissus, in the course of resisting her advances, falls in love with himself. Echo, in her shame, wastes away, her body vanishing, to the point where she is nothing but a heap of bones and a voice. Ovid’s language is emphatic and haunting: “Only voice and bones survive. / The voice endures; the bones, they say, assumed the look of stones” (“uox tantum atque ossa supersunt: / uox manet; ossa ferunt lapidis traxisse figuram,” 398–99). The repetition of the Latin vox, voice, celebrates Echo’s very curse, acknowledging her original talent. The word, literally echoed, elevates the insubstantial, invisible, but enduring part of her, drawing it paradoxically into sharp relief.
These plot points are charged with meaning from the translator’s point of view. Two details are fundamental, and both refer to Echo. First, the act of desiring, of falling in love, which, under ideal circumstances, is what instigates the impulse to translate. Passion, as I said, was what moved me to translate Lacci, and everything I have translated since. I have been fortunate thus far to pick and choose my translation projects. There is no better or more satisfying way to satisfy one’s love for a text than to translate it. To translate a book is to enter into a relationship with it, to approach and accompany it, to know it intimately, word by word, and to enjoy the comfort of its company in return.
One of the conditions of this relationship is the act of following, of being second and not first. Like Echo, who in Ovid “sees and burns for him, furtively following his tracks” (“uidit et incaluit, seguitur uestigia furtim,” 371), a translator comes to know an author’s work by literally following its tracks, by pursuing it attentively. Fittingly, we often praise a translator’s efforts when we say that he or she has “captured” the spirit and sense of the original. One might say that a figurative hunt is involved, represented not only by the inevitable toil of hunting down the right words to re-create the text, but by a stealthy shadowing—the result of countless readings and reflections upon the work itself—in order to best understand its form, its structure, its meaning. Ironically, Echo—in one of the many surprising role reversals in this myth—is the principal hunter, while Narcissus, who is described as a hunter, is the one, for the most part, running away. Though Echo’s hunt ends in failure, she helps us to better appreciate the translator’s contradictory role as someone who both comes second and exercises a certain degree of power in the course of wrestling a text into a new language.
I would like to pause for a moment on the ramifications of being first as opposed to second. Now that I have become a translator in addition to remaining a writer, I am struck by how many people regard what I am doing as “secondary” and thus creatively inferior in nature. Translation, it seems, is considered imitative as opposed to imaginative. Some people, when I tell them I am translating someone else’s work as opposed to writing something of my own, appear almost sorry for me, as if translation projects represent a dearth of my own ideas, the solution for a fallow period, a drying up of my original voice. Readers who react with suspicion to a work in translation reinforce a perceived hierarchy in literature between an original work and its imitation. This hierarchy, sadly prevalent, between what is authentic and what is derivative—one might take another step and say, between what is pure and what is tainted—influences not only how we regard literature but how we regard one another. Who is original, who belongs authentically to a place? Who does not? Why are those who are not original to a place—migrants who did not “get there first”—treated as they are? I will turn to these implications further ahead. For now, let’s return to our myth and to translation. The second salient point regards Echo in her final “incarnation,” as it were, as nothing but a voice. Translators are often described as being invisible, discreet, self-sacrificing presences. Their names are frequently absent on book covers; their roles are meant to be supportive. Once the book has been translated, they are expected to erase themselves out of the picture and allow the book to speak for itself. Indeed, feminist scholars have argued that the practice of translation corresponds to traditional feminine archetypes in which a woman’s position and identity were subservient to a man’s. Echo’s wasting away, her loss of flesh, also brings to mind the penitential practices of medieval saints.
In a span of three years, I translated both Lacci and Scherzetto by Starnone. On both occasions, I wrote introductions that expressed my admiration and critical appreciation of Starnone’s works, with the exclusive aim of presenting him to a new readership. For my efforts I was chastised by critics, more than once, for interfering with the reader’s relationship with the book, for drawing attention to my own thoughts, and for casting light upon my role as translator. One reviewer (both were men) pointed to my introduction as an example of “energysapping intellectualization.” Another’s advice: “Maybe next time, Lahiri could just skip the introduction and let Starnone do all the talking.”
Like Echo before she is cursed, I was made to feel that I had been loquacious. I have no interest, here, in defending myself. What I find relevant is the ongoing desire to render the translator innocuous and unobtrusive. After being rejected by Narcissus, Echo turns physically absent: “Ever since, she lurks in the woods and is spotted on no mountain” (“inde latet siluis nulloque in monte videtur,” 400). The very next line, however, reads: “She is heard by all: sound is what lives of her” (“omnibus auditor: sonus est qui uiuit in illa,” 401). Her invisibility is countered and compensated for by the presence of her voice. Again she is a contradiction, nowhere to be seen, always to be heard. How should translators, who strive to echo works of literature on their own linguistic terms, according to their vision and interpretation of it, strike a balance?
1. Glenn W. Most, in discussing the crucial role of translation in Roman culture, includes Ovid in his list of Latin poets who “continued to enrich the resources of the Latin language, to broaden their reader’s experience, to refine their own techniques, and to establish a cultural identity for Rome, by translating into Latin whole works, portions, or even just famous quotations from the Greek they read at school,” p. 388.↩
2. See Cicero, De Oratore 1.34.55 (“quae legeram Graece, Latine redderem / I translated into Latin what I had read in Greek”) and Ovid, Tristia 5.7.53-54 (“unus in hoc nemo est populo, qui forte Latine / quaelibet e medio reddere verba queat. / In this population there is not one who, by chance, is capable of translating even commonplace words into Latin.”)↩
From Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri. © 2022 Princeton University Press. All rights reserved.