‘Confound, Torment, Swallow Us Whole’

Illustration by Nicholas Konrad / The New Yorker

To write, first and foremost, is to choose the words to tell a story, whereas to translate is to evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses.

Thus starts Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay drawn from the afterword of her translation of “Trust” by Italian novelist Domenico Starnone. Through the prism of a translator’s eye, Lahiri noticed how frequently the Italian word invece (“instead”) appeared in the novel.

Invece invites one thing to substitute for another… I now believe that this everyday Italian adverb is the metaphorical underpinning of Starnone’s novel… “Trust” probes and prioritizes substitution… Invece, a trigger for substitution, is a metaphor for translation itself.

Lahiri’s wide-ranging discussion of the craft of translation includes this assessment:

… Language (or, rather, the combination of language and human usage) is impossible to comprehend at face value. We must enter, instead, into a more profound relationship with words; we must descend with them to a deeper realm, uncovering layers of alternatives. The only way to even begin to understand language is to love it so much that we allow it to confound us, to torment us, until it threatens to swallow us whole.

(Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Book That Taught Me What Translation Was,” The New Yorker, 11-6-2021)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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