Jhumpa Lahiri champions the writerly art of translation

Jhumpa Lahiri, director of Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing, leads her spring 2020 course, “Advanced Fiction: Imitating Italians,” prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The course relied heavily on translated texts and considered the limitations of translation. Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications
Tuesday, September 8, 2020

By Denise Valenti, Office of Communications

From her earliest years, Jhumpa Lahiri has nurtured an intimate relationship with multiple languages while navigating between those languages.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author and current director of Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing, Lahiri was born in London and raised in Rhode Island, first speaking her parents’ language, Bengali. She learned English as she grew, initially by watching children’s television shows like Sesame Street and the Electric Company.

Feeling foreign in both languages, Lahiri fell in love with Italian during a trip to Florence after college and immersed herself in a third tongue in spite of the struggles of acquiring a new language as an adult.

Translation — that movement between languages, cultures, and ultimately, meaning — has been a fact of Lahiri’s entire life. As a writer, Lahiri said she finds the act of translating to be “extraordinarily powerful and regenerative.” It’s an experience she has shared with her students at Princeton since joining the faculty in 2015.

“I learn so many things about how to work with language,” she said. “And I learn so many things not only about the language I’m translating out of — currently Italian — but about respecting any given language and what it can do, in a way that no other language really can.”

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