Humor and Translation – Jhumpa Lahiri and Italo Calvino

By Mark Herman

For Jhumpa Lahiri (1967- ), translating is more than simply what she does. In her book, Translating Myself and Others1,  she states, “I translate, therefore I am” (2).

Lahiri is director of the Program in Creative Writing at Princeton University, where she also teaches literary translation. Bilingual from birth, she was born in London, the daughter of Bengali-speaking Indian immigrants who moved to America when Lahiri was three. As an adult, she added a third language, Italian, to her native Bengali and English. A novel of hers has been made into a film and a book of her short stories was a New York Times best seller.

Curiously, she does not write in Bengali because “Bengali is a language I speak and understand but do not read with sophistication or ease,” (3). Nonetheless,

I speak of being born into a “linguistic world split in two.” I refer to my writing, in English, as a form of cultural translation, and to some of [my]…stories…as a “translation of India.” Reflecting on writing short stories in English about characters who talk in Bengali in my head, I note the need to translate their dialogue, thus turning them, falsely but necessarily, into English speakers. (2)

For Lahiri, translation is truly a calling, as is evident in her discussion of the myth of Echo and Narcissus as told by the classical Latin poet Ovid (43 BCE to 17 or 18 CE) in his Metamorphoses.2 According to the myth, the mountain nymph Echo is condemned to “say only a portion of what other people have already said.” (46) Subsequently, Echo falls in love with Narcissus, who repudiates her, falling in love with himself instead. Lahiri writes:

…falling in love…is what instigates the impulse to translate. Passion…was what moved me to translate Lacci,3and everything I have translated since. (48)

Lahiri considers Echo’s situation to be a good metaphor for the difficulties that challenge a translator:

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. (47)

Lahiri is one of those rare multilingual people who sometimes translates herself, moving between Italian and English. She does not regard her own original texts, or those of anyone else for that matter, to be definitive:

The brutal act of self-translation frees oneself, once and for all, from the false myth of the definitive text…. The publication of any book is an arbitrary act…A book is done when it seems done, when it feels done, when the author is sick of it, or is eager to publish it, or when the editor wrests it away…. The act of self-translation enables the author to…repair and recalibrate as needed. (76-77)

Definitive text or not, I would argue that the opportunity to “repair and recalibrate” is very limited when translating anything other than one’s own work.

Lahiri’s strong opinions are not limited to discussions of the definitiveness of texts. In a chapter about Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), she states that:

His translation of Stalin and others under Fascism underscores the essential and subversive role translation has always played. All translation is a political act, but especially so under Mussolini who…was opposed to everything the act of translation entails, advocates, and signifies, and strictly censored and surveilled the publication of literature in translation (103)

A favorite author of Lahiri, to which she devotes an entire chapter, is the Cuban-born Italian writer Italo Calvino (1923-85), for whom, Lahiri states, translation was “destiny.” The chapter “Il Calvino del mondo” appears in Lahiri’s original Italian in the Appendix to her book, and, in the body of the book, as “Calvino Abroad,” an English translation by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush in collaboration with the author.

Like all good essays about a writer, that by Lahiri motivated me to read him, and so I did: Le città invisibili (1972), translated into English as Invisible Cities in 1974 by William Weaver (1923-2013).4

Invisible Cities is one of Calvino’s best-known works of fiction. In this virtually plotless book, the Italian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) regales the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan (1215-94) with descriptions, real and imaginary, of the cities Marco Polo has visited, though all the descriptions are probably in fact descriptions of a single city, most likely Venice. Despite the supposedly 13th-century date, there are many anachronisms, including mentions of skyscrapers, dirigibles, and underground trains (19). And, given the wide-ranging travels of Marco Polo, there is much discussion of many lands and many languages.

Near the beginning of the book, the Khan and Marco Polo are without translators, and therefore cannot understand each other:

In languages incomprehensible to the Khan, the envoys related information heard in languages incomprehensible to them… [and] Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks (21)

Eventually, “Marco mastered the Tartar language.” (22)

As time went by, words began to replace objects and gestures in Marco’s tales: first exclamations, isolated nouns, dry verbs, then phrases, ramified and leafy discourses, metaphors and tropes. The foreigner had learned to speak the emperor’s language or the emperor to understand the language of the foreigner. (38)

But did they really comprehend each other? Perhaps not:

– and yet when Polo began to talk about how life must be in those places, day after day, evening after evening, words failed him, and little by little, he went back to relying on gestures grimaces, glances. (39)

How could they, when, beyond traduttore traditore, Marco Polo claims that no words suffice to accurately describe reality?

Of all the changes of language a traveler in distant lands must face, none equals that which awaits him in the city of Hypatia, because the change regards not words, but things. (47)

[The philosopher] said: “Signs form a language, but not the one you think you know.” (48)

There is no language without deceit. (48)


  1. Lahiri, Jhumpa. Translating Myself and Others (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2022).
  1. Metamorphoses, by the Roman poet Ovid, written 8 CE. It includes over 250 myths. There are many translations into English.
  1. Lacci (literally Laces) / Ties, by Domenico Starnone (1943- ), Torino: Einaudi, 2019 (original Italian publication date was 2014), translated from Italian into English by Jhumpa Lahiri (New York: Europa Editions, 2017). The novel was made into an Italian film in 2020, directed by Daniele Luchetti.
  1. Le città invisibili / Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino, translated from Italian into English by William Weaver (San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt, Inc., 1974).




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