Hundreds came to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri on November 18 in the Conference Center atop University Hall at Montclair State University as she discussed the art of translation and the new collection she has edited, The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories.
But first, Lahiri spent two hours in a tiny room in Schmitt Hall with a couple dozen Montclair State students and professors, answering their questions and considering deeply what translation means for literature, history, politics, basic human connections and personal identity.
At the workshop “Boundary-Crossing and Creative Inspiration Through a Literary Collection,” students were clearly awed by Lahiri who won the Pulitzer and the PEN/Hemingway Award for her debut collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies, and who has been a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction.
Moderator Teresa Fiore (Inserra Chair, Italian Program, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures) brought together professors from across the disciplines of writing, literary criticism, translation, international studies, political sciences and justice studies – as well as from the John J. Cali School of Music – to read through the collection with their students and pose questions reflecting their areas of study.
The questions ranged from the global to the personal, with the concept of “hybridity” – the multiple facets to every person, culture or country – taking a central role. Lahiri continuously outlined how translation revealed complexity while bridging divides.
Regarding the story A Pair of Eyeglasses, a student asked if the glasses served as a metaphor for translation, opening the character’s eyes to a new, complicated and perhaps unattractive reality. Lahiri responded that translation is “never unpleasant. It’s always illuminating in some sense – even if what you are translating is discomfiting.”
Another noted that the story The Smell of Death pointed to the harrowing aspects of Italy’s WWII history. Lahiri explained that she had worked to create a collection that reflected all aspects of Italian culture and history, dispelling” the propaganda, the clichés.” She said that the stories, though from another culture, could be entered by any reader: “Nothing feels impenetrable. These stories are like all literature. It’s a way of forming dialogue, a community across time, language, place.”
Later that evening, College of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Peter Kingstone remarked on the fittingness of Lahiri presenting her vision at Montclair State: “Translation is not simply about words. It’s about communicating meaning across the great divides that separate us whether cultural, gender, geographic or language.” He noted that Montclair State University is “a living breathing experiment of intercultural communications” where “we are trying to create a shared space. Despite our differences, we hear each other. We share meaning.”
“Translation is an aesthetic and ethical and political stance,” Lahiri said. “Aesthetic because it’s an art, ethical because it has to do with our common humanity, and political because it is more than one way of understanding reality. It displaces the notion of one solution to anything – which is fascism. Translation completely cancels that out.”
“Jhumpa Lahiri’s visit on campus has reminded us of the power of languages and translation to create dialogues across disciplines as students and faculty address crucial issues about the contemporary world with a deep awareness of the past and a keen sensitivity towards literature,” remarked Teresa Fiore. Lahiri was invited to Montclair State as part of the cultural initiatives regularly supported by the Inserra Chair Endowment.