Dialogues: Jhumpa Lahiri and Jennifer Scappettone discuss mother tongues, displacement and the verb Trovarse in the CHF panel
When we speak more than one language and switch from one to the other with any degree of frequency, we come across them: words that do not quite translate, because they are not just a word and a feeling, something intimately linked to the language that created them. Two of these words, the Italian verb trovars and the English word or, featured prominently in the Chicago Humanities Festival panel by Jennifer Scappettone, professor, poet and translator at the University of Chicago.
Lahiri’s interest in place and travel serves as the basis for the conversation. She and Scappettone discussed how languages ââshaped Lahiri’s childhood – Bengali at home, English at school – and how the language, including Italian, continues to shape her. life and work. Lahiri’s latest novel, Or, was originally written in Italian and published under the name Dove mi trovo, using an Italian verbâto cross– it doesn’t really translate. Lahiri herself translates Dove mi trovo in English, and talked about the difficulty of finding a title, before finally settling down Or: a word much more disturbing than the verb she chose in Italian, certainly, but just as difficult to translate.
Going beyond the boundaries of one’s own language is, according to Lahiri, intrinsic to the development of literature, nodding to the ways in which the Italian literary tradition has drawn inspiration from French and Spanish, and, via Spain , from the Arab literary tradition as well. She highlighted the European Renaissance and the way Renaissance writers looked beyond their borders, as well as the way ancient Roman writers looked at Greece and beyond, arguing that literature must cross borders to find itself. develop.
Identity – and the human desire to ascribe identity to almost everything – looms large in both Or and the short story collection Lahiri is currently working on, Racconti romani, or Roman stories. (Its title is, she noted, a tribute to Alberto Moravia and his collection of the same title.) Lahiri opposes this desire to name in Or, never fully naming its location although its protagonist spends considerable time discussing foreign accents and otherness. Indeed, as Scappettone and Lahiri discussed the rising tides of white supremacist violence in Europe and elsewhere, Lahiri noted that otherness continues to be a strong theme in the next one. Racconti romani, also originally written in Italian, although, again, she doesn’t envision using many concrete place names beyond that title.
There were, for a panel based so heavily on words and language, conflicting word choices. Scappettone described the word “localization” as “Anglo-Saxon,” which is both inaccurate and carries a heavy load of white supremacist violence in its syllables. Likewise, a discussion of pluralism in Italian literature was fascinating, but seems a bit odd: Italian literature is hardly the only literature to take advantage of a pluralism of voices comprising different regional languages. (Spain, for example, has several native languages, ranging from Basque to Catalan to Galician and beyond, all of which appear in a national literature.)
Lahiri and Scappettone’s discussion of place and travel, language and identity was moving, a reminder of the importance of going beyond the limits of what we know (or think we know) to see it better. We will never be able to come back, not really, but as Lahiri suggests, maybe it is for the best, as we will certainly grow from the experience.
More information on Lahiri’s novel Or can be found on the publisher’s website.