(...) Just how difficult Neapolitan can be, even to someone steeped in Italian, became clear to the author Jhumpa Lahiri when she took on two novels by another of the southern Italian city’s writers, Domenico Starnone. Lahiri moved from the US to Rome and dedicated herself to writing in the language of her host country, the progress of which she documented in a fascinating bilingual book, In Other Words. Immersion in standard Italian didn’t prepare her for some of Starnone’s language though. “Some of his dialect I intuited. Other terms, rife with violence and obscenity, were politely translated into Italian for me by Starnone himself,” she has said. Lahiri’s working relationship with Starnone is a passionate cross-cultural conversation, which for their latest collaboration, Trick, took in Kafka and Henry James. At a public launch in London last year, an overawed fan asked if it was necessary to know so much. Not at all, replied Lahiri. For most readers, it’s just a story of a grandfather left in charge of his four-year-old grandson.
Starnone is now going to translate Lahiri’s English introduction for the Italian edition of her new Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories. But she is saving the biggest challenge for herself: the English translation of her own first novel written in Italian. Dove mi trovo has already been published in several other languages. “The idea of my own creation in Italian not having a life in English yet is interesting,” she says. “The problem is: how do I turn myself back on myself? Mentally I have to go into a place where I’m two people.” Is self-translation the most intimate relationship between a writer and a translator? Perhaps not. “In Chinese,” says Ma Jian, “a soul mate is described as zhiyin – someone who ‘understands your music’ and that is what Flora is to me.”