Degrees of Separation: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Translation of Domenico Starnone’s “Trust”

By Steven Jacobs

Like in Starnone’s earlier novel, Ties, his most recent work to be translated in English, Trust (Confidenza), is divided into three racconti, stories or accounts of events, that structure the text. They are not three parts working in polyphony, but instead three separate versions of events poking holes at one another. The novel recounts the life of Pietro Vella, a school teacher and the author of several books on education and the Italian school system, as seen by Pietro himself, by his former lover Teresa, and by Pietro’s daughter. Each story subtly contradicts the other two. For example, Teresa tells the reader that Pietro greatly exaggerated their epistolary correspondence over the years. As readers of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are at times left questioning whether or not the transformations are really occurring, readers of Trust are left wondering whether the story actually unfolded as narrated. Disoriented, they are forced to trust that the “truth” lies within the novel somewhere. 

Starnone’s metaliterary rumination on the obscurity of truth, so subjective to individual perception, is exacerbated through Jhumpa Lahiri’s English translation of Trust. The novel becomes four times removed from the truth. Thrice removed via each narrator’s account of events and once more removed via translation. Reading any novel is of course a huge act of trust and confidence between the reader and the author. As readers we trust the author to guide us through the story without scruple for they are our only lens into the literary universe; it does not exist without their words. For this reason we must trust Starnone the author that the truth lies somewhere between the lines, even as we question his narrators. 

Starnone’s Trust often relies on intertextuality, implicitly suggesting that readers tap into their inner literary database as they navigate this text. The novel, like all forms of literature, does not and cannot exist in a vacuum, devoid of symbiotic interaction with the universal œuvre. Instead, it is the product of and contributes to a collective literary consciousness from which even the most liminal readers cannot detach themselves. Dating back to the first bestseller of all time and perhaps the most archetypal work within western literature, the Bible, texts have been interfacing (the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament).

While an author may be consciously referencing a given work in their text, therefore asking the reader to consider contextualizing the situation and transcend the boundaries of the text, it is likely that myriad subconscious literary allusions are occurring as well, especially in the case of such a well-read writer as Starnone. These references may be sprinkled throughout the book, a few granules here and there. Like a single gram of baking soda, alone they are inconsequential. But put enough granules together, and as any cook knows, even small additions of potent ingredients will strongly alter the flavor and appearance of a dish.

A few questions arise when these allusive elements are translated into another language and transported into a new readership. Will an Anglophone reader latch on to an Ovid reference as readily as an Italian reader given their differing educational backgrounds? How do prior variations in translated works such as Dante’s Inferno, for example, affect an American’s ability to perceive a reference? It is possible that many of these conscious and subconscious references may remain undetected in translation. Therefore, the translated work is bound to be read in a different light than the original. The onerous task of identifying certain literary references and insisting on their being noticed falls duly upon the translator.

Translation, by its very nature, is not merely a series of binary, word by word transactions from one language to another. It is not just a job of taking away and adding. Rather, it is a paradoxical quest of changing everything while keeping everything the same. Tancredi’s famous realization in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Il gattopardo) comes to mind: “[s]e vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è bisogna che tutto cambi.” “If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change,” he states. In the wake of revolution, the Prince of Salina’s forward-thinking nephew understands that in order for their family to keep their wealth, power, and influence, they must accept the imminent social and political transformations. With the arrival of Garibaldi and the broader Risorgimento movement, aristocratic status and tendencies needed to be replaced by new political power. At the expense of details, the big picture was embraced. 

Jhumpa Lahiri explains her confrontation with retaining the general message of Trust while at times sacrificing detail. This does not mean that detail plays a trivial role during the process of translation. Lahiri begins her afterword by meditating on the importance of very specific and intentional word choice on the part of Starnone. She welcomes the task of “acutely” evaluating “each word [he] uses,” particularly regarding the Italian adverb invece, which she opines is the “metaphorical underpinning” of the novel and a “metaphor for translation itself” (161-2). Its meaning malleable to the context, invece acts as a broad term that can both link and unlink notions. This “untranslatable” chameleon sustaining the novel, this intentionally repeated word so fundamental to understanding the themes behind the story, is a detail that Lahiri had to both overlook for the sake of lucid writing and adjudge important in her keen afterword.

Words that are translatable in a variety of different ways, like invece, occupy an ambiguous space within homonymy. Although a translator will never be without an adequate English equivalent, there is no all-purpose word in our language. On page 14, Lahiri chooses to translate “invece” as  “on the other hand,” while on page 82, she translates “io invece sì” (literally: I instead yes) as “Oh, but I did.”  A three-word verbless sentence becomes a four-word regular sentence containing a subject and a predicate. This creative rendering by Lahiri is just one of 64. Starnone’s adverbial repetition, surely metaphorical, must be forfeited to ensure an unambiguous, smooth read. The big picture is prioritized over detail. 

It is within these “untranslatable” words that Lahiri works with great delicacy and cunning. Idioms without an English equivalent, metamorphosing adverbs, binomial verbs like “to love” (specified as platonic/familial or romantic in Italian), passive constructions, and “nearly false” cognates like confidenza and “confidence”  riddle the text. Only one definition of the homonym, confidence, is a correct translation of the Italian, confidenza. While confidence can mean trust, it also means self-assurance. The latter definition rarely applies to the cognate confidenza. Only the former does. Lahiri focuses much of her afterword on the conundrum of translating these components. 

A research inquiry she discusses in a footnote is profoundly interesting and evokes the questions raised at the beginning of my review. In this afterthought of her afterword, Lahiri remarks on her investigation into the use of the word vicis, the Latin etymon of invece, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. She shares two instances of vicis in Book 4 alone meaning “turning” both in reference to the plot trajectory and time itself. Upon reviewing all 15 books, I have found well over two dozen uses of words containing this root. If Starnone is alluding to Ovidian metamorphoses through his repetition of invece, this is lost in the English text. Through the form of the afterword, a translator is able to address this erosion of literary allusion that occurs when a text is metamorphosed into another language. This transformation is a deceptive one, akin to those of the Ovidian animals, humans, and objects that slowly morph before the reader, often while putting the veracity of the metamorphoses themselves into question. The English stand-ins for invece–instead, on the other hand, oh but, rather–are fata morgana, subversive language bemusing the readers, yet at the same time seducing them. Starnone’s continuous use of contrast is not lost in English, instead it lies just under the surface. Therefore, reading Confidenza in English requires trust in the translator and the author that these literary references and uses of repetition will manifest in a new way in the text.

However, whether or not the reader should trust Starnone and by extension Lahiri is an open question. Much of the novel and the author’s œuvre rely on the unreliability of their characters. The narrator changes three times, from the male protagonist Pietro, to his daughter Emma, and finally to his ex-girlfriend, Teresa, to whom he is indelibly tied. Each voice contradicts the others’ version of events rendering impossible any discernment of what “truly” happened (if that is even possible with a novel). Someone is lying and it is not clear who. Pietro? Emma? Teresa? Starnone himself?

The big picture, tone, and descriptions are well maintained in Lahiri’s translation. Pietro’s tie to his past lover across time and space bears its claws and scratches at the mind and marriage of the protagonist and his wife Nadia. Teresa assumes a devil’s advocate role. She is Pietro’s Sword of Damocles, ready to decapitate his livelihood in one fell swoop. All it would take is the revelation of those unspeakable secrets they cathartically confided in each other as a fail safe for their love all those years ago. Teresa wields the most power as Pietro feels fundamentally flawed and lacks the backbone to let out the skeletons in the closet.

Lahiri’s translation of the novel into English reinforces Teresa’s power. Her move to America to teach and conduct research demonstrates her ability to abandon the only man she ever loved in Pietro for her own ambitions of self-realization. In this new land, English becomes her language of dialectic, friends, and family, and now it controls the narrative even when she is not narrating. Yet towering statues of influential Italian men such as that of Garibaldi in Washington Square Park stand as haunting reminders that she cannot erase the clear mark Pietro has etched into her brain. Yet, she is still able to detach herself with a couple degrees of separation: language and country. Even when dragged back to Italy to speak at an award ceremony for him, she shows her power by provoking Pietro’s absence, and single handedly ends the novel while boasting “I have been, and am, far more dangerous than he” (159). 

While holding true to the narrative constructed by Starnone, Trust has taken on its own new meaning. As I look up at the twin-towered El Dorado and San Remo apartment buildings lining Central Park West, I think of how Trust and Confidenza are twinned. At first glance they look deceptively identical. They are nearly the same height and boast ornamented setbacks with spires. But upon closer inspection, you can see one is based with cast stone and the other with limestone, the fenestration is slightly different, and then other architectural divergences reveal themselves. To me, they are both handsome buildings. Twinned twin towers, like duplicates of Pietro and Teresa. And each should be appreciated for what it chooses to accentuate. As you read them they tell the same story, but the words are transformed, at times drawing your eyes here rather than there.

Steven Jacobs is an Italian Studies PhD student at Rutgers University where he has enjoyed teaching Italian language and culture. Domenico Starnone is one of his research concentrations.

This essay is part of the special issue Reading Domenico Starnone (October 2021), edited by Enrica Maria Ferrara and Stiliana Milkova.

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