[(essay date 2007) In the following essay, Kuortti offers a postcolonial reading of Lahiri's story "This Blessed House" in order to elucidate the ways in which her writing engages with the issue of translation of identity.]
Some time after the publication of her collection Interpreter of Maladies (1999) to international acclaim, the award-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri wrote about her experiences as a hybrid, diasporic being, as, variously, an American author, an Indian-American author, a British-born author, an Anglo-Indian author, an NRI (non-resident Indian), an ABCD (American-born confused desi),1 and a lost and found author, and concludes: 'each of those labels is accurate.'2 In this piece, she describes fiction writing as an act of cultural translation and identity formation in a tongue-in-cheek Cartesian manner: 'Translato ergo sum,' I translate, therefore I am.
The Indian critic Harish Trivedi, in a direct response to Lahiri's views, is very sceptical of such 'abuse or, in theoretical euphemism, such catachrestic use, of the term translation' and would rather see 'instances of a kind of translation which does not involve two texts, or even one text, and certainly not more than one language' as 'non-translation.'3 As Susan Bassnett characterizes the change in the past decade, these two diametrically opposed views on 'cultural translation' illustrated by Lahiri's and Trivedi's comments inform much of the debate on post-colonial and diasporic subjectivity, especially on the theme of hybridity.4 In 'Des Tours de Babel,' Jacques Derrida brings up the double-bind of translation in his comment on 'the necessary and impossible task of translation, its necessity as impossibility', implying an inevitable alteration in translation.5 In Salman Rushdie's Shame the narrator then takes this inevitable alteration in translation to the subjective, cultural level: 'I, too am a translated man. I have been borne across. It is generally believed that something is always lost in translation; I cling to the notion [...] that something can also be gained.'6 This aspect of being borne across is significantly close to Homi K. Bhabha's metaphorical use of the term translation in a post-colonial world to signify 'the "inter"--the cutting edge of translation and renegotiation, the in-between space--that carries the burden of the meaning of culture.'7
In this article I will look at the ways in which Lahiri engages with the issue of translation--if not non-translation--of identity in her writings. My main attention will be on one of her stories, namely 'This Blessed House' from the Interpreter of Maladies, but I will also use other stories from the collection, as well as her novel The Namesake (2004), for illustration. I do not try to claim a universal applicability for my reading as I agree with Avtar Brah on the importance of perceiving the diversity of diasporic experiences.8 Rather, I try to consider Lahiri's text in its specific contextuality, keeping in mind the reservations concerning the determinability of a context, especially in the way Derrida has defined it: 'a context is never absolutely determinable.'9