In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated by Anne Goldstein): A passion for language

Cover imageI was more than a little surprised to be sent a new Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m pretty up and together on my ‘Books to Look Out For’ previews and I’d seen nothing in the fiction schedules. Then I spotted that it had been translated which discombobulated me further. Reading the press release I found that In Other Words is the product of Lahiri’s passion for the Italian language, a passion so great that she uprooted her family from the States to live in Rome for a year to immerse herself in it. Her book is a set of essays – intimate reflections on learning the language – presented as a parallel text: one page in Italian written by Lahiri; the facing page in English translated by Anne Goldstein. There are also two short stories.

Lahiri begins with her struggles to learn Italian in the States after her first trip to Florence with her sister back in 1994. It’s a frustrating experience, and even more so when she finds that when she returns to Italy years later as a successful writer she can understand all that’s said to her but is unable to be understood herself. Eventually, the teacher with whom she’s had most success tells her the only way to achieve what she wants is to live in Italy. Six months before leaving she decides to read nothing but Italian finding it a liberation: ‘Reading in another language implies a perpetual state of growth, of possibility’. Writing, however is a different matter: ‘When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest, a traveller… …When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter’. Throughout this set of essays, Lahiri reflects on her relationship with language and the way in which each of her three languages affects her identity. Born in America, her ‘mother tongue’ is Bengali, the first language she spoke and continued to speak until starting school; her ‘stepmother tongue’ is English and the one she feels most comfortable in. As she says in her Afterword, this is her first work of non-fiction but the themes remain the same as in her fiction: it’s about ‘identity, alienation, belonging’.

Lahiri fans may be wondering if this is a book for them and I think that depends on your own relationship with language. I’ve been interested in words since learning Latin at school and discovering its relationship with English hence my enjoyment of the book, although I did find some of the essays covered the same ground. Lahiri’s writing is often intimate, introspective and always eloquent, a vivid description of the process of learning a language and our relationship with our different ways of communication. At one point she finds she has an extensive vocabulary, much of it outdated as if she’s ‘dressed in an outlandish manner, wearing a long, elegant skirt of another era, a T-shirt, a straw hat and slippers’ – beautifully translated by Goldstein, of course,  At times I was reminded of Eva Hoffman’s brilliant autobiography Lost in Translation in which she writes about the loss of her native language after emigrating to Canada at the age of thirteen and the long slow process of trying to find her way back to the nuance and intimacy with which she expressed herself in Polish. In her Afterword, Lahiri describes herself as being at a crossroads, facing her departure from Rome and unable to decide if she will continue to read and write only in Italian. That seems to me to be quite a challenge outside of Italy but it will be interesting to see which road she takes.

19 thoughts on “In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated by Anne Goldstein): A passion for language”

  1. I saw this was slated by the NYT but it sounds interesting to me, as I’ve always felt in-between languages and wonder just how much one language influenced the other. I can imagine, though, that it wasn’t easy to write, hence perhaps the occasional clunkiness.

    1. I think it works if you’re interested in language and the way it effects the richness of expression. I didn’t see the NYT piece but the essays do cover the same ground which I found a little irritating. I found the idea of uprooting your entire family because of a passion for a particular language quite amazing.

  2. This does ring a bell with me (albeit a vague one), so I wonder whether any of the essays were published online at some point. Either way, it does sound interesting, especially as it taps into the familiar themes of identity and belonging.

    1. They were published in the Internazionale, originally, Jacqui. I thought the most interesting ones were on her relationship with the three languages she speaks and how that meshes with identity, always a fascinating topic for me.

  3. I admire anyone who is able to learn multiple languages (not my strong suit), but what this review really had me wondering is what would I do if I were able to pick up my family and immerse myself in something for a year. So many possibilities… 🙂

    1. I know, I was amazed by that. No mention of her husband’s reaction, either. Given my own interest in language you’d think I might by something of a linguist, but like you, it’s not something at which I excel. I remember looking on in admiration at a dinner many years ago with my partner’s stepsister, her German friends and Italian boyfriend during which she slipped from English to German to Italian, seemingly effortlessly.

      1. Isn’t it amazing? My husband’s brother is married to a woman from Italy and they live in Montreal. Their children, who are both under the age of 7, can speak English, French and Italian, slipping easily from one to the other depending on who they are talking to. It amazes me!

        1. That’s wonderful. I’m sure it’s the very best way to learn. My partner’s oldest friend is married to a Spanish woman and lives in Spain – their teenage daughter sounds as if she was brought up in the UK when she speaks English. He’s half-Danish so she’s a true Euro-child!

  4. One of the weekend papers slated this as well, so it seems the critics haven’t taken to it at all. As a real Lahiri fane, particularly, and surprisingly for me, of her short stories, I’m glad to see a more positive response to the work. I don’t think I shall read it but I hate to see a favourite author being as badly panned as she was over this.

    1. I tend to avoid reviews until I’ve written my own, Alex, but will look them out now. I’m not sure I would have read the book if I hadn’t been sent it but I thought it was an interesting idea. I think you’d have to be attracted by the idea of language and what it means to our identities to enjoy it.

  5. I received my copy yesterday and am so excited to read it. I love Lahiri and found her passion for learning Italian to be fascinating. I can’t wait to read this new book. Sounds like you enjoyed it quite a bit 🙂

    1. I did, Nadia, although I gather from others that the press has had a go at it. I think it will appeal to those who have a fascination with language and the way that our familiarity with it influences the people we are. I hope you enjoy it, too.

  6. I think I read an excerpt of this in the New Yorker – wherever I read it, I found it fascinating. I’ve studied Italian in the past but have not kept up, plan to get back to it, so I was intrigued by her love of the language. Looking forward to reading the entire book. I find it refreshing just to study Italian, and for some reason it stimulates my writing when I’m feeling blocked or stale. I’m amazed if she is considering only writing in Italian now.

    1. Oh, this will be a great book for you, Valorie. You’ll be able to compare Lahiri’s Italian with Goldstein’s translation in the way I couldn’t. Perhaps it will spur you on to take up Italian again.

  7. Thank you so much for reviewing this book, which sounds very interesting to me. I am already a Lahiri fan, and I also love languages (like you, I studied Latin at school, and I did French too). I lived in Italy myself for five years and so I know all about the seductiveness of that beautiful language. Her desire to immerse herself completely in it, and above all to write in it, is one I identify with, though I’d never feel confident about writing for publication in either of my second languages , Italian and French, even though I’m fairly fluent in both. Writing emails to friends is one thing, writing for publication quite another! Amazing indeed if she really plans to continue writing in Italian. Part of the whole story is obviously her relationship with English, different from that of someone like, eg, me who grew up a native speaker in England. I was fascinated by how speaking in Italian or French made me feel like a bit of a different person; then living for years in USA, I found I missed my own brand of English, and the way the language is used in the UK, more and more (while there’s nothing wrong with US English, of course; it just isn’t “mine.” ) So while she is journeying into another language, I am coming home to my own…Really glad to see your take on this book.

    1. Thanks for such an illuminating comment, Christine. I was first struck by the strong links between language and identity when I read Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, as I mentioned in the review. Given your own experiences I think you might find that interesting, too. The Lahiri sounds right up your street – you’d have the advantage of comparing her Italian text with Anne Goldstein’s translation. Not possible for me, I’m sorry to say.

  8. I received this one as well, but set it aside so I am very glad you reviewed it! I am going to Florence this summer so think that may qualify me as someone who would find it the right reading at the right time. Looking forward to it!

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