I 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.