‘In Other Words,’ a stranger in a strange language
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"In Other Words" is the story of the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri's decision to learn Italian — a language she only began to study as a college student — well enough to write in it. The book is, in fact, written in Italian and translated not by Lahiri but by Ann Goldstein into a smooth and natural English. It has been published in a bilingual edition with Lahiri's Italian text on one side and Goldstein's English on the facing page.
Obviously, the book's ideal reader is someone with enough Italian to evaluate the original. The questions that hang over the project are: How well has Lahiri succeeded? What kind of a writer is she in Italian? Unfortunately, I cannot answer this, but the Italian news magazine, L'Espresso, claims that to read the short story at the book's end "is to realize how close . . . she comes to perfection."
Even for the monolingual reader, though, the book has many charms. Written in a frank, unstudied style, it feels intimate, like a conversation in which the author is speaking directly to us. Lahiri writes intriguingly about her childhood, about her relationship to Bengali, her mother tongue, and to English, which she refers to as her stepmother. "I think that studying Italian," she writes, "is a flight from the long clash" between these two languages. "A rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path."
There are other intriguing revelations about Lahiri the writer: about her divided identity, her feelings of exile. But the core of the book — and the thing that makes it more than just a writer's memoir — is the scrupulous, detailed, almost obsessive chronicling of what it's like to learn a language as an adult.
What Lahiri has undertaken is an enormous challenge — even for someone who is already bilingual and knows Latin well enough to read Ovid. Languages are huge bodies of knowledge; there is not just the denotative meaning of the words, but their connotative meaning, their history, their echoes, what they suggest or imply, how they work. In this sense, "In Other Words'' is really a book for other writers.
Lahiri brilliantly captures the stages of language acquisition. The period when the ear is attuned to the sound of the language but before one actually knows any of the words. The struggle to make sense of a grammar that makes perfect sense to native speakers but is utterly illogical. The laboriousness, and the triumph, of reading a first book. The frustration of memorizing new words only to forget half of them.
Lahiri pushes herself much harder and farther than most language learners. At one point she writes, "I find that my project is so arduous that it seems sadistic." And one of the things I really admired about this book was the tremendous sense of effort that lay behind it.
Speaking, reading, these are hard enough, but Lahiri's goal is to write in Italian, and this raises a whole new set of problems. She cannot tell, at first, what makes a sentence good in Italian; she cannot evaluate her own work. "I remain, in Italian, an ignorant writer," which is a strange place for a writer to be. Why she is so interested "in this new relationship with imperfection"? The answer: "The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive."
I was so charmed by the idea of this project that the way some people have reacted to it took me by surprise. "When I say that my new book is written in Italian," Lahiri writes, "I am often regarded, mainly by other writers, with suspicion, almost with disapproval." Readers too were doubtful. "In the United States, some advise me not to do it. They say they don't want to read me translated from a foreign tongue." In Italy she is asked why she wants to write in a language that is much less widely read.
But, surely, this misses the point. At some level this book is not about the explorer; it is about the territory she has covered. Plenty of others have learned languages, even as adults, but not too many writers have undertaken to learn a language well enough to write in it. And fewer still — if, indeed, any — have left such a compelling record of what that was like.
IN OTHER WORDS
By Jhumpa Lahiri
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Christina Thompson is the editor of Harvard Review.