In Other Words is a book of connected essays published in two versions: one only in Italian and the other a side by side Italian English version translated by Ann Goldstein. This is the edition that a friend lent to me when she came to stay a couple of weeks ago and took away with her when she left last week.
You are probably familiar with Jhumpa Lahiri as a novelist, perhaps best known for The Namesake, which was made into a movie some years ago. This is certainly how I knew her. In Other Words is a love story but not what we normally expect from a love story. This is the book in which Lahiri ponders her love for the Italian language and explains how she moved to Italy to immerse herself in that language and her decision to write in Italian. So completely did she immerse herself that she chose not to translate her own book In altre parole but to have an experienced Italian to English translator do it.
Perhaps you can understand Lahiri’s fascination with and love for Italian. To Anglophone ears, Italian often sounds melodic, lilting, multisyllabic, fluid and emotional in contrast with the clipped, restrained syllables of “standard” English. I use the quotation marks intentionally, not wishing to digress into discussions of English accents and dialects, or whether North Americans speak English closer to the language of Shakespeare than do the English. From this, you can probably realise that I don’t speak Italian, well not to speak of. I can order a decaffeinato and get myself from place to place. But I cannot read Alberto Moravia in Italian. I cannot understand Italian television. This lack marginalises and silences me unless I am prepared to admit my otherness when in Italy and struggle with my tourist phrases and be grateful when I am addressed in English. I always feel a little guilty about not attempting the language of a country I’m visiting and profoundly grateful when others speak English. They are offering me something recognisable, regrounding me in something I know.
What they are also reminding me of, even if not intentionally, is difference. It is a truism to remark that “language is culture.” When we learn another language, we are, indeed, offered an entry even if only a slight one, into another way of experiencing the world. Imagine then the challenge of having to live permanently within something not one’s native culture. Imagine straddling two cultures. This is the experience of many migrants and particularly of the children of migrants. They live in one language at home and another outside. Very often, the children themselves become the bridge between the old and the new cultures for their parents.
This is Lahiri’s own experience with English, and she tells us, “For practically my whole life English has represented a consuming struggle, a wrenching conflict, a continuous sense of failure that is the source of almost all of my anxiety. It has represented a culture that had to be mastered, interpreted (165-167). Her experience with Italian is somewhat different, however. Italian is liberating: “Dissecting my linguistic metamorphosis, I realize that I’m trying to get away from something, to free myself” (165). She finds her struggles with the new language revitalising: “Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive” (113). Lahiri goes on to tell us that “In the beginning I wrote in order to conceal myself . . . . In this book I am the protagonist for the first time” (215-217).
The book, even as it outlines primarily Lahiri’s journey into and confrontations with Italian, also reveals insights into Lahiri’s evolution as a writer in English, her second language, of fiction. It is an intensely personal book. You won’t be able to use In Other Words as an introduction to Italy and Italian culture; its focus is Lahiri’s own personal relationship with Italian and her own anxieties about her relationship with English.
Of course, we might be tempted to wonder why she might experience these anxieties; after all, Lahiri is a writer of international repute and a Pulitzer prize winner. Surely such success breeds confidence? But perhaps it doesn’t. There is something so permanent about words whether spoken or written, and those who create art with words are, I suggest, even more aware of this permanence than others. Words, language; they are dangerous, risky. Words define the speaker and writer. What then are the implications of words spoken in an adopted language? I sensed in this book that possibly English is for Lahiri an adoption that was thrust upon her, even as it gave her the passport into another culture. Italian, being a language she chooses to adopt, a language she loves, gives her a different kind of strength, the confidence of choice.
The book ends with Lahiri preparing to return to the States. I wonder whether her next book will be in Italian or English. I am left with a sense that In Other Words is a confession in a rather older sense of the word than is common usage today. I am left with a sense of a woman who feels herself apart from where she lives even as she is a part of the larger world of letters. The words that resonate with me most from the book are her thoughts about belonging and not belonging:
“Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile” (133).