In Other Words is the fifth book by Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri. This 2016 publication (Vintage, 2016 – English translation) was translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. That’s right. Lahiri, who is a native English speaker, fell in love with Italian, learned to speak and write in Italian, then wrote In Other Words – which is about the life-altering experience – in Italian. Lahiri could have translated the work herself but for many reasons, which she catalogs in her book, she chose to use a translator.
In Other Words is a story about language, identity, and writing. It is also an autobiography of sorts. Perhaps one could call it a work of non-fiction that features the author as one major character and language as another. In Other Words is a fascinating book for anyone who loves languages and appreciates learning about how one’s language affects the process of writing.
Lahiri is a beautiful writer. Her writing manifests story like a gifted singer’s voice embodies song. On entering the story, the reader becomes happily enticed and wholeheartedly enmeshed in her prose. And there is plenty of insight as well. In an early chapter, Lahiri writes this as she begins to describe her journey into the Italian language:
“I think of two-faced Janus. Two faces that look at the past and the future at once. The ancient god of the threshold, of beginnings and endings. He represents a moment of transition. He watches over gates, over doors, a god who is only Roman, who protects the city. A remarkable image that I am about to meet everywhere.”
Lahiri does indeed encounter the spirit of Janus, metaphorically and in semi-actuality, in her pursuit of a new language. Among the author’s tales of the joys and predicaments involved in her quest to possess Italian, she recounts a story of her family’s move from the US to Italy during Rome’s mid-August holiday, a time when the entire city goes on vacation. In the process, her family practically meets itself coming and going when they lock themselves out of their apartment:
“There is no one in the building but us. We have no papers, are still without a functioning telephone, without any Roman friend or acquaintance. I ask for help at the hotel across the street from our building, but two Hotel employees can’t open the door, either. Our landlords are on vacation in Calabria. My children, upset, hungry, are crying, saying that they want to go back to America immediately.”
The traumatic moment passes, and the family begins their transition to living in the Eternal City. Janus has granted them entry.
One negative of In Other Words is the amount of time Lahiri gives to writing about her inner struggle with choosing Italian over English or Bengali — her parents language — as the language with which she identifies. I grew tired of Lahiri’s self-analysis about three-quarters of the way through but continued reading because this is not a long book. The book is designed so that the left-hand page contains the Italian by Lahiri. The right-hand page is Goldstein’s translation of Lahiri’s work, so though the total number of pages is in the book is 230, the English language portion is 115 pages.
The decision to read the book in its entirety paid off — to my way of thinking, anyway — because of Lahiri’s comments of the Hungarian writer Agota Kristof in the last section of the book. Kristof arrived in Switzerland as a refugee at the age of twenty-one and began learning French when she was twenty-six so that she could write to a receptive French audience. Despite the fact that Kristof’s motivation to learn French was far different from Lahiri’s inducement to be proficient in Italian, Kristof and Lahiri share some of the same struggles and insights about what it means to truly learn, speak and write in a language that is not one’s native tongue.
If you are intrigued by languages, curious about how language brings people together and can drive them apart; if you have wondered about the inscrutable process of learning a new language, how it works and what effect that it might have on your life if you were to choose a new language to inhabit; if you want to acquire some guidance for your writing life, this intriguing book by Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words, is meant for you.
I read In Other Words in a paperback edition, but it is available in e-book and audio formats, also. I think it would be fascinating to hear an audio version of the book because in the English translation there are numerous Italian words, and it would add a lot to hear them read aloud by someone who can speak Italian. Requesting an audio book version of In Other Words from your local public library is a good (read that as “free”) way to experience the audio production of Lahiri’s book.