In Other Words

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri; translated (from Italian) by Ann Goldstein
Publisher: Alfred.A.Knopf, non-fiction

Jhumpa Lahiri is a much feted novelist with a Pulitzer, the PEN/Hemingway and a string of other prizes to her credit. All of her highly regarded books have been written in English.

You might reasonably think, therefore, that a successful writer would continue to write in the language that has brought her success. Not so. For In Other Words is written in Italian and then translated into English, not by Lahiri herself but by Ann Goldstein.

The original Italian version sits on the left hand pages of this book, the translation on the right. This may be the strangest arrangement I have ever come across – a writer whose normal writing language is English choosing to write in Italian, and then having the Italian translated by somebody else.

So what’s this all about?

Lahiri herself traces it back to her childhood. Her family’s language is Bengali but Lahiri was born in London and raised in the United States. There, she was always regarded as Indian despite her mastery of English.

“Every so often, because of my name and my appearance, someone asks me why I choose to write in English rather than in my native language.”

str2_martinwordsR_cover_ma_1The resulting feeling was of exile, of being a stranger in a strange land. She writes, “I think that studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali. A rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path.”

The 48-year-old author has said she felt irresistibly drawn to Italian following a school trip to Florence in her teens and after writing a thesis on the influence of Italian architecture on English playwrights. And so, in 2012, she made the decision to move to Italy and immerse herself fully in the language, initially denying herself contact with English and reading only in Italian and then going further by writing exclusively in the language. In Other Words is the story of that process and of her thinking during it.

This is by its nature self-absorbed and self-regarding, particularly if you approach your learning as Lahiri does. Hers is learning by exercise and dictionary, not by social dialogue. Lahiri’s crucible is the study, not the exuberance of the Rome streets and the colour of Italian life.

The authorial tone is measured, solemn, deeply introspective. Whether or not you enjoy the book will depend to a large extent on whether you see this as self-indulgent and narcissistic or as a quiet, meditative exploration of a deeply human process: the acquisition of a language.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she is full of self doubt.

“At least a hundred times while I was writing the chapters of this book I felt so demoralised, so disheartened, that I would have liked to stop. In those dark moments my Italian writing seemed to me a mad undertaking, a slope too steep.”

I fear there will be a fair number of readers who will have this view as well. There is something almost wilfully perverse about mastering one language (English) to a level that makes you an internationally successful author only to turn your back on it and start all over again with another language entirely. Sadly, I am not in a position to pass any opinion on the quality of her writing in Italian. It would have been interesting to have a note on that somewhere in the book!

Lahiri’s decision to write in another language is not, of course, unique and she is well aware of the major precedents: Nabokov, Conrad, Beckett. But she separates herself from them: “What I’m doing – daring to write in Italian after living in Italy for barely a year – is different, out of the ordinary, and so I feel an even more intense solitude, almost another dimension of solitude. I wonder if there are others like me.”

By this time it is hard not to wonder whether this feeling of exile is not being deliberatively cultivated, whether Lahiri is actually in love with the idea of being the outsider.

So what of this book then? Lahiri herself is unsure.

“I’m insecure about it, a little embarrassed … I’m afraid it’s frivolous, even presumptuous. I don’t know if continuing to write in Italian is the right path. My Italian remains a work in progress, and I remain a foreigner. I came to Italy partly to know my characters better, my parents. I didn’t expect to become a foreigner as a writer too.”

In Other Words is certainly not frivolous. It is a penetrating exploration of what it means to undertake to learn another language by a totally immersive process. As such, I am sure it will take its place in that limited canon. But it is also a love story, a story of obsession even, and like most lovers Lahiri is self-absorbed to an often uncomfortable degree. This lyrical, meditative book is not without beauty but it is, at times, rather trying on the patience.