I have been reading ‘In Other Words’ by Jhumpa Lahiri for Women in Translation Month hosted by Biblibio for the third year running. I enjoyed Lahiri’s short stories and novels which mostly focus on themes based around the experience of Bengali immigrants living on the east coast of the United States so I was intrigued that she had recently written a non-fiction book in Italian about her experiences of learning the language with Ann Goldstein’s translation into English on the opposite page.
The dual language format of the book will particularly interest those who are fluent in both Italian and English. However, even as a non-Italian speaker, I often looked at the Italian pages as well as the English ones and it feels appropriate to have the text presented in both languages given the subject matter. Goldstein’s translation reveals that Lahiri’s prose in Italian appears to be as tightly controlled as her prose in English, particularly in the two short stories included as interludes in the text.
Despite travelling to Italy on several occasions before moving to Rome with her family in 2012, there is very little in this book about Lahiri’s attempts to immerse herself in Italian culture outside her apartment whilst trying to improve her language skills. From what she has written here, she appears to have led a somewhat monastic existence, vowing to read and write solely in Italian as she diligently memorises vocabulary lists and battles with complex conjugations (perhaps this is why she looks so bored on the cover of the book). Having studied French to undergraduate level, I know from experience that learning a foreign language can involve a lot of repetitive tedium and self-doubt – something which Lahiri conveys well here – but the way in which she regularly castigates herself for making mistakes and lacking “true mastery” of the language can be frustrating to read at times. There were many points when I really wanted Lahiri to give herself a break from her grammar exercises and venture outside through the streets of Rome or at least watch some crappy Italian gameshows on TV for a little light relief.
Lahiri focuses almost exclusively on her experiences of reading and writing the Italian language rather than listening to and speaking it. Clearly, she didn’t write this book specifically to encourage potential linguists and instead, it is a much more personal and reflective account about her relationship with language, translation and writing. Lahiri’s reasons for undertaking this challenge become clearer towards the end of the book and are completely understandable given her conflicted feelings about her cultural identity and career path as she states that “studying Italian is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali” (p.153).
‘In Other Words’ is a thoughtfully written and sincere account of how learning a new language can present both new opportunities and barriers and I am intrigued to see what direction Lahiri will take next in her career. However, her passion for learning Italian would be more convincing if her tone wasn’t quite so restrained and lacking in humour or adventure.