Life in Translation
In Other Words
Translated by Ann Goldstein
In Other Words marks a fundamental shift in Jhumpa Lahiri’s career. The memoir is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s first nonfiction book—and her first published work since her decision to read and write exclusively in Italian. She became enamored of the language during a visit to Florence in 1994: “What I feel is something physical, inexplicable,” Lahiri recalls of her early encounter with Italian. “It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.” Infatuation led to a momentous move. After years of taking Italian language classes in the U.S., Lahiri relocated to Rome with her husband and children in 2012, yearning for total immersion in the language and culture. Lahiri’s commitment to Italian is so complete that the memoir was written in Italian and translated into English by Ann Goldstein, best known for her excellent renderings of Elena Ferrante’s books. In Other Words chronicles Lahiri’s bold linguistic transformation and the personal and creative renewal that followed.
Lahiri grew up speaking two languages—Bengali, the language of her parents, and English, the language required for school in the U.S. and, until now, her literary career. In her memoir, she describes the tension between her “mother tongue,” Bengali, and what she calls her “stepmother” tongue, English. Lahiri felt that she inhabited a “void” between the two languages, which became prohibitive to her writing and sense of self. While Lahiri never explicitly identifies her lingual project as politically inspired, she does describe working in Italian as her “rebellion.” She remarks that her mother undertook an opposite “rebellion” upon moving to the United States: she refused to modify her habits in an effort to maintain her Bengali identity. What mother and daughter have in common is the desire to create and maintain a cohesive sense of self. For Lahiri, language is crucial to this endeavor. She writes, “Just as a word can have many dimensions, many nuances, great complexity, so, too, can a person, a life. Language is the mirror, the principal metaphor. Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable.” In the book’s most compelling section, Lahiri describes writing in Italian as “a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali. […] an independent path.” This is a potentially radical proposition: abandon the languages that constrain you, and start fresh.
In Other Words shares many of the themes of Lahiri’s fiction work: alienation, uprooting, and assimilating, the difficulties of adapting to a new culture. In a New York Review of Books piece on Lahiri’s short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies (as well as Amit Chaudhuri’s A New World and Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient Father), Hilary Mantel expertly described these themes as the “elastic space between [Lahiri’s] characters [. . .] necessary to the kind of fiction that involves readers and touches their hearts.” Unfortunately, these themes yield fewer moments of “elastic space” in Lahiri’s memoir than in her fiction. When they do appear, Lahiri sometimes fills the space with clichéd metaphors, and the results are disappointing. In the opening pages of the book, she compares learning Italian to crossing a lake, where one can remain “always hugging [the] shore” or can resolve to “leave the shore. Without a life vest.” Though Lahiri expresses the metaphor in a poetic way, it still feels stale. A similar issue arises when she compares protecting her newly learned Italian to coddling an infant: “I want to protect my Italian, which I hold in my arms like a newborn.” When she writes in Italian, she feels “ignorant” and “in disguise, [. . .] like a child who sneaks into her mother’s closet to try on the high-heeled shoes, an evening dress, some jewelry, a fur coat.” These moments in the text are passing, but occur often enough to make the reader miss the specificity of description in Lahiri’s fiction. One could argue that working in a new language might lead to a reliance on clichés. However, the problem seems more closely tied to the memoir form than to a language barrier. It is as if we are offered these clichés under the guise of intimacy.
The tenor of Lahiri’s writing shifts in two short stories—the first stories Lahiri wrote in Italian—which are included in the memoir. “The Exchange,” a piece Lahiri calls autobiographical, begins, “There was a woman, a translator, who wanted to be another person. There was no precise reason. It had always been that way.” Something in the second and third sentences feels particularly moving and true. “It had always been that way” may sound reductive, but is this not how we experience aspects of ourselves that we take for granted? The story continues, “She wanted to produce another version of herself, in the same way that she could transform a text from one language to another. At times she had the impulse to remove her presence from the earth, as if it were a thread on the hem of a nice dress, to be cut off with a pair of scissors.” Here, the simile is original and evocative. The translator goes to a clothing store and, in the process of trying on several items, loses the black sweater she was wearing that day. Eventually, the shopkeeper finds a sweater, though the translator knows that the sweater is not in fact her own. The shopkeeper insists, and the translator takes the new sweater home and the next day finds that it was, after all, hers, but changed and preferable to the old one. Lahiri writes of the story in her memoir, “I don’t know what to think about it. […] I’m sure of only one thing: I would never have written it in English.” She refers to it as a “strange story,” in which the sweater signifies language. The tale is odd, but also, with its sparse prose, enchanting. It has a fable-like quality that distinguishes it as one of the triumphs within In Other Words.
“I have an ambivalent relationship with this book, and probably always will,” Lahiri writes in the memoir’s afterword. It is both a brave and self-protective admission. Lahiri anticipates the charges she might face from critics, and to a degree that criticism will be warranted. However, what is most impressive about In Other Words is Lahiri’s commitment to change. In the memoir, we find that Lahiri is an author who understands that the best writing does not only change characters on the page, but affects the writer and the reader. Lahiri writes, “What are we searching for when we read a novel, see a film, listen to a piece of music? We are searching, through a work of art, for something that alters us, that we weren’t aware of before.” Perhaps it is those altering revelations—the ones that move us beyond the comfort of the known—that bring us closer to a cohesive sense of self.
HILARY REID writes fiction, reviews, and criticism. Reid works for the publishing imprint of the New York Review of Books and lives in Brooklyn.