In Other Words | Sunday Observer

In Other Words

4 October, 2020

There were a few writers in world literature, who had chosen foreign languages to write fiction, some of them are Milan Kundera who chose French instead of Czech, Vladimir Nabokov who selected English instead of Russian and Joseph Conrad who opted for English instead of Polish. However, Jhumpa Lahiri, an American – Indian writer may be the first to choose Italian which has much less readers than English, to express herself. Italian is Jhumpa’s third language. Her formative language is Bengali, and when her family moved to the United States, she started to use English. She produced many acclaimed fiction works in English, namely Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowland. Her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, a short story collection won the Pulitzer Prize, America’s most prestigious literary award. However, when twenty years back she started to write her Ph.D. thesis on how Italian architecture influenced English playwrights of the seventeenth century, she began a love affair with the Italian language, and finally embarked on writing in Italian. In Other Words, an English translation of her first book in Italian, In Altre Parole.

In this book, Lahiri describes how she started to write in Italian, the obstacles she faced then and what it means to her writing in Italian and all this is encapsulated in the title of the book In Altre Parole. There are twenty four chapters including two short stories and an afterword in this book, and it begins with a short story which is an allegory, titled The Crossing. In that story, she likens language learning for crossing a lake. The ending of that allegory sums up the story:

“For twenty years I studied Italian as if I were swimming alone the edge of that lake. Always next to my dominant language, English. Always hugging that shore. It was good exercise. Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting. If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown.

The other language is always there to support you, to save you. But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking. To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground. (Page 5)

Jhumpa Lahiri says that if someone wants to learn a new language he or she has to immerse in that language without depending on anyone or anything. The second chapter, titled The Dictionary describes the use of a dictionary as a learning tool. Here, she refers to an incident in which she asks from a friend whether an electronic Italian dictionary, like a cell phone app, would be useful, for looking up a word at any moment while she lives in Rome. The friend laughing within himself replies, “Soon you’ll be living inside an Italian dictionary.” Jhumpa realises the value of that advice when she lives in Italy. However, she says a dictionary is very useful for reading other books.

In the third chapter of the book, Love at First Sight she refers to a situation where she was offered a trip to Italy. It was a present given to Jhumpa and her sister and the base of all of Jhumpa’s pursuing of Italian. There she describes, “I don’t have real need to know this language. I don’t live in Italy, I don’t have Italian friends. I have only the desire. Yet, ultimately a desire is nothing but a crazy need. As in many passionate relationships, my infatuation will become a devotion, an obsession. There will always be something unbalanced, unrequited. I’m in love, but what I love remains indifferent. The language will never need me.” (Page 17)

Jhumpa reveals the first step for learning a new language is to love with it, albeit a difficult challenge. In the fourth chapter she says, “Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it’s tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy, and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.” (Page 21)

She says learning a new language is somewhat of a linguistic exile:

“… My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.

“In my case there is another distance, another schism. I don’t know Bengali perfectly. I don’t know how to read it, or even write. I have an accent, I speak without authority, and so I’ve always perceived a disjunction between it and me. As a result I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language too.” (Page 21-22)

However, it was not too difficult for her to learn Italian. According to her, she is a writer herself and therefore, she is not limited to one language. In the following chapters, she describes the self-learning process of Italian, learning with a teacher, conversations in Italian, experiences in Italy, reading with a dictionary, gathering words, diary writing, short story writing in Italian, impossibilities of language learning, imperfectness in knowing Italian and the challenges of a new language among others.

In some of the chapters, she elaborates on very important observations on language learning:

“When you’re in love, you want to live forever. You want the emotion, the excitement you feel to last. Reading in Italian arouses a similar longing in me. I don’t want to die, because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language. Because every day there will be a new word to learn. Thus true love can represent eternity.” (page 45)

“Ever since I was a child, I’ve belonged only to my words. I don’t have a country, a specific culture. If I didn’t write, if I didn’t work with words, I wouldn’t feel that I’m present on the earth.” (Page 84)

“I’m a writer: I identify myself completely with language, I work with it. And yet the wall keeps me at a distance, separates me. The wall is inevitable. It surrounds me wherever I go, so that I wonder if perhaps the wall is me.

“I write in order to break down the wall, to express myself in a pure way. When I write, my appearance, my name have nothing to do with it. I am heard without being seen, without prejudices, without a filter. I am invisible. I become my words, and the words become me.” (Page 133)

“Bengali is my past, Italian, may be, a new road into the future. My first language is my origin, the last the goal. In both I feel like a child, a little clumsy.” (Page 143)

It is interesting to note that the book was translated not by Jhumpa Lahiri who is such a master in English, but by another translator who also translated some of the works of Primo Levi, Elena Ferrante. Jhumpa answers the question that if she translated it, she couldn’t protect her Italian language, because “Returning to English was disorienting, frustrating, also discouraging.” She says that if she did that work, “the temptation would have been to improve it, to make it stronger by means of my stronger language.”

The book ends with an insightful thought:

“Thanks to this writing project I hope that a piece of me can remain in Italy, and that consoles me, even though I hope that every book in the world belongs to everyone, or to no one, nowhere.” (Page 203)