In 1994, Jhumpa Lahiri was a college student in Boston studying Renaissance architecture. She and her sister decided to treat themselves to a trip to Florence, Italy during Christmas break. She writes of the experience:
What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instantaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction. It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the same time, completely external. It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is. It seems, strangely, familiar. I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.
That feeling never left, and throughout the following years, she tried her best to become fluent in Italian. As anyone who has tried to achieve fluency knows, that’s almost impossible without full immersion — and even then, achieving true fluency in another language gets more difficult as one gets older. So in 2012, Lahiri took a yearlong leave from her teaching duties in the United States and moved to Rome with her family, determined to finally become fluent. She read books in Italian at a painstakingly slow pace, stopping constantly to look words up in the dictionary, and in her journal, she jotted down her thoughts in Italian as well.
In Other Words charts a journey that, as the child of Indian immigrants, she feels she’s been preparing for all her life. She was forced to learn English as a child in a new country, and she often translated for her parents, who only spoke Bengali. Then, as she became more assimilated to American culture, it was Bengali culture that started to feel foreign; she was always caught in between.
Italian, however, was something she chose for herself, and she desperately wanted to become fluent, but she was constantly aware of her outsider status. She writes about trying to make small talk in stores to practice her Italian, but since she’s South Asian, everyone mistakes her for a tourist and automatically speaks to her in English. When she has to briefly return to the United States for work, she feels exiled from Italian; it is now English that feels foreign. However, when she returns to Italy and is once again surrounded by the language, she still feels that outsider status:
Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.
What I love most about the book is the way she writes about the process of learning. It’s a constant battle. Ultimately, she wrote the book in Italian; it was published in Italy last year and was translated into English. In the American edition, the English translation is at the beginning of the book, and the original Italian text is at the back. Even with both versions included, it’s a slim book.
As an acclaimed American writer, Lahiri is an intellectual; her books are thoughtful and eloquent, the storylines often complex. She doesn’t have that same arsenal of vocabulary and complexity in Italian. She wants to, but she’s often limited to spare prose; it’s not as simple as thinking of something in English and translating it to Italian. To write in Italian, she has to think and live in Italian, and that comes with all kinds of language barriers. Since she’s been reading Italian books from different eras, her vocabulary is also a bit strange and outdated; it’s not incorrect, but it’s not completely modern, either.
The final product is a stark departure from Lahiri’s English books, but the introspective, elegant quality I love about her other works is still there. It will be interesting to see whether she continues to write in Italian, and if she does, how that will change who she is as a writer. If you’re a fan of hers — or even if you’re just a language geek — you should check it out.
In Other Words was released in February 2016 by Knopf.