In Other Words
In her travel memoir In Other Words Jhumpa Lahiri explores how and why she, a highly acclaimed, prize winning fiction writer in English chose to leave the United States, move to Italy with her family, speak, read, and write exclusively in Italian, and publish her first full-length nonfiction work in Italian, which she has someone else translate. Her courageous work addresses these questions and is a fascinating, absorbing mediation on language, writing, and identity.
The perfectly titled In Other Words, presented in a dual-language format (Italian and English), is an autobiography/memoir, travel book, and philosophical text. Lahiri traces, somewhat chronologically, how she fell in love with Italy and the Italian language and decided to immerse herself in the language by reading, speaking, and writing exclusively in Italian.
In her introduction and throughout her text Lahiri addresses the question of why, she, an accomplished writer in English, did not translate her own work from Italian. She explains that had she translated this book, ”the temptation would have been to improve it, to make it stronger by means of my stronger language. But I wanted the translation of In altre parole to render my Italian honestly, without smoothing out its rough edges, without neutralizing its oddness, without manipulating its character.”
The writing in In Other Words, translated by Ann Goldstein, is anything but odd or graceless. Lahiri’s prose is clear and engaging. She uses metaphorical language and colorful details. Since In Other Words is nonfiction and most of Lahiri’s writing in English is fiction, it is difficult to compare her writing in different genres.
Lahiri includes two short stories she wrote in Italian within the text of In Other Words. The stories, “The Exchange” and “Half-Light,” are quite different from her fiction written in English. Both stories are fables of sorts. The characters are nameless and function as metaphors. The writing in the two stories is a bit stilted, but nonetheless interesting and occasionally lyrical.
Throughout In Other Words Lahiri has a tendency to repeat herself in slightly different ways as if she is trying to get it right in Italian. For instance, she uses the metaphors of swimming across a lake, then an ocean, and navigating the city of Venice as ways to illustrate learning Italian.
Lahiri’s explanation of language in relation to her identity is powerful and compelling. Her mother tongue, truly that of her mother, is Bengali, which she spoke at home. Lahiri was raised and educated in the United States where she spoke, read, and wrote in English. English became her adoptive mother tongue. As a young adult, Lahiri then started learning Italian. She writes: “In a sense I’m used to a kind of inguistic exile.”
Above all, In Other Words is a love story involving the Italian language. Lahiri reflects that as a young adult when she first traveled to Italy she “felt something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.” Lahiri’s passion and talent for language, literature, and writing, as well as her bravery in taking on a new language are beautifully illustrated in her impressive work, In Other Words.