Tuesday, August 29, 2017

In Other Words

In Other Words / Jhumpa Lahiri; translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein.
New York: Vintage, c2016.
233 p.

This is a collection of small essays written by Lahiri, in Italian. They are about her fascination with the Italian language, and her attempts to live and write in Italian; her idea that language is meaningful to thought and expression in a very visceral way.

The book is small and beautifully made, with Italian on the left and English on the right. Although she could have translated it herself, she chose to use translator Ann Goldstein (who has also translated Ferrante) instead -- in the opening lines she says that translating it herself would have been difficult, she'd have wanted to rewrite instead of translate, smooth out the language and elaborate in her more native language. And this theme carries through the essays.

She talks about the longing to understand, the difficulties of grasping a new language in all its intricate and deep shadings. She became so obsessed with Italian that she and her family moved to Rome in 2012, where she spent three years living completely in Italian. And began writing these pieces, in Italian, about her sense of belonging - or not - when living neither in English nor Bengali, her first languages. 

She says, "I have to start again from the beginning, as if I had never written anything in my life. But, to be precise, I am not at the starting point: rather, I’m in another dimension, where I have no references, no armor. Where I’ve never felt so stupid.”

And these essays are not as gloriously literary as her work in English; they are more hesitant, with references to the actual putting together of words and sentences. But they are remarkably fascinating, a self-reflective study of language's role in identity, creativity, perception of the world as a whole. 

This is a slow paced and thoughtful examination of her own obsession with Italian, and what it means to her way of life. Some pieces are a little more interesting than others, to my personal taste, but the book has a theme that is expounded on in different ways, which each essay supports. 

As a book to read during a month which celebrates women in translation, it is perfect. The ideas of language itself and how you are situated within a language and a culture are powerful to ponder no matter which language you are reading in, or living in. This is a quiet book, a stone thrown into a quiet mind, which causes ripples that grow and grow upon reflection.

This was a find. I really enjoyed it, and was challenged by it. 


  1. I enjoyed this book too. The individual pieces are thoughtful, yes, and occasionally awkward, but then I kept reminding myself of what she'd done: become functionally fluent (and more) in another language, something I've hoped to do (without any results). And the awkwardness is part of the book's charm -- a little like Conrad, whose diction is sometimes a little, well, off, but in the grandest possible way.

    1. Yes, I think that is it - it has charm, and earnest effort to recommend it. Since I can only speak English fluently, and French not even half as well as she speaks Italian, I do admire her.

  2. Starting at the beginning can be difficult and challenging, in many areas! Terrific, thoughtful review, as usual.

    1. Yes, to start something so intensive in midlife, well, I can't even imagine doing it. She really went all out to follow her passion for the Italian language.


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