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Book review: In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri’s chronicle of learning Italian, is a work of remarkable diligence

A collection of essays written in Italian and then translated to English, the book captures the process of learning a new language.

Author Jhumpa Lahiri.
Author Jhumpa Lahiri.
Liana Miuccio

In 1937, shortly after relocating permanently to Paris, Samuel Beckett wrote to his friend Axel Kaun.

"It is becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write in an official English," Beckett wrote, "More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things … behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask."

Book cover of In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri. Knopf

The next year, Beckett would begin writing poetry in French. The year after that, he began translating his old work into the new language. In 1949, he produced a play, En attendant Godot. And while he would eventually translate that play back into his native language, the exercise stuck. After Godot, Beckett produced new work in French as often as English. He did not, perhaps, succeed in writing "without style," but the effect of his experiment was at least a superior one.

It is unusual, for obvious reasons, for authors who have attained mastery in one language to begin writing in another. The language they become famous in may not be their first. (English was Joseph Conrad’s fourth language, acquired in adulthood, but he never produced a novel in Polish.) Writers who undertake to learn a new language tend to write about it in English: Lately, Ta-Nehisi Coates has decamped to Paris, but his writing, produced there, has still thus far concerned the United States. He is not immersing himself completely, writing in French and translating himself back for the benefit of his American audience.

But Jhumpa Lahiri, whose 1999 debut short story collection Interpreter of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, has gone even further than Beckett. After four books in English (the last of which, The Lowland, was published in 2012), she moved to Rome. There, she produced In Altre Parole — a book in Italian, about learning Italian. Published in January 2015, it won the Premio Internazionale Viareggio-Versilia.



This month, the English-speaking world finally received the translation of that work: In Other Words, a book that cannot quite be called a straight translation. English appears on opposite pages, across from the original text, and in reading the two together (even haltingly, as I did, making sense of the Italian from a knowledge of Spanish and the aid of an online dictionary), one finds a work that's both closer to Lahiri’s original intentions and altogether different, a dialogue beyond what a simple reproduction in English would have managed.

Lahiri did not do the translation herself. "[Writing in Italian] requires a strict discipline that I am compelled, at the moment, to maintain," she says in the introduction, her first formal English writing in four years. "Translating the book myself would have broken that discipline."

In Other Words page layout

It would also have defeated the purpose of the exercise. "Beckett said that writing in French allowed him to write without style," Lahiri notes in one chapter, and she agrees, to a point. But "the problem isn’t the absence of style but perhaps an excess. … What I lack in Italian is a sharp vision … I can’t grasp it. … If I happen to formulate a good sentence in Italian I can’t understand exactly why it’s good."

It is a theme Lahiri returns to over and over. "I can skirt the boundary of Italian, but the interior of the language escapes me," she says. "I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures. A peripheral zone where it’s impossible for me to feel rooted."

That periphery is what In Other Words is about.

Lahiri artfully describes feeling alienated from all languages — including her supposed native tongue

The periphery does not begin with Italian. Lahiri is not, by her own account, a native of any language. She learned Bengali first, from her parents, but her grasp on it remains tenuous: She speaks with an accent and does not write in it. It was in conflict, always, with English, which Lahiri acquired as a child. "Those two languages of mine didn’t get along. They were incompatible adversaries, intolerant of each other. I thought they had nothing in common except me, so that I felt like a contradiction in terms of myself." Italian, in her account, forms a triangle, a more manageable shape. But it does not make her any more at home.

The conflict between her languages continues on into adulthood, some of it within herself and some of it outside. "The wall," she says, exists between her and any language. It is manifest in the English speakers who see her as a foreigner (What the fuck is your problem, can’t speak English? a man yells at her in New York) and the Italians who do the same:

When I continue to speak in Italian, they ask me: How is it that you speak Italian so well? and I have to provide an explanation, I have to say why. The fact that I speak Italian seems to them unusual. … Don’t touch our language, some Italians seem to say to me, It doesn’t belong to you.

I can’t avoid the wall even in India, in Calcutta, in the city of my so-called mother tongue … almost everyone thinks that, because I was born and grew up outside India, I speak only English.

No one, anywhere, assumes that I speak the languages that are a part of me.

I note this because In Other Words is not a book about a native of one language attempting to learn another. Rather, it is about an author who confesses some degree of alienation from every language, as she turns her attention to a new one. The distance between Lahiri and Italian is not newly alien, only a new alien, more alien than the languages she began to learn when she was a child. It is another periphery to occupy.

But for a person who does not feel at home in any language, who is made to feel apart from all of them, she is a remarkable writer, more accomplished than most natives of any tongue could hope to be.

Her devotion is admirable, and her Italian writings evolve impressively as her fluency improves

In Other Words is largely a series of short essays, what Lahiri calls reflections. Most of them, especially in the first half of the book, are quite literally about Lahiri’s efforts to learn Italian. She takes classes in Brooklyn. She is interviewed without translation in the Italian press. She recounts an early incident when she is unable to enter her own apartment in Rome, desperately seeking help from locals. She begins to keep an Italian diary, a notebook of Italian phrases, to speak exclusively in Italian.

The reflections vary in the interest they command. Some offer remarkably fluid commentary on what it is like to learn a language ("Gathering Words"). Some are beautifully expository, aesthetic triumphs in their own right ("The Scaffolding"). A few veer toward the tedious ("Imperfect," a chapter devoted to her difficulties with that tense, as well as Italian prepositions, accompanied by an atypically clumsy parallel: Lahiri, like the tense, is imperfect). Yet none feel unnecessary or indulgent.

All of them are short. In the book's weakest parts, this is a mercy (how long could I have read about a particular struggle with prepositions?), but more often it is the disappointment of good art: Two of Lahiri's "reflections" are in fact short stories written in Italian ("The Exchange," "Half-Light"), and I left them wanting more, wanting a whole collection of her Italian fiction.

In Other Words is a work of remarkable diligence. Lahiri’s command of Italian grows palpably; over time, the reflections grow more capable of abstraction and tangent than their tightly focused forerunners. The voice, at first the kind of detached simplified narration native to folk parables, becomes confident and nuanced. By the end, she can produce images, visions of rooms and alleyways, that would constitute literary accomplishment even for an author writing in her native tongue.

The protagonist seeks to learn Italian. She does. It’s little surprise: Her studies, described within, are a monument to diligence in their own right. Thousands of words and phrases, drawn from books and saved. Relentless practice, in writing and speaking. An exacting process: "After I finish a book I return to the text and diligently check the words. I sit on the sofa, with the book, the notebook, some dictionaries, a pen strewn around me. This task of mine, which is both obsessive and relaxing, takes time."

Lahiri isn't fundamentally learning to speak or read — she's learning to write, all over again

Lahiri is an author, and inevitably a book about learning a language is a book about writing in it, a book about writing, full stop. Why speak Italian? drives the bulk of In Other Words; How did you come to speak Italian? drives most the rest. But the final third of the book is more particular, and the best part. You are a champion of English prose. You have won the O. Henry Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Humanities Medal. Why write in Italian?

Lahiri offers several theories of her own ambition, and many will be familiar to those who have heard authors answer, Why do you write? Why does Lahiri write? To be alone. To make sense of the world. To make sense of herself, her feelings, to stake out her relationship with language. As a surer route to permanence than sound or flesh. Why do I write? "To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside me."

She writes in Italian in order to make sense of her relationship with Italian. "What passes without being put into words, without being transformed, and, in a certain sense, purified by the crucible of writing, has no meaning for me," Lahiri writes. She wants to prove something, yes, but more basically she wants to make the relationship with Italian real, too, to make it real at all, in the way she is accustomed to making reality.

"Language is the mirror," Lahiri says, "the principal metaphor. Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable."

Maybe so. But if language is the principal metaphor for life, what is the metaphor for language? It depends on the page. In many places, In Order Words is not so much a direct investigation of language, but a sampling of figurative means by which to talk about language. Language is a small lake, a deep lake, a lover, an exotic land. It is a black sweater, internal organs, children and motherhood. It is a garden, a mountain, a forest, a dream, a dialogue between the topographical features of Venice. It is Hadrian’s villa and a sliver of sky.

The first time I assembled that list, I wrote "or" between each item, but that is not quite right. Each metaphor finds its own discrete uses. They are another way In Other Words is about the periphery. Lahiri says she will never be at the heart of Italian. She will never know it as a native does — even if she can write an award-winning book in the language, she will remain outside of it.

"I don’t have a vocabulary that has been experienced, seasoned since childhood. I can’t examine Italian with the same precision [a natively Italian writer can]. I can’t evaluate an Italian text, not even one written by me, from the same perspective. Yet the impulse to track down the right words remains irrepressible, so even in Italian I try."

So too, it seems, with metaphors. In a novel or in a book about some outside thing, the author might sweep away all trace of failed attempts to capture a subject, rebuild the whole text around the right metaphor, the right word. But In Other Words is a process story. Its plot is the history of its own creation. So the detritus remains. Every metaphor stands, in each reflection, so that we can see where Lahiri was when she tried it. A book about the periphery must feel like the periphery: working its way around, changing course, never there.

In Other Words doesn't want — or need — a general lesson

In Other Words is a particular project of a particular writer, an exercise that is well worth reading in itself. I resist the impulse to pull a neat generality from it. Not every book must articulate a theory of the world. A good book need not come to any conclusions at all, nor even hazard a guess, about anything that exists beyond its chosen object. Jhumpa Lahiri wanted to write a book in Italian, about Italian. She did. That is enough for beauty.

But I will say this: Midway through In Other Words, Lahiri writes that "Without a sense of marvel at things, without wonder, one can’t create anything. If everything were possible, what would be the meaning, the point of life? If it were possible to bridge the distance between me and Italian, I would stop writing in that language."

There doesn’t seem to be much danger of that. But despite Lahiri’s claim that English is like "a boyfriend I’m tired of" (another metaphor), I do not believe she will never write in English again. She is closer to it, much closer than she is to Italian, much closer than many English speakers will ever be, but she cannot be wholly within English because no one, really, can be wholly within a language at all. It’s the trouble with metaphors, even principal ones. A mirror must be held at some distance to work. Language isn’t life. It is not the face it is reflecting back at us.

In Italian, Lahiri does not find a new challenge, only a newly challenging rendition of an old one. A way of starting over, a mirror of a different size. It is why, I suspect, she can never quite answer why Italian in particular. She encountered it. It struck her. She liked it, felt connected to it, felt a compulsion to understand. But why? The cause is ineffable. I think that’s because it might have been anything, because anything is something we are at some distance from, a periphery we may want or need to live in for a while.