Friday, May 20, 2016

In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri, it seems, has always been suspended between very different cultures.  The daughter of Indians from West Bengal who had migrated to England, Lahiri moved with her family to the United States at the age of two and grew up in Kingston, Rhode Island.  Although the family spoke Bengali at home and her mother made sure that she understood her cultural heritage, Lahiri could not help but consider herself to be American.  English may not have been her first language, but even as a little girl she often found herself asked by strangers to ensure that her parents understood the finer points of any conversation they were engaged in because her parents spoke with heavy Indian accents and her English was flawlessly spoken (a presumption that still irritates Lahiri to this day).

Lahiri’s debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, was published in 1999 and has been followed by a second story collection and two well-received novels.  In Other Words may be only her fifth book, but Lahiri’s writing awards are already numerous, including an O. Henry Award, a PEN/Hemingway Award, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Humanities Medal. 

And then she fell hopelessly in love with the Italian language she had before only flirted with from afar.  So taken with the sound and construction of Italian that she and her family relocated to Rome so that she could completely immerse herself in it, Lahiri decided even to write in no other language.  In Other Words is the result of that decision.  The author, understanding the limitations of writing in a language as foreign to her as Italian is, did not even trust herself to interpret the work back into English for fear of being tempted into “improving” the English version (the book was translated instead by Ann Golstein, an experienced translator who has worked with, among others, Primo Levi and Elena Ferrante).  As she puts it, Lahiri is “a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.”

Jhumpa Lahiri
In Other Words – which is part autobiography, part memoir – includes both the original Italian version (the left-hand pages) and the translated English version (the right-hand pages) of Lahiri’s manuscript.  The 233-page book is comprised of an “author’s note,” twenty-three short reflections on her relationship to language and self-identity, and an “afterword.”  Lahiri tells the reader that because she wrote In Other Words in Italian it is inherently different from her earlier work.  “The themes, ultimately, are unchanged: identity, alienation, belonging.  But the wrapping, the contents, the body and soul are transfigured,” she tells us.  

In the end, though, despite all that she has achieved in her study of Italian, Lahiri feels a little “insecure” and “embarrassed” by what her efforts have produced.  She realizes now that for her, Italian will always be a work-in-progress and that she will always remain a foreigner to the language.  But it has been three years since she has read or written much in any language other than Italian, and Lahiri believes that this has led her to a new “creative path” that she would have otherwise never have found.

All in all, not bad for “a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.”

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