Living Outside of Language with Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

Lahiri's sense of alienation informs all of her writing and makes In Other Words (In Altre Parole), an achingly lonely, interior work.

In Other Words (In Altre Parole)
Jhumph Lahiri
February 2016

In 2013, Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri left the United States for Rome. There she ceased speaking, reading, or writing in English. The resulting essay collection, In Other Words (In Altre Parole) describes one individual’s passionate love for the Italian language. It’s also the story of a writer whose exceptional gifts fail to assuage a lifelong sense of alienation.

Tell readers a Pulitzer-Prize winning author has renounced English, the language of her success, and those readers may suspect the writer of career suicide. Minimally, Lahiri’s decisions to stop writing in English and move to Rome are breathtaking. Yet Lahiri is measured, relentlessly practical, even harsh. She understands Italian is superfluous to her existence, yet nothing in her manner leaves the reader feeling Lahiri’s decisions are impulsive or the least bit foolish.

In Other Words is printed in an unusual format: the left side of the text is in Italian, the right in English. Monolingual English readers quickly grow accustomed to reading only the right side of the book. Having little Italian, I don’t know whether bilinguals will find the pagination maddening or enjoyable.

Lahiri did not translate In Other Words herself. She writes cogently of the difficulties involved in translating her own work. Having finally become reasonably fluent in Italian, Lahiri isn’t eager to re-engage with the English necessary for translation. Nor, she feared, would her fragile Italian survive the experience: “The temptation would have been to improve it (the book), to make it stronger by means of my stronger language.” To this end, award-winning translator Ann Goldstein — known to many readers for her work on Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels — ably translated the In Other Words.

Lahiri’s first encounter with Italian, while college undergraduate, is likened to a passionate, unrequited love. Lahiri needs Italian; the language, of course, does not need her. Years later, a successful author, Lahiri continues her study of Italian with a private instructor. The moment she leaves the woman’s apartment, Italian evaporates.

When Lahiri arrives in Rome, she begins a diary in Italian, leaping a major linguistic hurdle: “I do it because when I take the pen in my hand, I no longer hear English in my brain.”

Although Lahiri describes her Italian-language diary “terrible”, it represents an important step toward fluency: when I studied American Sign Language, our teachers constantly exhorted us to “throw out our English”. They were asking us to think only in American Sign Language. To think and express oneself solely in a new language, however badly, is to achieve the ability to express oneself easily, if not always accurately.

Most adults looking to learn Italian, French, or Spanish hope only to better navigate dinner menus, meander museums, and interact with native speakers. Lahiri’s reasons for learning Italian have nothing to do with being a better tourist. As a writer, she is searching for a change. “I was looking for another direction for my writing. I wanted a new approach.”

Joan Didion, Anne Lamott, and Annie Dillard have all described writing as a means of making sense of the world. In “The Fragile Shelter” Lahiri concurs, going a step further: “I write to tolerate myself. ” Language is naturally key to understanding all that is without — and perhaps, to tolerating oneself — yet the language Lahiri uses here differs enormously from the lushly descriptive vocabulary of her English-language novels. The sights, smells, and tastes of India and the United States are absent. The book is relatively unpopulated. Sentences are brief, stark, stripped. Language is bluntly direct.

This is due in large part to Lahiri’s limited Italian vocabulary, whose dearth leads her to remark, “I don’t have a vocabulary that has been experienced, seasoned since childhood. I can’t examine Italian with the same precision. I can’t evaluate an Italian text, not even one written by me, from the same perspective.”

Instead, Lahiri relies on trusted Italian readers to correct her writing. They tell her the words she’s chosen are antiquated, their registers too high or low, that Italians do not speak this way. Thus Lahiri, who likens her expanding vocabulary to an outlandish costume of an elegant yet outdated skirt paired with bedroom slippers and a straw hat, revises.

While a paucity of vocabulary imposes certain restrictions, Lahiri still maintains tremendous control over her material, allowing a limited word set to dictate an austere style. She includes two short stories: “The Sweater” and “Half-Light”. Each features a displaced protagonist. In “The Sweater”, a woman tries to vanish by moving to another country. The nameless man of “Half-Light” returns home after an absence only to feel a stranger there. The reader doesn’t notice a paucity of vocabulary. Rarely does limitation serve art so well.

If writing in Italian is a means of escaping English, a language Lahiri calls “a stepmother”, it’s also a way to distance herself from older pains. In “The Triangle”, Lahiri refers to her three languages: the Bengali her parents spoke at home, the English she learned upon entering nursery school, and Italian. Lahiri’s parents, Bengali immigrants, discouraged spoken English at home. At school, American teachers and friends were indifferent to Lahiri’s Bengali. The conflicts were enormous.

Although bi-cultural, Lahiri never felt fully accepted by American or Indian culture; this sense of alienation informs all her writing and makes In Other Words, an achingly lonely, interior work. Italian, belonging to neither her parents nor American culture, offers: “a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali.”

This doesn’t mean Italian is a safe harbor. Even as Lahiri gains spoken fluency, her physical appearance presents difficulties. Despite Lahiri’s passionate engagement with Italian, Italians often address her in English. At times Lahiri will ask for something in perfect Italian only to be meet with incomprehension: a shopkeeper stopped listening once he began looking at her. Lahiri’s spouse, an American of Latino descent, is often mistaken for an Italian citizen. He has spoken Italian for two years. Somebody asks him if he taught her the language.

In Other Words closes on an uncertain note. At some point Lahiri must return to the United States. To English. Writing in Italian gave her the new artistic direction she wished for. Now Lahiri wonders whether other writers will view In Other Words as a lark, “a pleasant distraction”. This is not a pleasantly distracting book; no work describing a life lived on the margins of three languages could be.

Hopefully, and more likely, In Other Words finds its home amongst those who love words. Even better, may it fall into the hands of other cultural outliers, who turn its pages and realize they are not alone in the world.

RATING 9 / 10