When people devote themselves to learning a new language, there is usually a reason for it. Sometimes someone is forced, like Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his first nine novels in Russian, but began writing in English in the United States after being exiled from his home country. Others want to advance their careers, like Salman Rushdie, who acknowledged the only way he could get a wide readership is by writing in English rather than his native Kashmiri.
It is rare for someone, especially a writer, to abandon their mother tongue without cause. And yet, award-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri has done exactly that, and she details her journey from native English to Italian in her recent essay collection, In Other Words. There is one question that pervades the narrative: Why would Lahiri choose to write in a language that is not her own?
Lahiri was raised bilingually in the United States, speaking Bengali at home and English everywhere else. By all metrics, she is a very accomplished English writer. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. She has written a string of critically acclaimed work, and could easily have decided to just put out a new book every couple of years and continue to produce masterfully crafted stories. But no: Lahiri decided to go down a much harder path, moving to Rome and submerging herself in Italian, a language she had almost no connections to before. In Other Words is an experiment, and it can reflect that at times with its hesitance and feeling of disjointedness. The overall effect of the book, though, is thoughtful and poetic, and it is a wonderful meditation on language learning.
“Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself.”
In Other Words is a hybrid, in more ways than one. What sets it apart from other books right away is that the even-numbered pages are in Italian, and the odd are in English. It’s also worth noting that Lahiri herself didn’t translate her work, but instead gave it to Ann Goldstein, a celebrity translator in her own right for introducing Elena Ferrante to the English-speaking world. The structure of the book seems to mirror a particular section, in which she has translated her own work for a conference, a process she found extraordinarily difficult. The two texts are placed side by side, and she writes this about the sensation of seeing the two languages together: “Printed and bound, the brothers tolerate each other. They are, at least for the moment, at peace.”
The effect depends on the reader’s knowledge of the languages, but to the monolingual English reader, the Italian just sits there, a constant reminder of the translation work that went into the book. To be clear, Lahiri did not make an arbitrary choice to learn Italian. She says that Italian attracted her because of its beauty, writing, “It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond.”
Beauty alone is a pretty shaky reason for learning to write from scratch again, though. Perhaps — continuing with the lover metaphor — Lahiri was pushed toward Italian because of a bad relationship with her linguistic parents, English and Bengali. She writes, “By writing in Italian, I think I am escaping both my failures with regard to English and my success. Italian offers me a very different literary path. As a writer I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself.”
English was forced upon her, so she does not feel like her success with the language is necessarily a boon. And though her parents spoke Bengali, being raised in the United States meant it never belonged to her. Learning Italian was a conscious choice, and it allowed her the freedom to become what she wants to be.
A first language is like air; it flows in and out of a person with ease. With a second language, words do not come easily.
In Other Words offers itself as a resource to someone who wants to learn another language, whether for Lahiri’s reasons or not. From a technical standpoint, this makes the book a treasure trove for anyone interested in learning Italian specifically, as you can see the translation of any word you don’t understand on the opposite page. Not everyone has the ability to live in Rome for a year, but a number of her learning methods, like keeping a personal dictionary and finding excuses to speak the language, are broadly useful.
Her struggles with Italian are familiar to anyone who has tried to learn a language. She recounts her grammatical challenges, her constant miscommunications and the extraordinary frustration when a person assumes she can’t speak Italian because of the way she looks. The book allows you to follow her journey from speaking her tentative first words to writing publishable stories. Lahiri would be the first to admit that she hasn’t perfected the language, but it’s inspiring to see her dive into a language world that is not her own.
A first language is like air; it flows in and out of a person with ease. With a second language, words do not come easily. Even when you improve, you have to choose your words more carefully, and all the more so when you’re writing something you want to get published. There is a joy in the fact that learning a language requires work and devotion, and it causes us to question what we say and write. The most poignant message In Other Words conveys is that language learning is not a journey to a certain destination, but an ongoing struggle with countless joys along the way. Lahiri says specifically that she is not trying to master the language; she wants to live in the process of learning:
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.
This article is the first of hopefully many in our new series Babbeling Books. We’re spotlighting non-English books, new and old, that interact with language or language-learning in some way. If you have any books that you think we should cover next, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments. Our only requirement is that the book must have been originally published in a language other than English.