In Other Words

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated by Ann Goldstein

–Review by Teri Hyrkas

The fifth book by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words (Vintage, 2016), was translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Yes, you read that correctly. Lahiri, who is a native English speaker, fell in love with the Italian language as a young woman. She learned to speak and write in Italian over the course of many years, then wrote In Other Words – the account of her life-altering language-learning experience – in Italian. Lahiri could have translated the work into English herself but for many reasons, which she catalogs in her book, Lahiri chose to use a translator.

In Other Words is a story about language, identity, and writing. It is also an autobiography of sorts with Lahiri telling of her encounters with various languages, what it means to be identified by one’s language, and the many layers of difficulty involved in trying not simply to speak in a foreign language but to think in it as well. Additionally, In Other Words addresses the interests of writers since Lahiri frequently delves into language challenges that are inherent in the writing process. Happily, we get to see the wonderful results of Lahiri’s language and writing mastery in this book.

Lahiri is a beautiful writer. Her writing manifests story like a gifted singer’s voice embodies song. It is a real pleasure to become thoroughly immersed in her prose. What follows is a paragraph from an early chapter of In Other Words; in it Lahiri describes the precarious beginning of her journey into the Italian language:

“I think of two-faced Janus. Two faces that look at the past and the future at once. The ancient god of the threshold, of beginnings and endings. He represents a moment of transition. He watches over gates, over doors, a god who is only Roman, who protects the city. A remarkable image that I am about to meet everywhere.”

Lahiri does indeed encounter the spirit of Janus, metaphorically, in her pursuit of a new language. Among the author’s tales of the joys and predicaments involved in her quest, she recounts the occasion of her family’s move from the US to Italy during Rome’s mid-August holiday, a time when the entire city goes on vacation. It is at this very moment that Lahiri and her children get locked out of their apartment. The difficulties of their situation start to escalate as they begin to understand their dilemma and her family practically meets itself coming and going in an effort to gain entry to their residence:

“There is no one in the building but us. We have no papers, are still without a functioning telephone, without any Roman friend or acquaintance. I ask for help at the hotel across the street from our building, but two hotel employees can’t open the door, either. Our landlords are on vacation in Calabria. My children, upset, hungry, are crying, saying that they want to go back to America immediately.”

Finally, the traumatic moment passes, the family finds a way into their lodgings and they begin the transition from being typical US urban dwellers to becoming residents of the Eternal City. Has Janus, the mythical keeper of the gates of Rome, at last granted them entry? Apparently he has because on the following day, to Lahiri’s surprise, she discovers she has written in her diary about the distressing event not in English but Italian.

One distinctive aspect of In Other Words is the amount of time Lahiri gives to writing about her identity struggle with her choice of the Italian language over English. She expresses a lot of guilt over the fact that English was the first language she mastered and the language in which her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Interpreter of Maladies, is written therefore how could she leave it behind? She also expresses many misgivings about her rejection of Bengali, the native language of her parents. Lahiri’s self-analysis grew somewhat cumbersome about three-quarters of the way through the work, but because of the interesting structure of the book, I continued reading. The book is designed so that the left-hand page is in the Italian written by Lahiri. The right-hand page is Goldstein’s translation of Lahiri’s Italian, so even though the total page count is 230, the English portion is half that length. That meant it was a relatively short volume and therefore not unmanageable even if there were slow moving sections in the book.

In Other Words is an excellent book choice for anyone who is interested in language. If you are curious about the process of learning a new language, or if you have wondered how language might be related to identity, this intriguing book, In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, is meant for you.

I read In Other Words in a paperback edition, but it is available in e-book and audio formats, also. I think it would be fascinating to hear an audio version of the book so that one could hear an accurate pronunciation of the many Italian words contained in the English translation.

Buona lettura! (Happy reading!)