In Other Words

“I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment. A closeness and at the same time a distance. What I feel is something
physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight.”

The above excerpt from ‘In Other Words’ best describes my initial thoughts on the book.In Other Words

One read of the blurb:

In Other Words is a revelation. It is at heart a love story of a long and sometimes difficult courtship, and a passion that verges on obsession: that of a writer for another language. For Jhumpa Lahiri, that love was for Italian, which first captivated and capsized her during a trip to Florence after college. Although Lahiri studied Italian for many years afterward, true mastery had always eluded her.

Seeking full immersion, she decided to move to Rome with her family, for ‘a trial by fire, a sort of baptism’ into a new language and world. There, she began to read and to write – initially in her journal – solely in Italian. In Other Words, an autobiographical work written in Italian, investigates the process of learning to express oneself in another language, and describes the journey of a writer seeking a new voice.

Presented in a dual-language format, this is a wholly original book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with an intensity and clarity not seen since Vladimir Nabokov: a startling act of self-reflection and a provocative exploration of belonging and reinvention. 

… and I knew it in my heart I had to read this one, soon.

The cover bears a portrait of the author Jhumpa Lahiri sitting in a pensive mood in a library. But what caught my attention most about the cover is the tasteful use of coffee color. It struck a chord with me opening the floodgates of memories of my brief interaction with Italian language, culture, and people. Strangely, the first thing that I think of when Italy or Italian is mentioned is coffee and Tiramisu (that uses coffee as one of its ingredients).

“Maybe because from the creative point of view there is nothing so dangerous as security.”

My connection with Italian was entrenched when I joined my first job under an Italian manager. Working with a team consisting of 85% Italians I was in a constant connect with the language, their cultural values, the way of living, yet separated by a transparent wall just the way the author feels while exploring her passion for Italian (a foreign language for her) in the book.

Right from the ‘Author’s Note’, I felt connected with the book. The brilliant metaphors seemed to magically portray my angst in the years I was part of a job where I felt like a foreigner exiled by the language barriers more than the geographic ones. In the book, these metaphors clearly suggest it was a Sisyphean task for the author to be where she is today in her relationship with the Italian language.

The book opens with the author describing why she chose not to translate her own work in Italian to English, to resist the temptation to improve her work, to make it stronger by means of her stronger language. She wished to render her Italian honestly, without smoothing out its rough edges or manipulating its true character.

“I write in terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes. Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone. I grope my way, like a child, like a semiliterate…I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it’s the most genuine, vulnerable part of me.”

This belief shines in her methodically, creatively chronicled the journey from the time of her first encounter with Italian during her trip to Florence as a tourist, to the day (20 years later) when her first book in Italian,  In alter parole was published.

I had initially hoped that the book might be a collection of travelogues chronicling author’s interactions with Italian, but when I started reading the book, it brought to fore a rather vulnerable, incisive, memoir, nowhere close to what I had imagined it to be. Divided in short, inspiring chapters with intriguing titles the book takes the reader into the depths of her struggles with the three languages (Bengali, English and Italian) that define the three sides of the literary triangle in her life.

“I had to joust between those two languages until, at around the age of twenty-five, I discovered Italian. There was no need to learn the language. No family, cultural, social pressure. No necessity.”

Engaging, immersing herself in Italian was Jhumpa’s way of detaching herself from her strength (English) to give room to Italian in her heart, her life and journey as a writer. This state of conflict she feels as a writer is beautifully expressed as her being the mother to two children. The elder, mature, adolescent (English language) and the new-born (Italian) that the author feels an innate desire to protect.

There is so much inspiration written in the frustration, the linguistic crisis the author experiences. Starting with a pocket dictionary, maintaining a diary but never at any point considering giving up. Never letting despair take over her passion, her love for freedom of expression in a language she’d chosen herself.

“From now on, I pledge only to read in Italian. It seems right, to detach myself from my principal language. I consider it an official renunciation. I’m about to become a linguistic pilgrim to Rome. I believe I have to leave behind something familiar, essential. Suddenly none of my books are useful anymore. They seem like ordinary objects. The anchor of my creative life disappears, the stars that guided me recede.”

In this literary autobiography, I couldn’t stop being amazed by the honest, authentic representation of author’s vulnerabilities. I was touched by how she has written freely about how her mother  language (Bengali) had made her feel like a captive and how she found freedom in the lap of the insecurities of not being the master of the language she was now writing in.

“In Rome, I felt like I was in my element. You know when you’re in your element and everything is fine? My concentration was so deep, so lucid. My mind was opening up in ways that were unprecedented.”

My favorite parts are the two stand alone fiction stories, The Exchange and Half-Light. You just can’t help but fall in love with the similes the author draws to fragile Venetian bridges, to the nymph Daphne’s metamorphosis into a laurel tree in the mention of Ovid’s great Latin epic Metamorphoses.

Reading this book has been quite a journey for me. The words, the conflict, the revelation, the introspection, jolted me to end my (personal) exile and to step in the territory of pursuing my life-goals with a renewed zest.

The book is fast paced, absolutely unputdownable. It kept me on my tenterhooks, craving to learn how Jhumpa Lahiri accomplished this seemingly towering task. In the process, I couldn’t help being captivated by the author’s newly revealed sensitive side in the overwhelmingly pure, authentic, incisive quality of her writing. This book unveils a proverbial mask, exposing the real, vulnerable side of the author that never came to fore in her earlier works of fiction.

I highly recommend this book to everyone who loves reading memoirs and motivational reads that’ll make you see your life’s struggles in a new light. This book is a must read for writers who dream of pushing the envelope. Who aspire of writing in foreign languages, the ones they love but aren’t confident about.

About the Book:

Title –  In Other Words

Author – Jhumpa Lahiri

Translator: Ann Goldstein

Publisher – Penguin Books India

Genre – Non-Fiction

Pages – 203

Price – INR 399 (Get the best deal online)

ISBN – 978-0-670-08889-8

About the Author: Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of four widely acclaimed works of fiction: Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowland. She has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize; the PEN/Hemingway Award; the Frank O’Conner International Short Story Award; the Premio Gregor von Rezzori; the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature; a 2014 National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama; and the Premio Internazionale Viareggio-Versilia, for this book.

About the Translator: Ann Goldstein is an editor at the New Yorker. She has translated works by, among others, Elena Ferrante, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Giacomo Leopardi, and is the editor of The Complete Works of Primo Levi in English. She has been the recipient of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and awards from the Italian Foreign Ministry and from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Rating: 4.5/5

8 thoughts on “In Other Words

    1. You absolutely should because the book’s honesty and impeccable narration leaves a lasting impression. Besides the English translation is so good that I had to take time to share details of the translator in my review, something I have never done before.

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  1. And here it goes into my too read list 🙂 Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite author. I have read few of her published stories in New York times that she wrote in Italian and then later on translated it in English.

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