In Other Words
From the Italian:
In altre parole
available also as ebook
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
I confess reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri some time ago, but hardly remembering anything about it. And I didn’t read Interpreter of Maladies, although it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. But being an expat AND a literary translator, I knew I had to read In Other Words when I discovered what it was about.
As an aside, I particularly enjoy presenting this book today, as the Man Booker Prize International was just awarded to a South Korean author, Han Kang, and her English translator, Deborah Smith, for The Vegetarian. Works in translation seem to gently take more prominence in the English speaking world – it’s more recognized in Europe. Interestingly enough, all the translators of the short list were fairly new and almost discovered their job as translators by accident. It was also a comfort to read that Smith checked almost every word in the dictionary to do her remarkable work.
From a Benghali background, Lahiri, brought up in America, quickly mastered the English language.
But her language odyssey did not stop here: after a trip to Italy, she madly fell in love with the Italian language, to the point of desiring to immerse so much in it that she even decided to live in Rome for an extended period of time. She started journaling in Italian, and ended up writing this book. Struggling in between two linguistic worlds, as she saw well explains in this work, she finally chose a translator for the English version, and the book is published as a bilingual edition.
I totally understood what she was referring too all along, at so many levels. I did also fall in love with the English language. I was 10, and after my very first hour of English at school, I told the world I was going to be an English teacher. It happened, 9 years later. I didn’t know another chapter would be added to that story a few years later, and that I would end up leaving France to live in the US.
She has great images for comparisons between language and geography, words and streets, as she describes her experience of the Italian language and of the city of Venice, for instance.
As a translator, the image of the bridge speaks volumes to me. I daily feel I’m humbly trying to build bridges between two languages, two cultures, at the risk of being sometimes stuck in the middle and pertaining to neither world. And making too many mistakes in both.
A simple fact will illustrate that easily: of course no one in Illinois will accuse me of having a Chicago accent, lol. BUT when I speak to French people on skype, they tell me I have an American accent, go figure. Obviously, they don’t really know what an authentic American accent sounds like, but there’s something that tells them my accent is no longer the “pure” (if there’s such a thing) French one either!
And when I was finally able to afford a trip back to France after many years abroad, I was congratulated for my good French at a tourism office on my first day there!
I was reassured a few days later by family members that my French accent was back to normal, but as you can see, this is a very fragile thing.
This disconnect goes sometimes further. Lahiri alludes to it:
I was actually expecting her to insist more on that aspect, and that would be my only negative point on this book. But maybe the author doesn’t experience this as acutely as I do?
This may sound totally peculiar to someone who only knows fluently one language, but I have to confess I feel two very different persons whether I speak English or French, with two very different attitudes. One more showy and nervous maybe, the other one much more secure and at ease, natural I would say. In one language, I feel artificial; and genuine, true to myself in the other one — I let you guess which way, it may not be what you think actually. Let me know in a comment.
This can be sometimes quite uncomfortable.
I was reading recently about the trauma of French expats having to go back to France after several years abroad, and how much they struggle to re-immerse themselves in the French world and culture. It totally makes sense to me.
Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful of having received the gift and opportunity of expressing myself in two languages.
And I love my work as a literary translator. Translating is definitely “the most profound, most intimate way of reading”, as she says. Because you can no longer remain neutral and take any word for granted. Your brain will automatically start making connections between your two inner worlds, granting you a fantastic personal enriched experience of life, whether you actively translate or whether you just read for the sake of reading.
Before closing, I highly recommend you read her comparison with the Metamorphoses of Ovid (pp.161-162).
If you are an expat or speak currently more than one language, you obviously need to read this book.
But even if English is your only language, I think this would be a remarkable exposure for you, a discovery of the world of languages, and maybe a gentle incentive to learn another one. It is actually fairly easy to start learning a language just to be able to read in that language, and who knows to what wonderful new horizons this could lead you to?
EN DEUX MOTS :
Réflexion fascinante sur le fait de vivre en équilibre entre deux langues. À lire par tous les expats et les traducteurs.
VERDICT: Fascinating “linguistic autobiography” or self-portrait of an author in love with the Italian language, and how it is changing her mind and her life.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
In Other Words 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. And although Lahiri studied Italian for many years afterward, true mastery had always eluded her. So in 2012, 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.
In Rome, Lahiri 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, it is a book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with an intensity and clarity not seen since Nabokov. A startling act of self-reflection and a provocative exploration of belonging and reinvention.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR