Book review: In Other Words

In Other Words

In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri
Ann Goldstein
From the Italian:
In altre parole

Release date:
available also as ebook



  rating systemrating systemrating systemrating system

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 so 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 to 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.

in other words 97page 97

This disconnect goes sometimes further. Lahiri alludes to it:

in other words 119page 119

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.

in other words 121page 121

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?
I do teach online, at all levels. I can also teach you French for reading only.


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.


From the Pulitzer Prize winner, a surprising, powerful, and eloquent nonfiction debut.
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.


Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri
was born in London
and brought up in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
Brought up in America by a mother
who wanted to raise her children to be Indian,
she learned about her Bengali heritage from an early age.
Lahiri graduated from South Kingstown High School
and later received her B.A. in English literature
from Barnard College in 1989.
She then received multiple degrees from Boston University:
an M.A. in English, an M.A. in Creative Writing,
an M.A. in Comparative Literature and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Studies.
She took up a fellowship at Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center,
which lasted for the next two years (1997-1998).
In 2001, she married Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush,
a journalist who was then Deputy Editor of TIME Latin America.
Lahiri currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.
She has been a Vice President of the PEN American Center since 2005.
Lahiri taught creative writing at Boston University and the Rhode Island School of Design.
Much of her short fiction concerns the lives of Indian-Americans, particularly Bengalis.
She received the following awards, among others:
1999 – PEN/Hemingway Award (Best Fiction Debut of the Year) for “Interpreter of Maladies”;
2000 – The New Yorker’s Best Debut of the Year for “Interpreter of Maladies”;
2000 – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her debut Interpreter of Maladies.

Eiffel Tower Orange

Do you speak another language?
How do you experience this in-between world?

Eiffel Tower OrangeEiffel Tower OrangeEiffel Tower Orange

This book counted for the following Reading Challenges

Books in Translation 2016 2016 Nonfiction Challenge



19 thoughts on “Book review: In Other Words

  1. I have read this book too, and I especially enjoyed reading your experience. Fascinating how expat time feeds back influencing native French. These influences are so subtle. I have been asked what part of the South I come from, and I have lived only in New York and New Jersey! But my husband is from Kentucky. So there it is. In any case, I’m so glad you are here in U.S. letting our Americanese occupy some of your consciousness!


    • thanks for sharing. So maybe one day, they will think I’m from Southside Chicago, lol! Did you review this book? I can’t find it on your blog.
      By the way, enjoying so much The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

      Liked by 1 person

      • No I didn’t review it. I read Italian so.I.liked having her original on the facing page. For me, the chapters on learning the language were excellent, dissecting what it takes to begin to write at a literary level in a new language, so different from the spoken language survival skills and deeper and more rigorous than even competent reading. Even in one’s native language, learning to write well is a new discourse skill.


  2. Pingback: 2016 New Release Challenge | Words And Peace

  3. Pingback: 2016 books in translation reading challenge | Words And Peace

  4. Pingback: 2016 nonfiction reading challenge | Words And Peace

  5. I loved this book. I was an expat as a kid. Lived a few years in Italy, became fluent in Italian, then once we moved back the language was slowly pushed into the corners of my mind… but I always felt that connection, and felt bad when that bridge seemed to weather away over time. Lots and lots of thoughts while reading this book, and your post!


  6. Pingback: Nonfiction November: My Year 2016 in Nonfiction | Words And Peace

  7. Pingback: Nonfiction November: New to My TBR Link-Up – The Emerald City Book Review

  8. Pingback: Born a Crime 4-8: read-along at Book Bloggers International | Words And Peace

  9. I’m fascinated with languages. Lahiri’s transition from English to Italian is startling to me; how could an award-winning writer feel satisfied with a new and unfamiliar language? I am intrigued with this. I am sure this book is one that felt close to your heart.


  10. Pingback: Six degrees of separation: From trouble to wedding | Words And Peace

  11. Pingback: The Satanic Verses: questions on Parts 3 and 4 | Words And Peace

  12. Pingback: Sunday Post #60 – 6/12/2022 | Words And Peace

What do you think? Share your thoughts, and I will answer you. I will also visit your own blog

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.