In Other Words

As I went through the show [of Matisse cut-outs], I recognized an artist who at a certain point felt the need to charge course, to express himself differently. Who had the mad impulse to abandon one type of vision for another. Jhumpa Lahiri

The blank page. The blank canvas. Day after day they remain blank. I suppose every writer or artist reaches a point in their life when they stare at a blank page or canvas hopelessly paralyzed.

This might have been what happened to Jhumpa Lahiri when she stopped writing in English and sought a new direction to her work. During her first visit to Florence as a 20-year-old student, she fell in love with the Italian language. I recall a similar experience after one of my early visits to Florence. In an essay describing Italian, I wrote:

It is not surprising that Italians are so musical. It comes with the language. When Italians speak to one another, they virtually sing, with a rhythm and lyric that is slightly operatic. Soon the words echo in your mind, although you don't have the vaguest idea what they mean. …It was not long before I found myself quite unexpectedly speaking an Italian word or phrase that from all I could tell must have been appropriate. When most Italians talk, they also gesture vigorously with their hands, as if they were conducting an orchestra. I suspect that if you tied a rope around their hands, they would not be able to utter a single word.

Over the years that followed Lahiri took Italian lessons but she never really mastered the language that way. So in 2012, she took the leap and moved to Rome with her husband and two children.

Lahiri says she was never comfortable in the language of her family (Bengali) or the language in which she had been educated (English). She said: “In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing. I wanted a new approach. I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for many years in America would, finally, give me the direction.”

In her memoir, In Other Words, Lahiri describes her efforts to learn the language well enough to speak easily with Italians and write in their language. She stopped reading English and wrote exclusively in Italian, both in her diary and the pieces that compose the book. In Other Words is printed in a dual-language format with the English translation by Ann Goldstein on one page and Lahiri’s Italian on the other. (I found reading both pages of the book a good way to learn a little more Italian.)

There is a simplicity to Lahiri’s short Italian sentences that is beguiling, but after awhile rather limited, especially when she’s writing about complicated issues. They also become somewhat repetitious, as she tries to explain the difficulties she’s experiencing in writing Italian.

When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest. A traveler…When I write in Italian, I feel like an intruder, an imposter. The work seems counterfeit, unnatural. I realize that I’ve crossed over a boundary, that I feel lost, in flight. I’m a complete foreigner.

Yet, In Other Words is a pleasure to read as Lahiri struggles to express herself in Italian and strike out in a new direction. Throughout the book I kept wondering why she tried to distance herself from English, her dominant language, the one in which she was so successful.

I can appreciate her desire to try a new direction to her work. But why in a foreign language, one she scarcely knew before she moved to Rome? In Other Words was a best seller in Italy and at the time of this writing has moved into the top fifteen on the New York Times Hardcover best seller list.

Last September Lahiri returned to this country as a professor of creative writing at Princeton. She was reluctant to leave Rome and worries now that she won’t be able to maintain her fluency in Italian and newfound identity. One wonders if In Other Words is the first or the last of her work in Italian? While in Italy she wrote,

“I’ve uprooted myself not only from a physical place but also from a linguistic place. This double uprooting is artistic freedom, and it’s dizzying. Once you taste that you can’t give it up.”


Stefanie said...

So fascinating. What is really curious though is why she used a translator for the English version? Why didn't she translate it herself? Does she say by chance?

Richard Katzev said...

If I am correct, Lahiri said she wanted to keep her pledge not to read or write in English while in Italy. Translating the book to English from Italian would have broken that pledge. I think she also knew that translating her work in Italian would have created a far more sophisticated book than the one she wrote in Italian. She may have answered your question in the book or in one of her many interviews, but I don't recall just where. Read the book and find out.

Dom said...

You state that “When most Italians talk, they also gesture vigorously with their hands, as if they were conducting an orchestra.”

This causes me to wonder, do Italians gesture more vigorously with their hands" than other nationalities or cultures?

If so, I wonder why?

I also wonder if over the course of Italians history the extent or nature of that gesturing has changed and, if so, how and why?

As you can see, your blog article has stimulated a lot of thoughts for me to contemplate!

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: Of course, I was making a gross generalization about the way Italians talk. And equally, of course, I have no idea if they gesture more than other cultures. And just as much, of course, I've only seen Italians in public settings. I've also seen some Americans gesture quite a bit when they speak. (It might be interesting as a first step to compare European cultures--French, Germans, British, Italian, etc. on this dimension.) Your second question is impossible for me to answer; maybe a historian might be able to develop a method to answer it. I appreciate your questions and am glad they have given you something more to think about. Richard

Dom said...


I appreciate your effort to answer my questions. I had not intended the questions to be submissions for you to answer, although of course your answers are always helpful. I intended the questions merely to indicate the types of thoughts that your blog post raised in my mind. Articles that stimulate thought, as your articles always do, are the ones that I enjoy reading the most.


Richard Katzev said...

I understand. Nevertheless, they did also stimulate my own thinking. That's what it's all about.