Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Jhumpa in altre parole


In Other WordsIn Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an engaging series of reflections for any of us who have striven in adulthood to master a new language. More than 20 years ago, Jhumpa Lahiri — whose first language (spoken to her in infancy by her mother) was Bengali and whose dominant language is English — determined to learn to speak and write Italian. This was a decision she finds hard to explain, and must have been especially puzzling to the editors of her prize-winning fiction (all in English) and possibly to her husband and their American-born children (her husband is a journalist who writes in English and Spanish). After years of study with tutors and frequent visits to Italy, she then wrote this, her first book entirely in Italian, In altre parole — “In other words”, in a bilingual edition with facing pages in English translation by Ann Goldstein.
I don’t read Italian easily, having learned only snatches on several visits to Italy, but I could make out most of her text from my knowledge of Spanish and dimly-remembered high school Latin, and I had great fun puzzling it out before permitting myself to look across the page to Ann Goldstein’s translation. I recognized from my own experience the personality changes and surprising self-discoveries involved in learning a new language, and enjoyed reading some of the funny or colorful episodes — a key that wouldn’t open a door in Rome, when the family arrived tired and hungry; various conversations; impressions of customs and places. As she recognizes, she may never reach the point in Italian where she gets all the jokes, interprets all the irony or expresses herself as fluently as her most admired Italian authors, but she’s pretty good, and the exercise of writing this book has no doubt helped her gain understandings that will help her as a writer in whatever language she chooses. As she says,
«Devo accettare l’impossibilità di raggiungere la vetta che mi ispira, ma all stesso tempo mi porta via spazio.» (Translation by Goldstein on p. 89.)

For one of my own adventures in the Italian language, see this post on an encounter in Naples: Bravo, Scrittore!

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