In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri

In Other Words

In Other Words

Jhumpa Lahiri
Trans. Ann Goldstein
Knopf, 2016

Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words is a vulnerable journey of self-exploration by means of linguistic exile. It’s notably her first book written in Italian and her first autobiographical work. Letting go of her foothold in English, she invites the reader on a steadfast pursuit to master the Italian language, and along the way she shares how language has played a role in her perceptions of the world and, likewise, how the world perceives her.

This bilingual edition of her book allows novice learners of the language (like myself) to read her original Italian and experience her metaphors for learning a new language firsthand. Akin to swimming in a lake, she describes abandoning the shore to swim across as total immersion. I often found myself “hugging that shore” of Ann Goldstein’s English translation, but reading in this way allows the reader to relate with the joys and frustrations of learning a new language with clarity. She explains that to live without your own language is to “feel weightless, and, at the same time, overloaded”—like breathing the air of “a different altitude.”

Her Italian vernacular is (as she notes) not particularly ornate, but in this way her succinct vocabulary makes the text accessible. And she compares this exposed, juvenile writing to Henri Matisse’s foray into “painting with scissors,” when he started creating art with bits of cut, painted paper. Skeptics might question artists for abandoning the tools they know for the ones they don’t, but in both cases a new voice in the artist’s repertoire is born. “Writing in another language,” Lahiri says, “represents an act of demolition, a new beginning.”

This fresh start also explains her pursuit of a language “that doesn’t need me.” Her “mother and stepmother” tongues of English and Bengali carry baggage and cultural friction, and Italian interrupts that line of tension. From childhood tales about immigrating to America to her experiences living in Italy, Lahiri’s book also challenges making assumptions about people based on an accent or the color of a person’s skin. She explains, “No one, anywhere, assumes that I speak the languages that are a part of me.”

Lahiri’s In Other Words is a noble undertaking, an embrace of imperfection, and an invitation to learn a new language—doing so might just be the key to knowing yourself, and the world, a bit better.

Jen Rickard Blair
Online Editor & Web Developer

Jen Rickard Blair is the digital media editor at World Literature Today.

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