In Other Words
Hamish Hamilton by Penguin Books India. 2016
Pp 203 | Rs 399
An enchanting & passionate relationship between the author and a language
“In other words,” is a delightful and inspiring love affair between the author Jhumpa Lahiri and a language she was infatuated with when she was young, which later on became an obsession; that language being Italian. This is the author’s first debut non-fiction and only a seasoned writer can come up with such a creative and bold idea to express her journey into this language, in Italian itself. Yes! Jhumpa Lahiri has written this book in Italian and refrained from translating it into English, the reason being that she did not want to tamper with the originality which inevitably would happen as English would dominate over Italian.
I quote from the Author’s Note her response to the question that she anticipated might pop in the reader’s mind – as to why she did not translate the book herself and relied on Ann Goldstein, an editor at the New Yorker to translate:
“Had I translated this book, the temptation would have been to improve it, to make it stronger by means of my stronger language. But I wanted the translation of “In other words” (In altre parole) to render my Italian honestly without smoothing out its rough edges, without neutralizing its oddness, without manipulating its character.”
Born to Bengali parents, Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indo American writer, has won accolades with four titles to her credit, all of which catapulted her to fame and recognition – Interpreter of Maladies (for which she won the Pulitzer Prize); The Namesake (made into a movie by Mira Nair); Unaccustomed Earth; and The Lowland. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2014.
Thinking out of the box, the author has expressed her relationship and emotions she shares with three languages – Bengali (her mother tongue), English (a step mom which she has embraced like her own), and Italian (a foreign language which is her new born) and how she traversed through it all. She is now the recipient of the Premio Internazionale Viareggio-Versilia for this book.
The author’s first brush with Italian was when she visited Florence in 1994, as a student of Renaissance architecture. Although as a tourist she was language challenged and unable to say much at all, she listened to the words, every syllable, its rhythm, the melody and felt drawn towards it. She felt as if Italian dwelt somewhere within her, leaving her restless. What led her to dig deeper into this language, apart from her own thirst was her doctoral thesis on Italian architecture’s influence on English playwrights of the 17th century and why playwrights sought a foreign land (Italy) to set the stage for their plays/tragedies in English. Over a period of time, she travelled to various places in Italy and still found herself scavenging for words and struggling to have a conversation, grasping a few words here and there, and managed feeble attempts to speak the language. She pursued private tuitions to stay connected with the language and made up her mind to move to Rome with her family, to live and feel the language, a total devotion. That is where this book was given life.
The writer has articulated her feelings towards the language in the best possible manner laced with stunning metaphors and analogies which are thoroughly captivating. A short story about ‘sweater exchange’ which she has conceived depicts her innermost thoughts for a language, attachment, estrangement, break up and reunion.
Thereafter the author portrays a change in her relationship when the metaphor changes as she translates her piece ‘winners and losers’ – a maternal feeling between two siblings – one very strong and independent; the other weak and dependant. The author’s expression of feelings is intense as she relates it to her own life and the identity crisis that she has gone through – an estranged life from her homeland that never was, adoptive country that she tried to relate to – only to be reminded at home that she did not belong there either. A typical dilemma that desis born overseas go through, due to the strong patriotic feeling of their parents who albeit having left home, for no matter how many years, still belong to India in their hearts.
In this short self-portrait, Jhumpa Lahiri has described her foray into Italian in an eloquent style with literary appeal. This book would make us want to explore something that we may have been crazy about but lost it in the vagaries of life. The author signals a strong message and conviction that one must not only dare to dream but also pursue one’s passion with perseverance, no matter what the odds are, and not get swayed by the opinion of anybody.