Review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words
April 28, 2016 § 3 Comments
By e.v. de cleyre
On my fifth day in Italy, I accuse an Italian man of stealing my clothes. His basket, overflowing with clothing, is blocking the dryer into which I placed my clothes, and none of the garments are visible through the glass window. Scusi! I say, and that’s it—the extent of my Italian. I am all out of words and stand there with my hands on my hips, angry and confused and feeling like an idiot. The man speaks in rapid-fire Italian, riffles through his basket. He gestures to the three dryers, as if to say, which one? I point to the one in the middle. He moves his basket, and when I am close enough, I see my clothes there, stuck to the side of the dryer.
Mortified, and not possessing the words to explain, I repeat myself, but in a kinder tone: scusi!
“The unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don’t know in this world.”
To read In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein) is to be reminded of all that we don’t know, and all that we seek to find. The author chronicles a long-time love affair with the Italian language, beginning with a trip to Florence in her twenties and cresting with her decision to move to Italy with her family for two years. In Rome, she devotes herself more fully to Italian and begins to write in Italian, subsequently publishing In Altre Parole.
Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times that In Other Words is “sadly, a less ecstatic experience for you and me. It’s a soft, repetitive, self-dramatic and self-hobbled book, packed with watercolor observations like: ‘There is pain in every joy. In every violent passion a dark side.’ That someone gets a lot out of writing something does not necessarily mean anyone else will get a similar amount from reading that thing.”
Garner’s review lodged in my brain as I read, and the more I read, the more I respectfully disagreed.
The book resonates with the seekers and the seeking—those questioning their passions and obsessions and habits and patterns and daily lives on a deep level:
“What does a word mean? And a life? In the end, it seems to me, the same thing. Just as a word can have many dimensions, many nuances, great complexity, so, too, can a person, a life. Language is the mirror, the principal metaphor. Because ultimately the meaning of a word, like that of a person, is boundless, ineffable.”
It is fitting, then, that Lahiri chooses to mention Matisse—how he moved away from traditional painting, the medium that defined him and his work, and instead cut pieces of paper, painted them with gouache and arranged them into an image. Lahiri writes, “It was a collective process: Matisse had his assistants paint the paper. He was no longer able to execute his works by himself. The result was a distinctive form, a hybrid style, notably more abstract than his painting.”
Lahiri moved away from the language that defined her and her work, even refusing to translate the Italian into English, instead entrusting the conversion of words (from her third language to her second; her first being Bengali) to Ann Goldstein—the woman responsible for translating Elena Ferrante’s novels. The book is a collaborative effort, “a collective process,” and that the book is oriented with Italian on the left, English on the right, makes for a wholly unique reading experience. One turns the page and habitually ends up at the upper left corner, only to find oneself lost in a sputter of letters, which, although beautiful, do not yet make sense. One can skip back and forth, pretend one understands Italian because one has access to both languages, both versions, side by side.
To divorce the English text from its conjoined Italian twin is to do In Other Words a grave disservice. When so few books are translated from other languages into English, fewer printed with their original side-by-side, and even fewer written in an author’s third language, Jhumpa Lahiri’s first book of nonfiction feels like a monumental feat. To read Lahiri is to be aware of the limits of a language—our abilities to express ourselves and opportunities to read works in translations.
In Italy, my favorite phrases are non capisco Italiano and scusi. Technically, the full phrases are io non capisco, and mi scusi. Italian verb endings change to indicate who is speaking, meaning speakers can drop the words io and mi—something that is impossible in the I-centric language of English. Perhaps In Other Words coming across to some as “self-dramatic” is not an issue with the way it was written or translated, so much as it is an issue of the inherent limitations of the English language. If so, we should be thankful it was written in Italian.
e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Brevity, Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.