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Book review: ‘In Other Words,’ a Bengali American writer’s first novel to be translated from Italian

In Other Words

By Jhumpa Lahiri; translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein


233 pages, $26.95

By Michael D. Langan

Jhumpa Lahiri (1967 – ) is an Indian Bengali American writer who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for her fiction, “Interpreter of Maladies,” a collection of short stories. Her other widely admired work includes “The Namesake,” “Unaccustomed Earth” and “The Lowland.”

Her fiction deals with themes of “nationality, tradition, family, exile and belonging.” She indicated these topics in a recent Wall Street Journal interview.

Lahiri was born in London of immigrant parents from the state of West Bengal. She grew up speaking Bengali at home. She came to the United States with her parents at age 2 and grew up in Kingston, R.I. As she grew up, the author learned English as her second language. She graduated from Barnard College and then earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate, from Boston University.

Her latest book “In Other Words,” is a memoir continuing the exploration of personhood, nationality and language. Written in Italian, it copes with learning a new language that she loves, expressing herself in it and feeling the danger – described in her first chapter, “The Crossing” – of swimming across a small lake where its depth is over her head

Lahiri uses the lake as a metaphor, writing in Italian of wading into what she calls the “deep water” of another language’s mysteries. It is in that apparently “bottomless” space that she “describes the journey of a writer seeking a new voice.”

She wonders if she can sustain the physical, mental and emotional challenge of not drowning in an unfamiliar universe of words. She needn’t have been concerned. What saved her was the “green plastic cover, indestructible, impermeable” Italian dictionary that she purchased in a Boston bookshop in 1994.

An exceptional advantage is that “In Other Words” will please the bilingual reader of Italian and English. The memoir is published like the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Missal. You may remember that book had Latin on the left page and English on the right. In this book, it is Italian written on the left-sided page, and English on the right.

And who better to translate from the Italian than the great Ann Goldstein, an editor at the New Yorker? She has rendered the million-seller Italian author Elena Ferrante as well as “The Complete Works of Primo Levi” in English. Some critics have even whispered in an Atlantic magazine article that it is she who is the reclusive Italian author. Goldstein quickly denies this surmise.

In Lahiri’s “Author’s Note” at the start of the book, her only writing in English, Lahiri explains why she stuck to Italian in the book: “I was reluctant to move back and forth between the two.” She wanted to protect her Italian, a language in which she had only begun to express herself creatively in.

Lahiri believed that “returning to English would be disorienting, frustrating, also discouraging.” She tells us that writing in Italian is a choice on her part, “a risk that I felt inspired to take.”

In a sense, Lahiri says in an interview, “In Other Words” can be seen as “the linguistic autobiography of a writer seeking a new voice, but it is also a kind of travel book that charts a personal pilgrimage between Italy and America (once again her primary residence, as she recently started teaching at Princeton University.”

Thus, she chose Goldstein, whom she thinks has “greater objectivity” and experience to take on this task translating the book in English. Lahiri explains her reticence for translating her work, years earlier, from Italian to English in a chapter called “The Hairy Adolescent.”

Her husband persuaded her to translate in English anyway, arguing that she’d have more “control” over the work. She did translate and regretted it.

She writes, “I’m astonished at how demanding I find it. When I write in Italian, I think in Italian; to translate into English, I have to wake up another part of my brain. I don’t like the sensation at all. I feel alienated. As if I’d run into a boyfriend I’d tired of, someone I’d left years earlier. He no longer appeals to me … the translation doesn’t sound good. It seems insipid, dull, incapable of expressing my new thoughts.”

In brief chapters the author writes animatedly about her relationship with Italian in “Exile.” She explains about wanting to continue conversations in Italian when she returns to America, but finding it hard to find someone who speaks it imperfectly.  

She doesn’t need perfection. “Need practicing, I say.” Lahiri explains to the reader about why she chose to live in Rome in “The Renunciation,” an exegesis about how and why she pledges to read in Italian only. And more.

Goldstein herself is matter-of-fact about the importance of translated books, explaining, “I think it’s kind of important for the translator to be a presence.”

Even if muted, a gifted translator can transmit a classic from one language to another by some mysterious and hard-to-explain power.

It does to me. And in so doing, the translator brings the immediacy and feeling of a classic to an audience in another language and culture whose lives will be changed and charged by the experience.

About this possibility, Lahiri writes that because of this book, she is thankful that a piece of herself can remain in Italy. She concludes by writing, “ ‘In Other Words’ will now have an identity independent of me … Yet it will have specific, localized roots, although it remains a hybrid, slightly outside the frame, like me.”

This is a bravura book. It will touch every reader young and old, about the pleasure and pain of undertaking a new experience that tests one’s personhood and intellectual mettle.

Michael D. Langan is the former headmaster of Nardin Academy and a frequent reviewer of books for The Buffalo News.