Original Title: In Altre Parole

Translator: Ann Goldstein

Genre: Non-Fiction,, Translated, Memoir

In Other Words, chronicles Jhumpa Lahiri’s love affair with Italian. She discovers it at 25 when she goes on vacation with her sisters. She dabbles in learning it. It eventually turns into an obsession, that she and her family move to Italy so that she can learn it.

She describes the book as:

” {In Other Words} It’s a travel book, more interior, I would say, than geographic. It recounts an uprooting, a state of disorientation, a discovery. It recounts a journey that is at times exhausting. An absurd journey, given that the traveller never reaches her destination.”

Many writers and publishers questioned Lahiri’s decision to write this book in Italian. She argues that many authors before had written in languages that were quite far from their native languages: Beckett, Conrad, Nabokov so it wasn’t anything new. In any case, it was the ultimate test for her. The book contains both the Italian and English translation.

Lahiri clearly articulates my feelings on a learning a language that is neither your mother tongue or one that you need for survival.

As a girl in America, I tried to speak Bengali perfectly, without a foreign accent, to satisfy my parents, and above all to feel that I was completely their daughter. But it was impossible. On the other hand, I wanted to be considered an American, yet despite the fact that I speak English perfectly, that was impossible too. I was suspended rather than rooted. I had two sides, neither well-defined. The anxiety I felt, still feel, comes from a sense of inadequacy, of being a disappointment.

Here in Italy, where I’m very comfortable, I feel more imperfect than ever. Every day, when I speak, when I write in Italian, I meet with imperfection, That curving line leaves a trail, it accompanies me everywhere. it betrays me; it reveals that I am not rooted in this language.

Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new relationship with imperfection: What does it offer me? I would say a stunning clarity, a more profound self-awareness. Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive

On her multiple identities and seeking refuge in Italian:

I think that studying Italian  is a flight from the long clash in my life between English and Bengali. A rejection of both the mother and the stepmother. An independent path.

Every time, I have to fill in official forms, I grapple with what language I should indicate as my native language. I have spoken English more perfectly than my mother tongue, Kisii for as long as I can remember. I do speak Swahili but as a Nairobian it has been coloured by other local dialects and slang (which we call “sheng”). Nonetheless, my Swahili is neither as perfect as probably someone who hails from the Kenyan coast nor Tanzania. So when I get the odd question, “How is it you speak good English?”  I promptly reply. ” I have been doing it all my life”.  I felt understood when Lahiri spoke of similar situations both in Italy and America when people questioned her fluency in Italian and English respectively. 

From my experience, I have found learning Spanish, French and possibly Korean as liberating and independent paths; to feed my own curiosities and find windows into other worlds.

In Other Words, is a raw book that should be every polyglot’s toolkit. You will laugh and nod your head at various points in the book. I can’t wait to read it the second time around.

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