Book of the week: In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri


Book of the week: In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

The author broke up with English for her new Italian memoir

By Arshie Chevalwala  February 9th, 2016

Cliffsnotes: In Other Words (or In Altre Parole) is a memoir about falling in love with a new language, written entirely in Italian (don’t fret, the English translation appears right alongside the Italian text). It describes Lahiri’s immersive learning of the language, her impostor syndrome from winning the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Interpreter Of Maladies, and her escaping to another language to write with a new vulnerability. Lahiri refrained from translating the text into English herself — she didn’t want to smoothen out the rough edges of her Italian — and handed that job to translator and New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein.

Get a taste: Lahiri writes about the changes she made for a better understanding of Italian, like embracing the unfamiliarity of Rome and distancing herself from English:

“I have no friends yet in Rome. But I’m not going there to visit someone. I’m going in order to change course, and to reach the Italian language. In Rome, Italian can be with me every day, every minute. It will always be present, relevant. It will stop being a light switch to turn on occasionally, and then turn off.

In preparation, I decide, six months before our departure, not to read in English anymore. From now on, I pledge to read only in Italian. It seems right, to detach myself from my principal language. I consider it an official renunciation. I’m about to become a linguistic pilgrim to Rome. I believe I have to leave behind something familiar, essential.”

Author 101: The 48-year-old author first developed an interest in Italian in 1997, while studying the use of Roman architecture in Jacobean drama for her PhD thesis. In the years that followed, she gave the language her full attention by hiring private tutors, conversing solely in Italian at literary festivals and book promotions in Rome (even if that meant trying to order a cup of coffee and failing). She also made herself a strictly-Italian reading list, going from Alberto Moravia’s 1920s classic Gli Indifferenti (Time Of Indifference) to Cesare Pavese’s immigrant story La Luna e i Falò (The Moon And The Bonfires, 1949).

Fun fact: By writing in an adopted language, Lahiri falls in the company of literary giants like Vladimir Nabokov and Samuel Beckett, who transitioned to writing in English and French respectively. 

Similar reads: H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald; Wild by Cheryl Strayed

In Other Words (Penguin Random House) is out now