In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (Review)
The place I grew up in India had a different language than my mother tongue. Most of my life I used both the languages for simple conversations, and spent more time improving my English skills, as that was where Education and Jobs were. If I were to write something in either my mother tongue or the other tongue, I would probably start with something as simple as a personal diary. Now, on the other end of the spectrum, there are people who come to India with a sole purpose of mastering a language like Urdu, Sanskrit or one of the many Indian Languages. When they consider creating a work of literature in the language of their choice, they probably write a thesis analyzing the length and breadth of the linguistics behind the language. The former approach is too basic and the latter too boring.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s love for Italian was acquired but being a writer she wanted more than a journal. Although, In Other Words is not what she had in mind, as this book is not the ultimate result of her intimate relationship with the Italian Language. She is testing waters, while producing a result substantial enough to encourage a promise of future volumes in Italian. Having said that, I have only read the book in English and not in Italian, so I am only speculating this by the choice of content, rather than her literary style in Italian.
Jhumpa got Bengali from her parents, English from her Land (USA where she lived) and She chose Italian. She points out, “It was love at first sight”. The book is mostly about her linguistic journey that led her to Italian and after. She covers in interesting details her struggle to formally learn Italian, which include the creative process behind developing a style and simpler things like the irritation of being not identified as an Italian speaker even after considerable conversational practice. There is an undercurrent of silliness to the whole project, and it adds to the charm. While the text resembles a serious essay about transitioning into Italian literature, deep in your mind the words ‘Don Quixote’ appear.
Jhumpa explains in the beginning why she didn’t translate the book herself, and it is clear she would have come up with a better but a dishonest translation. Ann Goldstein’s translation ensures that only the words are translated and not the ideas behind them. Hence, reading the book in English makes some sense. However, you miss out on the words, phrases and idioms that Jhumpa chose in her Italian Work. For a book like this, I feel, this is a significant reason why you should read it in Italian, if you know the language.