Sunday, March 13, 2016
In Other Words - Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, her debut work. In Other Words is the story of her quest to learn Italian, to speak it and write in it like a native Italian.
Lahiri was born in London but moved to New England with her family when she was two. Her mother wanted to retain their Indian culture, so Bengali was the language they spoke to each other. Lahiri feels, though, that she is a native-born American and that English is her first language.
When she was in her mid-twenties, she went to Rome with a friend. The language all around her swept her up, called to her, she felt at home. Back in the US, she began a 20-year journey into Italian. She took lessons for years, from different people. She could speak the language well in private classes, but when she was in Italy, the language didn't come naturally. She persevered.
Eventually, she wrote In Other Words. She wrote it in Italian and had it translated into English. It's a dual language book: the left page is her Italian, the right page is the English translation. It's a little disconcerting when you turn a page after reading English and, out of habit, your eyes go to the left page, and you find yourself struggling with Italian. After a while, I got it right, most of the time.
I've always loved languages, English and the Romance languages mostly. I studied French for several years and Latin and Spanish for shorter periods. I've lost a lot of my French and most of my Spanish and Latin. I wish I had known my French friend, Francoise, all those years ago. She could have kept me fluent. I still love seeing the connections between languages, the shared roots, the obvious similarities. I was pleased that with my French, Spanish, and Latin background, I could often puzzle out the meaning of the Italian.
Lahiri writes of the difficulty she has as an obviously Indian woman who doesn't feel part of any of her three languages. Because of her appearance, no one will mistake her for a native Italian speaker. People often ask her where she's from, no matter what language she's speaking.
Each year, one of my resolutions is to 'Learn Italian'. I've taken stabs at it over the years, but, clearly, I don't have the passion, drive, obsession that Lahiri has.