Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels deal with the conflicts of living in exile. It is the feeling that wherever you go, whatever you do, you are constantly reminded that you do not belong. In Lahiri’s case it could be because of her language, skin color or appearance. It is a memoire of Lahiri since she went to live in Italy and started writing exclusively Italian. Jhumpa Lahiri is an Indian expatriate, living in the US. Her mother tongue is Bengali but the language that she learned to read and write first is English. She had no physical connection with Italian.
I myself came across this book while reading Ferrante. I was so enamored by the few Italian words and names of characters used in her books that I googled for Ferrante. There were multiple reviews and responses raving about the phenomenon referred to as ‘Ferrante fever’. Lahiri’s exalted response on reading My brilliant friend was so similar to what I felt myself. One feels an instant liking for a fellow Ferrante reader. Then, as I read more about Lahiri, I came to know that she has adopted Italian as her medium of writing. Lahiri writes about her experiences of falling in love with a completely new language, and moving to its natural environment, Italy, and then cutting off ties with English. This is a memoire about falling in love with Italian, written in Italian by an English author. Lahiri did not translate her work into English herself. The celebrated translator Ann Goldstein (famous for translating the works of Elena Ferrante and Prima Levi into English) brought this short memoire to English.
In other words ‘In altra parole’ is all about translating. Writing about one’s experience is translating the emotions and memories to the form of words in the first place. Lahiri thinks that translating it herself would mean rewriting the whole book anew in English and she might be tempted to improve it in her stronger language. But that won’t be a truthful expression as she prefers the faulty, immature Italian, even with the simplistic sentence constructions. One has to agree that Ann Goldstein proved her right. The translated work reflects the mindset of the author very well. It retains the kacca – pukka expressions of the original without making them odd. The short sentences, simple, yet elegant constructions, all reflect the care taken by the author as well as the translator to document writing as a linguistic experience.
How one conceives language and acquiring language is discussed in the book. The metaphors used throughout the book to talk about the learning experience are quite interesting. They reflect the way Lahiri’s relationship with Italian changed. Lahiri was so protective of her Italian like a baby beginning to take its first steps that she did not write in English for two years. She devoted herself to Italian, read, wrote and thought in Italian just like a young mother would take care of her newborn baby.
There are some books which make you fall in love with the culture and the language it originated in. Even though you only see the graphemes, the phonemes rings in your ears as if you could hear the characters speak. Most of the time I hear the characters speak in Malayalam; but once in a while one stumbles upon a book which sends shivers down your spine. You cannot think of the names of the characters as anything but the people of a different possible world, created by the author. For example, Nino can never be but a pleasing, ambitious and pedantic young man; the mention of Marcello makes you cringe, you are awakened by the voice of Elena. All are characters in the Neapolitan world of Elena Ferrante. I can very well relate to the urge that Lahiri felt to give up her stronger self, i.e, English and start anew in Italian. She describes her experience of beginning to write in Italian as she is made vulnerable, stopping and looking back at every step.
Lahiri describes how she fell in love with the sounds of Italian when she went to Milan on vacation. The landscape and ancient buildings left a lasting impression in her mind; but the auditory impression lingered longer. Lahiri seeks the help of a private tutor to learn Italian. That gave her the preliminary support in a language which was not related to her in any way. Later she moves to Italy with family. She decides to use Italian exclusively. Then for the next four years or so she did not write anything in English. Lahiri talks about how the change in language influenced the way she perceived the world as well. Even though she was able to use Italian intelligibly, because she looked like a foreigner, native Italians often talked to her in English. She was very disappointed with this behavior. It was even more stinging as her husband, who was Spanish, was talked to in Italian. In fact, he did not know Italian all that well.
How others, other Italians perceived her was an issue to Lahiri for a long time especially she did not look Italian. But gradually she gained confidence in the language. She started getting acclaims for her stories and short pieces in Italian. It is after all these attempts that she decided to publish her diary notes and notes made while making sense of the language in the form of a memoire. The least I can say about this short work is it is inspiring, to a language lover and it invokes thought on how one looks at language and learning.
As an interesting aside, Lahiri went on to translate from Italian the work of the famous novelist Domenic Starnone who is also her friend. And this is none other than the husband of Anita Raja, allegedly the person who is writing in the name of Ferrante. One is not sure of such things, but that just adds a lovely layer of icing to the already tasty cake.