Loving the Limits of Language: Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words

Imagine reaching the peak of your profession, your rookie year. Your first book Interpreter of Maladies—a collection of short stories, first published as a lowly paperback original—wins the coveted Pulitzer Prize.

Your three follow-up books all turn out to be commercial and critical successes. They are The NamesakeUnaccustomed Earth and The Lowland—in other words a major motion picture, the winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award.

Where do you go from there?

Jumpa Lahiri decided that one way to mix things up creatively was to present herself with a possibly insurmountable challenge: to reinvent herself as a writer by switching languages. She abandoned the English that served her so well and embraced Italian, a language to which her only connection was aesthetic and intellectual.

Lahiri's In Other Words is published as a bilingual work on two sides of the page (In Altre Parole being the original Italian title). It recounts her attempt to immerse herself in a language she adopted by choice, or, more idealistically, by a linguistic love affair of her own invention.

In this book, Lahiri not only abandons her native language, she replants herself in the unaccustomed earth of Rome. It’s a testament to her resolve that she chooses not to translate this book herself. Having been inspired to take the risk of writing exclusively in Italian, Lahiri feared her facility with English would reveal the limitations of her abilities, and possibly undermine the entire courageous undertaking. (She trusts the translation to Anne Goldstein, who has brought Primo Levi, Alessandro Barricco, and a slew of Elena Ferrante’s novels to English.)

In this book, Lahiri not only abandons her native language, she replants herself in the unaccustomed earth of Rome.

In short chapters that read as vignettes about her immersion in a new “primary” language, Lahiri allows herself to be pointedly allegorical, relying on analogies in her adopted language that, in another context, might have fallen flat in her native tongue.

The first chapter, "The Crossing," begins with the image of a small lake she feels compelled to cross. She explains that in her 20-year relation with Italian she has always been guilty of "hugging the shore" of English, afraid to go deeper. The straightforward analogy reminds us that Lahiri is taking on a language that has produced world masterpieces, that she is entering a conversation with the language of Ovid, with the linguistic heritage of Dante Alighieri—and that, like Alighieri, she too is now a writer in exile.

Despite such gestures, Lahiri's claims are more modest than her famous Italian predecessors. Lahiri, who has proven her skills at description and setting in her fictional works, relies at times on the tropes of travel writing, and such moments here draw readers into the Eternal City. Of greater interest than these deft slices of local color are the author's musings about linguistic vulnerability, of backsliding by leaving Rome for a month, and realizing how uncomfortable she felt back home in America.  

One chapter, "The Exchange," is her first short story written entirely in Italian. Highly metaphorical, it is unclear how well the story would have succeeded in another context, but it helps lay the stakes in play: nothing less than complete immersion in the Italian language will do.

Another chapter, "The Wall," brings issues of racial identity and language to the forefront. Lahiri recounts how, despite her facility with Italian, many natives continue to address her in English. They assume that a non-local Asian woman couldn’t possibly understand the nuances of the language; she just doesn't look the part. 

Lahiri’s fans, or anyone interested in how a highly successful author can continue to mature through self-imposed limitations, will find Lahiri's In Other Words much more than a young prodigy’s vanity project.  Jhumpa Lahiri's latest effort succeeds as a compelling meditation on language, culture and the ability to scale the complicated wall of linguistic expression for the sheer joy of the new vista it offers.

Marc Malandra holds both an MFA and a PhD in literature from Cornell University. He is also much taller than you.

Knopf/February 9, 2016/$26.95