Review: In Other Words

I have never felt so stupid as when I am attempting to speak, read, or write Russian. I’ve only been studying it for one year and I already feel the pain. Did you know that there are four different words in the Russian language that all mean “to go”? Each one specifies if you are walking or driving and going in a unidirectional or multidirectional motion. And then you can add a prefix to these same words and get “arriving” or “returning,” “going in” or “going out.” It’s all just madness. And even after almost a year of Russian instruction, I still mess up some of the letters. In the Cyrillic alphabet, the n’s look like h’s and the cursive t’s look like m’s. Class is an utterly humbling (read: humiliating) experience. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I study; I just cannot get above a B on any test.

If you have ever felt this way about any language (English included!) then In Other Words will validate your frustrations and remind you why you are going through this pain in the first place. Jhumpa Lahiri, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies, wrote In Other Words in Italian after studying the language on and off since college and living in Rome for two years. Italian on one side, with an English translation by Ann Goldstein on the other, the book is a record of Lahiri’s observations about studying a language but never quite mastering it.

I read about In Other Words in one of the weekly emails I get from an independent bookstore near my house. It was the featured Book Of The Week: an English author who wrote a book in Italian. I have been to Italy twice before and love reading about it, so the little blurb caught my eye, and I put it on my reading list. That week, in a case of coincidental providence that seems to only happen in books and movies, my English class ended up reading an essay by the same author, Jhumpa Lahiri. I read it, loved her style, and moved her book to the top of my to-read list.

During spring break I read all five of Lahiri’s books, starting with Interpreter of Maladies. I was immediately hooked. I usually avoid short stories because they often leave me feeling unfulfilled, but I was pleasantly surprised by Lahiri’s ability to connect me to the story and characters in such a short time. In “This Blessed House,” for example, Lahiri describes Twinkle as sort of a wild child, at least compared to her uptight husband: “She was like that, excited and delighted by little things, crossing her fingers before any remotely unpredictable event, like tasting a new flavor of ice cream, or dropping a letter in a mailbox.” Just this one sentence tells me more about Twinkle than I might learn in a whole chapter from another author.

The Namesake, Lahiri’s first novel, tells the story of a Bengali couple who moves to America and has a son, Gogol. The Namesake revolves around questions of identity, as symbolized by Gogol’s struggle between his two names: Gogol, his private “family nickname” and Nikhil, his “public name.” In kindergarten, Gogol is distressed to learn he will be called Nikhil there. “He is afraid to be Nikhil, someone he doesn’t know. Who doesn’t know him.”

In Lahiri’s second collection of short stories titled Unaccustomed Earth I started to notice Lahiri’s endings. They are so satisfying—not particularly happy or unhappy, resolved or unresolved, but perfect for each story she wrote. The title characters of the story cycle “Hema and Kaushik,” for example, were family friends as children who grew apart after a tragedy. At the end of the final story, Hema and Kaushik find each other in Rome and reconnect–only to find Kaushik killed by a tsunami. Finally, The Lowland, the height of Lahiri’s works, is an enthralling tale about family obligation and two brothers who were once practically twins but who grow apart. When one is killed because of his political activities, the other is left to take care of his wife and unborn child.

The whole time I was reading, I was aware of In Other Words looming at the end. I didn’t look much into it, preferring to be surprised, but knew it was a nonfiction piece. Throughout my readings, I would come up with questions about Lahiri: about her life, her experiences, her views–questions I hoped she would answer in In Other Words. Why would an acclaimed author switch languages? Why would a woman move her family to a foreign country?

In the book, Lahiri describes her long relationship with Italian—a college trip with her sister, various tutors and classes throughout the years. She is enamored with the language even though she has no connection to it. Eventually, she decides to move her family to Rome, looking for a new direction for her writing, and perhaps her life. Armed with dictionaries and determination, Lahiri strives for her unreachable goal: to master the Italian language. Lahiri describes words that evade her, confuse her, no matter how many times she looks them up. There are whole chapters about her troubles with prepositions, imperfect versus past tense.

One day Lahiri starts to write her diary in Italian, and here is where I was most stunned. Already she is finding a new identity—she is changing. “I do it almost automatically, spontaneously,” she writes. “I do it because when I take the pen in my hand, I no longer hear English in my brain.” This drive is somewhat unfathomable to me—that she could ever get to a point where she automatically thinks in Italian. I can’t imagine myself ever reaching that goal. And yet Lahiri still remains connected to us linguistic plebeians by describing how totally failed her attempts were. Lahiri describes this first writing as “terrible, embarrassing Italian.” She says, “I grope my way, like a child, like a semiliterate.” And yet, “I can’t stop.”

Lahiri’s language was uncharacteristically simple in Italian (or at least in translation). When she wrote in English, her sentences always flowed and were full of perfect vocabulary that precisely fit each circumstance. In this book, I am aware that I am reading as opposed to being swept up by the story and unimpeded by faulty diction. Her word choice isn’t as exact, her sentences not as varied. For example, her first couple sentences: “I want to cross a small lake. It really is small, and yet the other shore seems too far away, beyond my abilities.” It is a little disorienting at first, but what amazes me more as the book goes on is how little that actually matters. Even with her limited Italian vocabulary, Lahiri still gets her point, her message, her meaning across. Across languages, vocabulary barriers, grammar troubles, I still know what she is trying to say. After reading her work for the past two weeks, I could tell it was her. I was impressed–and also jealous that Lahiri can now write better than me in two languages.

The best example of this is when Lahiri describes the sense of separation she feels in Italy. Her husband looks Italian, and speaks it with a Spanish accent, and everyone assumes he is Italian. Lahiri on the other hand is assumed to be foreign, and people always transition to English to speak to her. She is so frustrated: “I feel like crying. I would like to shout: ‘I’m the one who desperately loves your language, not my husband.’” She talks about having to justify herself like this in America too, and even in India with her family she can’t speak Bengali without a reaction of surprise. She captures this perfectly in the last sentence of this chapter: “But the saleswoman, seeing me, says immediately, in English, ‘May I help you?’—four polite words that every so often in Italy break my heart.”

I can’t imagine having to deal with that every day. I’m going to St. Petersburg this summer and I fear just the opposite: that someone will automatically speak Russian to me and I won’t understand. But I know what she means about being an outsider to the language. There is a student in my Russian class who grew up speaking Russian but can’t write it, and is for some reason in my intro class instead of the heritage speaker section. Russian comes so automatically to him, it rolls right off his tongue. He doesn’t struggle with pronunciation or vocabulary. Some days, I kind of want to strangle him for being so good at it. I know that even if I studied Russian for years I would never get to his level of mastery simply because he grew up speaking it.

Lahiri ends her book with the reaction to it: people are angry when she tells them she is writing in Italian. “They say they don’t want to read me translated from a foreign tongue. They don’t want me to change.” Lahiri says that when she hears people say this, she feels “ashamed.” This seems in line with how Lahiri describes her feelings toward this book: she is proud of the hard work she put in, and yet insecure and embarrassed about it. In the end she concludes that she doesn’t know if writing in Italian is the “right path.” At the end of the book, Lahiri states her reluctant decision to move back to the United States, her plans for her writing still ambiguous to both the author and the reader. But perhaps we will see a very different Lahiri in her future books. I think that moving to Italy and writing In Other Words has set her free. While I love all of her previous works, I think that Lahiri may have been restricting herself in terms of subject matter. I think that her next work might stray from the Bengali-immigrant-story niche, however amazing her writings about that were.

In Other Words was a new incarnation of Lahiri. Her nonfiction was different from her previous published fiction, but also from the nonfiction piece I had read in class. It was in some ways elementary—to use her comparison, like a child. But in other ways, Lahiri was more mature, more focused. I am aware of the transformation she is speaking of; I can see it in her writing (or at least in translation). “Why do I write?” she questions. “To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me.” The similarities to her other stories are there—immigration, lost in translation, transplanted from home. But gone was the sense of familial duty so present in her tales of Bengalis.

After I finished the book, I read some reviews for inspiration for this piece, and was astonished by the reaction. A lot of people hated it. One particularly snarky review from USA Today is called “Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’ Fails to Translate,” and claims that the book reads like Italian homework exercises. Some people thought that it was too internal, maybe even self-indulgent. Dwight Garner, writing in The New York Times, calls it “soft, repetitive, watercolor” as well as clichéd. “Whatever sharpness and shrewdness Ms. Lahiri possesses seems to have been surgically removed.”

But others regaled it as an honest and thought-provoking portrayal of language and the writing process. Publishers Weekly astutely claimed that it will feel “strange but pleasant” to read Lahiri in translation. They also noted that Lahiri’s “metamorphosis” is an illuminating example of the transformational authority of language. Goodreads reviews were much more charitable; a couple themes I encountered in many reviews include intimate, good for people learning a language, and a writer in transition.

In Other Words is not my favorite book of Lahiri’s, but I like it a lot in a different way. It is honest and unpretentious. It is struggling and imperfect. It is about an author taking a chance and not really knowing if it will work out or not. It’s about a student struggling to learn a language she desperately wants to master. Eventually, as I got into the book, I started realizing what an odd choice the double language was. What use is it to have the Italian in the English translation when no one can read it? I think that Lahiri made this choice to remind people that she was writing in Italian. This is her making it impossible for people to pretend she is something other than what she is: a dedicated Italian student who devoted herself to study of a language, and a writer who took a risk many didn’t want her to take, and many think didn’t pay off.