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Learning a Second Language Reveals a New Voice: Jhumpa Lahiri’s “In Other Words”

In Other WordsOne of the most interesting things about Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words, a slim bilingual memoir of learning to speak Italian, is something she announces in the first page of her introductory Author's Note. The book—written in Italian (part of a vow of total immersion the author took when she moved to Italy a few years ago)—is matched by an English-language version that Lahiri did not write. Lahiri explains that Ann Goldstein (translator of the Elena Ferrante novels) did the honors, even though—or maybe because—English is Lahiri's first language. "Had I translated this book, the temptation would have been to improve it, to make it stronger by means of my stronger language," Lahiri wrote, presumably in Italian, which Goldstein then translated. In other words, Lahiri would have done more rewriting than translating, and that would obscure the stated exercise.

As a translation student (Spanish to English) back in the day, I was at first surprised: one of the only two instructions I retain from all those years ago is that one must always translate into one's native tongue. Even then, translation is suspect: For the second piece of information about translation that I still remember is the adage: traduttore, traditore. While Italian was a language I did not study, even back in the day, I knew what that meant: translator, traitor.... In other words, language is so vast, so changeable, so personal that there is indeed no way to translate from one idiom to another without doing a disservice to one or both of them. In the end, as Lahiri notes several times, language—especially a second, learned language—cannot be controlled. And that's just what she likes about it.

Obviously, anyone who has wanted to, meant to, or tried to learn a language will be interested in this little book. But the appeal of Lahiri's memoir should reach further. First, to writers, who will surely see how much more humble Lahiri's writing is in her new language; while it's never stilted, there's a simplicity to her words and sentence structure. She is, as she reminds us regularly, still finding her way. (Still, she's not without wit or the ability to make a pun, one of the surest signs that one is gaining fluency: "Can I call myself an author, if I don't feel authoritative?") It's purer, somehow; a new voice, something writers often lament the inability to find.

But beyond that, anyone who loves to read, who loves language, will find much to think about in these pages. Also, anyone—and isn't this everyone?—who wants to understand her own mind. Lahiri is not the first writer to try to express herself in her non-native language—Joseph Conrad was Polish-speaking but wrote Heart of Darkness; Russian-speaker Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita in English; even Edith Wharton, I just discovered, originally wrote some of Ethan Frome in French—and to discover that the language itself changes the author's point of view on other people, the world, and the self.

Two other books, similarly titled, about language that I particularly love:

Dreaming in ChineseDreaming in Chinese by Deborah Fallows—What I remember most about this memoir of learning Mandarin in China is that the Chinese generally don't use polite words and phrases—"would you please" "do you mind?" etc.—with their intimates but only with strangers. Which is why, Fallows notes, it often seems to a Westerner that a Chinese family in a restaurant seems to be yelling at each other.

Dreaming in HindiDreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich, who immersed herself in a new language by moving to India, shortly before 9/11; she watched the events of that day on a local television and quickly learned that language is not apart from history. In the first several weeks she learned several words for "terrorist" and none for "table."



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