The Hindu

Translating Jhumpa Lahiri

Her new book, written originally in Italian, throws up important questions about language, thought and identity

Among the many wild theories that did the rounds about the identity of Elena Ferrante, the popular and critically acclaimed writer of Italian novels that include the Neapolitan quartet, was that “EF” is, in fact, a pseudonym for Ann Goldstein. Goldstein is credited with translating Ferrante’s books into English. Even in the implausibility of the hypothesis is an intriguing thought: how much of a novel that we read in translation derives from the writer’s hand and how much the translator’s?

And taking the theory forward, should Goldstein indeed (and improbably) turn out to the ‘real’ writer of the Ferrante books, what language was her ‘original’ work written in? Was it translated from Italian to English? Or from English to Italian, while releasing the Italian first? Or, even more circuitously, from English to Italian to English again? More importantly, would any of this matter? Would the given book have had a different texture if it had been written in English or Italian first?

Of course, Goldstein is a highly regarded translator, having rendered into English other Italian writers like Primo Levi and Alessandro Baricco, and the theory of her being Ferrante does not pass even casual scrutiny. But the questions it provoked came back while reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book, In Other Words, her first work of non-fiction. Lahiri wrote the original in Italian, and it’s been translated into English by Goldstein.

Roman holiday

For reasons that turn out to be increasingly complex as this slim memoir unfolds, some years ago Lahiri acted upon her college-day fascination with Italian by moving to Rome to learn the language and to immerse herself in it. Initially, she began a linguistic division, reading exclusively in Italian, but still writing in English, finishing up work on her fiction-in-progress. She soon began writing a secret diary in Italian. In time, a short story practically wrote itself in Italian. And once her last novel The Lowlandwas complete, she wrote exclusively in Italian.

In Other Words is a haunting book, drawing the reader into Lahiri’s linguistic pilgrimage, and the reinvention and self-inquiry set off by that simple switch to a new language, one which she will not master as fully as she has English.

It’s an unsettling read, because once she is past the logistics of the move to Rome and the internal rules set to read and write only in Italian, you keep wondering whether fluency in a language helps self-expression. When Lahiri, a masterful chronicler of exile and cultural displacement, examines her own dislocation and sense of self in a language she is new to, does her hesitancy in getting the right words and recourse to simpler sentence structure aid expression? Is Italian an inadequate tool because she is less fluent and less crafty in it, or is it in fact a better tool because the presumed searching for the right word assists truer prose?

For her part, at one point she writes, “I think that my new language, more limited, more immature, gives me a more extensive, more adult gaze.”

In her short “Author’s Note” in English, her first piece of writing in the language in more than two years, she explains why she chose to not translate it into English herself: “Had I translated this book, the temptation would have been to improve it, to make it stronger by means of my stronger language. But I wanted the translation of In altre parole [the Italian original] to render my Italian honestly, without smoothing out its rough edges, without neutralising its oddness, without manipulating its character.”

But what does it mean to be defined by the language one speaks? In Italy, she finds: “Here is the border that I will never cross. The wall that will remain forever between me and Italian, no matter how well I learn it: My physical appearance.” She may speak Italian far better than her husband does, but in everyday encounters with strangers, he is mistaken for an Italian, and she for a foreigner.

It is a condition that has been hers forever. As someone who has grown up in America and is counted as an American writer, her name and appearance periodically invite questions about why she does not write in her mother tongue, her Pulitzer Prize presumably notwithstanding. In Calcutta, given her birth and growing up in England and the U.S., there is surprise when she speaks Bengali well. These are perhaps the most tender passages in the book, the heartbreak at not being seen to be fully in possession of any of the languages in which she speaks, and even writes.

Language and identity

At the heart of In Other Words is not simply a linguistic experiment for writing’s sake, it is, in her own words, a “linguistic autobiography, a self-portrait”. Its themes, she says, are same as those in her fiction: “identity, alienation, belonging”. Even a devoted reader of her fiction, especially the powerful novels — Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowland — will be struck by how intimate this memoir is, and the honesty and openness with which she examines her own journey as a writer. It is a story about how the Italian phase, as it were, has allowed her to take firmer charge of her writing, to perhaps steer it away from a fiction of longing. “In the beginning I wrote [fiction] in order to conceal myself,” she says. “I wanted to stay far from my writing, withdraw into the background. I preferred to hide between the lines, a disguised, oblique presence.”

Lahiri being a daughter of immigrants in the United States who yearned for the sounds of Bengali, her stories were located elsewhere. She set her first stories in Calcutta, she says, “because I needed distance between me and the creative space”.

And then later: “Beginning with my first book I evoked Calcutta, my parents’ native city. Because it was, for them, a far-off place that had almost disappeared, I was looking for a way, through writing, to bridge the distance, to make it present.” In Other Words marks, in her own reckoning, a breaking away from that effort “to restore a lost country to my parents”.

Jhumpa Lahiri will next— hopefully — return to fiction. She will probably do so in English. In Other Words will be an important filter to examine the themes and experiences she will work with, and to confirm whether the self-revelation of her Italian phase has been transformational for one of the best writers of the 21st century.