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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1996

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri (b. 1967)

First published: In altre parole, 2015, in Italy

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (New York). 233 pp.

Type of work: Nonfiction

In Other Words is a nonfiction account of the author’s pursuit of the Italian language. The English-language edition features Italian and English on facing pages. Part linguistic exploration, part memoir, this book encompasses Lahiri’s attempt to come to terms with her own transnational upbringing and multilingual heritage.

In Other Words (originally published solely in Italian as In altre parole) had its origins in the personal diaries of Jhumpa Lahiri as she pursued an inexplicable desire to master the Italian language. After years of studying the language while in the United States, even selecting a doctoral thesis topic that required her to engage actively with the language, Lahiri took the dramatic step of fully immersing herself in the language. She moved her family from New York City to Rome, renounces writing in English, and dived headfirst into a fervent pursuit of Italian. In Other Words is the result of this quest, the first book that Lahiri has written and published in Italian in a metamorphosis of language that is so thorough she has elected to have it translated into English (Lahiri’s dominant language) rather than undertaking this work herself. At the outset of the book, Lahiri’s insatiable desire to immerse herself in Italian is inexplicable even to the author herself. By the conclusion, some sense of resolution to this psychological dilemma has been reached, but Lahiri encounters a new quandary. Having returned to the United States, she faces the question of how to maintain her engagement with the language and grapples with the possibility, even the inevitable reality, that English will again overtake her mind and her pen.Courtesy of Knopf

For fellow authors, the greatest significance of In Other Words may lie in Lahiri’s absorbed considerations of the mechanics of learning a language and also her reflections on the weight of words and the significance of translation. Lahiri describes the notebooks in which she collected vocabulary encountered in books and in conversations, through which lists she explored the language and attempted to pin down meanings. Living in Rome, interacting with fellow authors and publishers in Italian, and reading exclusively in Italian exposes Lahiri to a large lexicon. As she eventually learns, though, some of the words to which she had developed an affinity are antiquated or only used in a literary context. Lahiri’s written Italian, which she acknowledges remains imperfect, is the result of this process and presents its readers with the end product of this manner of learning the language. Lahiri begins her account with a romantic analogy for her pursuit of Italian, but eventually develops a maternal metaphor—Italian is the “youngest child” of her linguistic offspring, with the stronger English and eldest Bengali (her weaker mother tongue) always threatening to do it violence.

In the second half of the book, the subject of the reflections shifts from the acquisition of language to the relationship of language with respect to concerns particular to Lahiri’s identity—namely, themes of immigration, homelessness, ethnicity, and exile. Although Lahiri’s reflections here are highly personal, they are of broad interest as they offer a clear view into the psyche and struggles of immigrant and bilingual or multilingual individuals. Lahiri is a first-generation citizen of the United States, born in London to parents who emigrated from Bangladesh. The family moved to the United States when Lahiri was three years old. Her first language at home was Bengali, although English soon became her dominant...

(This entire section contains 1996 words.)

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language because of schooling and immersion in mainstream American culture.

In a chapter titled “The Second Exile,” Lahiri shifts to these themes of identity and language and concludes that for a person such as herself who does not “belong to any specific place,” the very concept of exile is denied. She concludes: “Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world . . . I am exiled even from the definition of exile.” While Lahiri’s melancholia seems a bit self-indulgent and privileged—which, at times, she seems to acknowledge—her feelings of outsider status nevertheless ring true to common issues faced by minority and first-generation residents of the United States. She realizes that the pursuit of Italian has at one level been an attempt to escape from the unhealthy dynamic of her battling American and Bengali identities. Always labeled a hyphenated or minority member of American society, she nevertheless is by no means Bengali. Lahiri’s struggles between these two identities became crystallized in the comfort with English and discomfort with Bengali—a language with which Lahiri anticipates losing contact with the death of her parents. Introducing Italian into the mix, through what she describes as a triangulation of languages, changes the dynamics both of language and of the mind. Written in Rome and engaging with an expatriate experience, In Other Words has allowed Lahiri the intimate self-reflection within which to engage with these deeply personal concerns.

Equally interesting is how Lahiri’s experience with writing in a foreign language allows her to engage differently with the craft of writing. In Other Words is Lahiri’s first nonfiction book, a fact that is made possible by her relationship with the Italian language. It contains two fictional short-stories as well as passages driven by the imagination, but the text as a whole engages with the real facts and struggles of Lahiri’s life. Lahiri confesses that the personal exposure of this book is actually the result of her own attempt at escape. Her writing “comes from a place where [she] feel[s] invisible,” but her rapid fame resulted in the loss of anonymity. Writing in Italian, Lahiri has few expectations of correctness, beauty, or perfection in her writing. As a form of escape, she attests that writing in this foreign language allows her to experience a metamorphosis as a writer: “I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself.” Impelled forward by her fascination with and pursuit of the language itself, Lahiri can be less self-conscious about the mechanics of the text and more liberated by a sensation of anonymity.

In pursuing her resolve to write in Italian, Lahiri recounts experiencing support and acceptance from within the Italian literary community but criticism from the English-speaking world. Indeed, her decision to publish in Italian is counterintuitive. It is not a language over which she has complete mastery. Moreover, there is a much smaller readership for books written in Italian. In order to reach a wide audience, her work will inevitably need to be translated into English. Her audience worries that her writing in English will change as a result of this experiment and they warn that they “don’t want to read me translated from a foreign tongue.” All of these criticisms are, in fact, what makes In Other Words an invaluable experiment. It offers the possibility of persuading a monolingual audience to consider the decisions made in translation and to open them up to greater levels of linguistic richness and subtlety. An interesting byproduct of Lahiri’s immersion in Italian is that her book engages directly with significant Italian authors who are largely unknown outside of Italy. The references to Italian fiction, to Italian translators, and to other authors and readers of the language invite the English-speaking world into a wider world view.

If Lahiri is sensitive and reflective about her pursuit of the language and her engagement with the process of writing, there are some substantial and striking omissions from the reflections contained within this text. The first of these concerns her complete disengagement with the phenomenon of dialects in Italian and, more broadly, with the distance between the spoken and the written conventions of the language. Based in the United States and pursuing fluency in Italian, Lahiri would naturally have set out on a course toward the academic, written, and literary language. But once in Italy, she would inevitably have encountered the diversity of the multiple dialects that are spoken across the nation. No reference to these rich dialects is given in her text. Indeed, in one striking account that takes place in a store in the province of Salerno, Lahiri feels ostracized and “othered” when a salesperson assumes that her husband, a fluent Spanish speaker of Guatemalan descent, is Italian but that Lahiri herself is not. The salesperson claims to have based this assumption on their respective Italian accents, but Lahiri, certain that her Italian is better than her husband’s, attributes it instead to the difference in their skin tones. However well she speaks the language, she concludes, her appearance will always mark her as an outsider. Lahiri’s reaction may well have been justified, but it seems telling that this encounter with the imperfections of her Italian would have occurred in a place in which standard Italian is not spoken on the streets and in which, in fact, its use signals the “otherness” even of visitors from other parts of the country.

This critique, then, speaks to a larger cultural phenomenon to which Lahiri seems oblivious—namely, the romantic pursuit of Italy and the Italian language as a cultural phenomenon in the English-speaking world. Italy has long held a mystique for foreign writers, artists, academics, and the general public. This allure of the country and its language seems to offer an obvious, if culturally trite, explanation for Lahiri’s desire to speak the language. Lahiri’s impulse to discuss her relationship with Italian as romantic and maternal only furthers the suspicion that some of this “romance” is at play in her pursuit of the language, even if she herself never mentions this fact. The result of these two omissions from the book is that Lahiri’s deep immersion within the Italian language seems, nevertheless, to be culturally insensitive. Though she has mastered the complexities of the language to a large degree, her engagement with the struggles and dynamics of the peoples of Italy seems superficial at best. Undoubtedly, some of the experiences of hostility or rejection that she encountered in Italy were due to xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. Her conclusions to this effect are lessened in their sharpness, however, due to her seeming deafness to the major realities of dialects and cultural appropriation that affect the engagement of foreigners with Italian culture.

Despite these flaws, however, In Other Words offers a thoughtful study about language and about identity. It is a rare text, as it allows readers the opportunity to read an expert wordsmith’s exploration of the process of acquiring a language and also of her struggles to understand its many subtleties of grammar and vocabulary. This, alone, would make it a book that is well worth reading. Equally important, the text offers an opportunity for a close look into the mind and psyche of a significant contemporary writer. While, as Lahiri notes, the future direction of her career can by no means be predicted, this first autobiographical text allows readers to get a clearer sense of the issues that preoccupy Lahiri with respect to both her personal identity and her work as a writer.

Review Sources

  • Garner, Dwight. “Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words,’ a Writer’s Headlong Immersion into Italian.” Review of In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri. The New York Times, 9 Feb. 2016, Accessed 26 Oct. 2016.
  • Long, Karen. “Jhumpa Lahiri Falls in Love with Language Again, Exquisitely, by Writing in Italian.” The Los Angeles Times, 18 Feb. 2016, Accessed 26 Oct. 2016.
  • Luzzi, Joseph. Review of In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri. The New York Times, 14 Mar. 2016, Accessed 26 Oct. 2016.
  • Norman, Howard. “Jhumpa Lahiri’s Love Letter to Italian.” Review of In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri. The Washington Post, 28 Jan. 2016, Accessed 26 Oct. 2016.