IN BOOK ONE of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the nymph Daphne, fleeing from the amorous pursuit of Apollo, calls out to her father the river god, “O help me, / If there is any power in the rivers, / Change and destroy the body which has given / Too much delight.” Best known through Bernini’s miraculous sculpture at the Villa Borghese in Rome, capturing in marble the speed of the chase and the fragility of laurel leaves, the myth of Apollo and Daphne is the central metaphor of In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book. “I realize that I’m trying to get away from something, to free myself,” she writes.
I’ve been writing in Italian for almost two years, and I feel that I’ve been transformed, almost reborn. But the change, this new opening, is costly: like Daphne, I, too, find myself confined. I can’t move as I did before, the way I was used to moving in English.
In Other Words is the diary of Lahiri’s engagement with the Italian language, from her first visit to Florence in 1994, armed with a pocket dictionary, to her momentous decision to move to Rome for an extended stay. Her first nonfiction work, written originally in Italian as a series of short pieces for the magazine Internazionale, In Other Words recounts the author’s full immersion in the language through a series of images: a lake to cross, a locked gate, an unfinished book, the two-faced Janus, the rock of Sisyphus. The image of Daphne, reborn through destruction, impenetrable yet unprotected, describes the deep paradox at the heart of this intriguing book.
Lahiri shares with the reader the sense of vulnerability and even humiliation into which the experience plunges her. In a harrowing episode, on the second night after her move with her family to Rome, the key to the apartment refuses to turn in the lock. She is confronted by the full brunt of her decision, with her children in tears begging to return to America immediately. She perseveres, keeping a diary in Italian, spending countless, painstaking hours on reading, looking up words, building her command of the language from the ground up. Many months later, a foolish slip by a saleswoman, who mistakenly assumes that Lahiri’s husband is Italian, and thus a native speaker, while Lahiri herself is not, fills her with anguish.
People who don’t know me assume, looking at me, that I don’t know Italian. When I speak to them in Italian, when I ask for something (a head of garlic, a stamp, the time), they say, puzzled, “I don’t understand.” It’s always the same response, the same scowl. As if my Italian were another language.
Anyone who has mastered a foreign language will recognize the moment when the wall comes down, if only for a moment. In my own case, two months into my eight-year stay in Italy, it came in the form of a dream, in which my old college friends began to converse with me in Italian. For Lahiri, the epiphany arrives one day when she sits down in the library and envisions an entire story.
It comes in a flash. I hear the sentences in my brain. I don’t know where they originate, I don’t know how I’m able to hear them. I write them rapidly in the notebook; I’m afraid it will all disappear before I can get it down.
That short story, “The Trade,” appears at the heart of the book, and by her own account is unlike anything she has ever written. A woman, a translator, decides to abandon her old life and become another person, so she divests herself of everything dear and moves to a new city. At a strange apartment where a trunk sale of sorts is taking place, she removes her favorite black sweater, but when she goes back to retrieve it she finds that it is gone. The sweater that is returned to her feels unfamiliar, coarse, repugnant. The next morning, however, the same sweater has become pleasing. “She didn’t want to find the one she had lost, she didn’t miss it. Now, when she put it on, she, too, was another.”
“The Trade” points to the nagging question at the heart of the book, and indeed of the author’s decision to reinvent herself not as an Italian writer but as a writer in Italian. Lahiri, who has perfect pitch in English, has embarked on a project in which she will speak, read, and write only in Italian. The payoff is uncertain, as she admits when she attempts to translate one of her own short essays. “I’m overwhelmed by the richness, the power, the suppleness of my English. Suddenly thousands of words, nuances, come to me. A solid grammar, no hesitations. I don’t need a dictionary; in English I don’t have to clamber uphill.” Her Italian, meanwhile, to an extent that a reader of the English translation may not appreciate, is quite idiosyncratic. Her prose is more spare and restrained than that of a native Italian, and her vocabulary veers between the colloquial and the high literary, reflecting the mixed blessing of living in the exuberant city of Rome while reading a strict diet of modern Italian classics. She is on treacherous ground with the Italian pronoun system, which demands verbal acrobatics and explicit markers where English operates by inference. With each successive chapter, however, her command of the language becomes more confident, from her rudimentary attempts at writing Italian in her first diary entries, to the final chapter, consisting of a second short story, “Half-Light.”
This is a remarkable accomplishment. Italian and Italians can be unforgiving — of both native and nonnative speakers — when it comes to how the language is supposed to be written. After 40-odd years of engagement with the language, and still learning something new every day, I can be hesitant to write an email, fearing that someone, somewhere, will scoff at an inadvertent error. My Italian friends in the United States despair of their children ever becoming fluent enough in their native language to pass muster in the schools back home. So I sympathize when Lahiri, ever the perfectionist, is hard on herself. She need not be. In a relatively short period, she has become a fluent speaker, with only a sliver of an accent (as her participation on various literary panels attests). And she has developed a unique new voice that, with all its imperfections, can be more personal and vulnerable than her writing in English.
“Exophonic” is the technical term for a writer using a language other than the native tongue. The best known among them form a distinguished company — Conrad, Nabokov, Beckett. Lahiri makes no such grandiose claims for herself, although she may be taking a bigger and gutsier risk, having already established herself as a successful writer in English. She also joins the distinguished company of many Italian writers who grew up speaking in dialect, a regional variant of standard Italian, or another national language altogether (French, German, and, today, on the wave of recent immigration trends, Albanian, Arabic, and Somali). In their day authors as prominent as Pirandello, Svevo, and Moravia were attacked by the critical establishment for writing “bad” Italian. Even Manzoni, who set the standard for modern Italian prose, struggled for years to purify his masterpiece, The Betrothed, of any elements of his native Lombard dialect, and so assure its Florentine integrity.
Whatever Lahiri may have lost here in linguistic flexibility is, to my mind, compensated for by the freshness and exuberance that Italian has given her (not to mention the personal happiness). In the spirit of a modernist painter, she has deliberately shattered the compact surface of her prose, in search of a deeper, rougher truth. She has exchanged an inherited exile for a voluntary one, embracing solitude as a natural condition rather than an imposition.
I first read In Other Words when it came out in Italy, in a charming paperback with generous inside flaps and a playfully designed cover. The editors made the wise decision to avoid buffing out the occasional clumsy expression, and as a result the book preserves its character as a personal diary. The American confection, by contrast, bears the solemn and decorous manner of a modern classic. On the cover there is a photo of the author, in shades of brown, sitting by herself in an old library. Leaning over what looks like a dictionary, with a folio edition of a rare book to one side, she looks utterly bored. Printed on ivory-white paper in tasteful Janson typeface, the English translation is placed opposite the original Italian, a parallel format normally reserved for poetry, the Divine Comedy, and in-flight magazines.
Rather than translate the work herself, which might have led to a wholesale rewrite, Lahiri has entrusted the job to the prolific Ann Goldstein. As she is well aware, different impulses drive the two languages, and her superior command of English would inevitably have led to attempts to improve the text. A previous effort at translation left Lahiri deeply divided: “I can’t deal with the tension; I’m incapable of moving like an acrobat between the languages.” Nor can this have been an easy task for Ms. Goldstein, who brings to the job not only her formidable experience as a translator but also her many years as an editor at The New Yorker. Between the talents of Goldstein and, I imagine, Lahiri’s own contributions, the resulting English text is more polished than the Italian original, and preserves little sense of the original’s tentativeness. I am not sure it could have been otherwise.
The American edition has an afterword that did not appear in the original Italian. In it the author confesses to some ambivalence about the book, stemming from a sense of embarrassment and fear that she has overreached. Her sojourn in Rome now behind her, she casts an elegiac shadow over the work; it may be, she hints, her first and only book in Italian. If that turns out to be true, it would be a shame. In Other Words is a joyful account, an honest and poignant record of a fresh start in life — I’d be eager to hear more, to continue observing this reserved and eloquent writer opening up into a new language. So much so that in my copy of the Italian edition, in the next to last chapter, I circled two words, “vai avanti” — keep going.
Michael F. Moore is the former chair of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund and an interpreter-translator from the Italian. His most recent translations are Lost Words, by Nicola Gardini (New Directions, 2016), and The Drowned and the Saved, by Primo Levi (Liveright, 2015).