Monday, May 8, 2017

In Other Words

Title:  In Other Words
Author:  Jhumpa Lahiri (Author). Ann Goldstein (Translator).
Publication Information:  Knopf. 2016. 256 pages.
ISBN:  1101875550 / 978-1101875551

Book Source:  I read this book based on the author's previous work.

Opening Sentence:  "I want to cross a small lake."

Favorite Quote:  "I write in order to break down the wall, to express myself in a pure way. When I write, my appearance, my name have nothing to do with it. I am heard without being seen, without prejudices, without a filter. I am invisible. I become my words, and the words become me."

What an odd little book, and I mean that in the best way possible. In Other Words is a slim little book. It's a little over 200 pages even in a small hardcover edition. The actual length of the writing is about half that length for the text appears twice through the 200 pages. One side is the original Italian in which Jhumpa Lahiri writes it, and the other is the English translation which was not done by the author but by someone else.

Wait. Italian. Jhumpa Lahiri. That is an unexpected combination. Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London. Her parents are from West Bengal. When she was two, the family moved to the United States. She grew up in Rhode Island. She has won the Pulitzer Prize and been nominated for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. Her original language is Bengali, and her published works are written in English.

That is, up until this book. This book, she chooses to write in Italian, her third language. Then, she chooses not to translate the book herself so as to avoid the temptation to correct the writing with her comfort level in English. Instead, the translator is Ann Goldstein, who also translated Elena's Ferrante's work into English.

This book is also her first foray into nonfiction for this book is a personal memoir. This book is self-reflective look at her own immigrant experience and her own experience with language. Although she studied Italian for years, she and her family also moved to Italy for a while for a completely immersive experience. This book comes from a perspective at the end of that experience, but it truly covers her experience with displacement and language throughout her life. She writes from the perspective of her craft, and her ability to work in a different medium (i.e., a different language) than the one she typically uses for her craft. It all presents unique challenges but also unique opportunities.

What comes through the strongest is the idea of being always a foreigner: "Those who don't belong to any specific place can't, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn't a true exile:  far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile." Those who have lived the immigrant experience will recognize it and find something of their own experience in it. "Because of my physical appearance, I'm seen as a foreigner ... No one, anywhere, assumes that I speak the languages that are a part of me ... the wall keeps me at a distance, separates me. The wall is inevitable. It surrounds me wherever I go, so that I wonder if perhaps the wall is me."

With no knowledge of Italian, I cannot comment on the original. The philosophical musings in translations, however, speak to me. It is a completely different experience than reading her fiction, but beautiful nevertheless.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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