Jhumpa Lahiri Pens Love Affair with Italian in New Book

An inexplicable craving for Italian language compelled Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri to go live in Rome.

Published: 22nd February 2016 11:41 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd February 2016 11:41 AM   |  A+A-


NEW DELHI: An inexplicable craving for Italian language compelled Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri to go live in Rome, moving home to Italy from Rhode Island in the US.

The Pulitzer winning writer who shot to fame with her simple yet pathos ridden style of storytelling in English has in fact put her authority as an accomplished author at stake with her latest autobiographical account, "In Other Words" (In altre parole) that she penned originally in Italian.

The barely 200-page-long book translated by Ann Goldstein, that bears a picture of the bemused author most likely in "a library in the ghetto in Rome" on the cover is the first book that she has written in the "adopted, desired" language.

"My Italian is still limited compared with my English. And yet it is the sole language in which I continue to write. Writing in Italian is a choice on my part, a risk that I feel inspired to take," Lahiri writes.

That the author is an amateur in Italian is conspicuous in her linear trail of thoughts reflected in equally crisp sentences. But what stays on with Lahiri as a writer at heart is her impeccable use of metaphors where she personifies the language, first as her lover and then as her newborn child.

She is impatient in revealing her secret crush on Italian and confesses her desperate love for the language even before she barely reaches the twentieth page.

She says, "It (Italian) seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship. It's like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond...What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight."

It is only much later in the book, when she is assigned the reluctant task of translating one of her own Italian pieces into English to be presented at a literary festival in Capri, does her initial infatuation transforms into a motherly affection seeking to protect her newborn from his dominating and stronger elder "brother," English.

"Now, as I translate myself, I feel like the mother of two children...I feel split in two...I know that Beckett translated himself from French to English. That would be impossible for me, because my Italian remains much weaker. They aren't equal, these two brothers, and the little one is my favourite," she writes.  What is strikingly beautiful about Lahiri's latest is the way it documents the evolution of the author's relationship with the language without camouflaging the blemishes. It chronicles the rebirth of a writer and reasons with the readers and the writer herself as to why she takes up the perilous experiment in the first place.

"I'm aware of a state of deprivation. And yet, at the same time, I feel free, light. I rediscover the reason I write, the joy as well as the need," she says.

But why would a writer as affluent as Lahiri not translate the book herself? She answers even before the book begins.

"Returning to English was disorienting, frustrating, also discouraging. It made me acutely aware of how limited my Italian was compared with my English. It made me question the value of the experiment I had undertaken."

Her reasoning seems to stem from a pervading sense of infidelity she associates with her resuming writing in English - as if she would betray her lover.

"Translating the book myself would have meant re-engaging intimately with English, wrestling with it, rather than with Italian."

"In addition, 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 to render my Italian honestly, without smoothing out its rough edges, without neutralising its oddness, without manipulating its character," she says.

However, despite her nascent, limited and immature Italian, Lahiri's writing never ceases to create the effect of the impressionist litterateur she has been in "The Namesake" and "The Interpreter of Maladies" and evokes an immense sense of emancipation in anyone who wishes to set out to conquer a challenging dream.


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