Any casual runner knows how diabolically difficult it is to traverse 26.2 miles in under five hours. However, in 2011, James Gefke not only completed the 115th Boston Marathon in four hours, 18 minutes, and 29 seconds, he did it while carrying thirty pounds of firefighting gear to honor the memory of a fellow firefighter. Similarly, anyone who has ever tried to write a book might agree with George Orwell’s assessment that it is “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” Why exacerbate the horror by contending with the additional burden of a foreign language’s unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar? Joseph Conrad wrote remarkable fiction not in his native Polish or even his second language, French, but in English, a language he began studying seriously only after settling in England while in his twenties. Conrad likened his literary translingualism to arduous, dangerous labor: “I had to work like a coal-miner in his pit, quarrying all of my English sentences out of a black night.”
Immigration is a common and compelling motive for switching languages. After news of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre convinced Ha Jin, who was studying in Boston at the time, not to return home to China, it made sense to adopt the language of the country in which he remained. Ten years later, he won the National Book Award for Waiting, a novel he wrote in English. Louis Begley, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz, Aleksandar Hemon, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Luc Sante are among many other writers who adopted English after moving to the United States. Translingual transplants to France include Romain Gary, Nancy Huston, Milan Kundera, Alain Mabanckou, and Andreï Makine. Turkish immigrants to Germany who have adopted German as their literary medium include Zehra Çirak, Emine Sevgi Őzdamar, and Feridun Zaimoğlu. Many other writers abandoned the language of their homeland without leaving home; Chinua Achebe, Raja Rao, Léopold Senghor, and Wole Soyinka all adopted as literary medium the language of the European imperial power governing their country.
The case of Jhumpa Lahiri differs from them all. Noting how the three most celebrated translingual authors—Samuel Beckett, Conrad, and Vladimir Nabokov—all had closer and longer ties to their adopted languages than she has to hers, Italian, Lahiri writes, in Italian: “Mi chiedo se ci siano altri come me”—“I wonder if there are others like me.” There are not. Born in London to immigrants from Calcutta, she counts Bengali as her mother tongue, though she admits to an imperfect command of it. When she was two, the family moved to Rhode Island, where she grew up and where she began to cultivate a talent for writing in English. After receiving a BA in English literature from Barnard College, Lahiri continued to pursue her interest in English through two MA’s, an MFA, and a PhD from Boston University. With two commercially successful collections of short fiction—Interpreter of Maladies (1999) and Unaccustomed Earth (2008)—and two novels—The Namesake (2003) and The Lowland (2013)—Lahiri has received some of the most prestigious accolades in the Anglophone literary world—a Pulitzer Prize, a PEN/Hemingway Award, and a National Humanities Medal, among others.
Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His books include Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton, 2005), The Translingual Imagination (University of Nebraska Press, 2000), Loving Reading: Erotics of the Text (Archon, 1985), and The Self-Begetting Novel (Columbia University Press, 1980).