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.
She now confesses to an aversion to speaking, reading, or writing English. “English denotes a heavy, burdensome aspect of my past,” she writes, in Italian. “I’m tired of it.” (“L’inglese significa un aspetto del mio passato pesante, ingombrante. Ne sono stanca.”) Her latest book, a short series of reflections on the author’s passion for Italian, discards inglese in favor of italiano. Originally published in Milan in 2015 as In Altre Parole, it was published in the United States in 2016 in a dual-language edition titled In Other Words. Lahiri’s Italian text appears on the verso page, its English translation on the recto page. In the very brief “Author’s Note” that, she points out, constitutes “the first formal prose I have composed in English since my last book, The Lowland, was completed, in 2012,” Lahiri explains that she could not bring herself to translate her work into English. The task was instead entrusted to Ann Goldstein, acclaimed for her translations of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi. Linguistic demographics suggest that Goldstein’s text will be more widely read than Lahiri’s.
In Other Words is a love story, the account of what followed Lahiri’s initial infatuation with Italy and Italian during a visit to Florence at age twenty-five. Back in the United States, a succession of tutors feeds her passion for the language. Twenty years after her first encounter with Italy, she and her family move to Rome, and, during a two-year sojourn, she determines to express herself entirely in Italian. Symptoms of Lahiri’s erotic fixation include separation pangs; during a month spent back in Massachusetts, surrounded entirely by English-speakers, she is distressed by the absence of her beloved. She is as smitten with Italian as the Russian émigré Andreï Makine is with French in his rhapsodic novel Dreams of My Russian Summers (1997). To find comparable ecstasy for the English language, one has to look to the classic immigration memoir The Promised Land (1912), in which, erasing the tongue of her Russian Jewish childhood, Mary Antin extols English, “this beautiful language in which I think,” and insists that: “in any other language happiness is not so sweet, logic is not so clear.”
Lahiri describes her book as “una sorta di autobiografia linguistica, un autoritratto” (“a sort of linguistic autobiography, a self-portrait”). It could also be categorized as what Alice Kaplan dubbed a “language memoir,” autobiographical prose in which the focus is on the author’s acquisition of a new language. Examples would be Kaplan’s own French Lessons: A Memoir (1993), Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989), and Ariel Dorfman’s Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey (1994). Despite her fixation on French, Kaplan wrote her memoir in English, but Lahiri remains so beguiled by Italian that, despite her admission that “I have to accept that in Italian I’m partly deaf and blind,” she cannot imagine writing her memoir in any other language. In Altre Parole is so centered on Lahiri and Italian that there is no room for other characters; the author’s husband and children remain shadowy, unnamed figures vaguely compliant with Lahiri’s desire to immerse herself in Italy and Italian.
Whereas some combination of immigration, imperialism, family ties, and market forces impels other translinguals to switch languages, Lahiri’s choice of Italian—“a language that has nothing to do with my life”—appears gratuitous. Early on, she admits that “I don’t have a real need to know this language. I don’t live in Italy, I don’t have Italian friends. I have only the desire.” It seems bizarre, even perverse, to sacrifice the considerable advantages of her talent for writing in English to take up a language that is much less widely read. In 2017, English—as both native and acquired language—is the most widely spoken language in the world. It is the dominant language in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, South Africa, and more than fifty other countries. A talent for writing in English can provide access to the most influential publishing houses, book distributors, and reviewing media, as well as the largest number of readers and the most glittering prizes of any contemporary language. When Beckett gave up English to write in French, another prestigious language with global reach, he did not have to sacrifice as much cultural capital as Lahiri does when she chooses to write in Italian, the official language of Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, and the Vatican and only the fifteenth most widely spoken language in the world. In Altre Parole was awarded Italy’s Premio Letterario Viareggio-Rèpaci, but its prestige is not nearly as lustrous internationally as the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award, for both of which Lahiri’s last book in English, The Lowland, was shortlisted.
Italian novelist Francesca Marciano is at a similar stage in her career to Lahiri. She, too, has published four books of fiction—three novels, Rules of the Wild (1998), Casa Rossa (2004), and The End of Manners (2008), and one collection of short stories, The Other Language (2014). However, she seems an inverted image of Lahiri. While maintaining a successful career as a screenwriter for Italian cinema, Marciano, who lives in Rome, publishes all of her fiction not in her native Italian but in English. Lahiri is better known and recompensed than Marciano, but that would not be likely had she published all four of her previous books in Italian, not English. Hideo Levy, an American gaijin who writes all of his novels in Japanese (like Italian, a “minor” language in comparison with English, Chinese, and Spanish), might seem a parallel to Lahiri, though Levy’s childhood as a diplomat’s son made Japanese a more natural choice for him than Italian is for Lahiri. However, Ann Patty’s recent language memoir, Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin (2016), offers perhaps the most instructive parallel to Lahiri’s willful translingualism. The subtitle of her book emphasizes that, as with Lahiri, her relationship with Latin is, like Lahiri’s with Italian, romantic. A retired book publisher, Patty recounts her midlife determination to master classical Latin, a “dead” language with no immediate worldly use except to fulfill her desire for a structure to her existence. At the end of four years of intensive study, Patty feels part of a small but worldwide community of Latinists. By contrast, though, Lahiri’s embrace of Italian enhances her solitude. And though Patty writes her memoir in English, not Latin, it is an important part of Lahiri’s linguistic project to hazard hers in Italian.
The ability to choose languages is a product of privilege. There are said to be more than sixty million refugees currently in the world, and few of those get to select their sanctuary, or its language. Similarly, passion for a particular language is rarely what drives translingual authors. However, though German, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish were more convenient vehicles of expression, S. Y. Agnon, Chaim Nachman Bialik, Shaul Tchernikhovsky, and other pioneers of modern Hebrew chose to cast their fates with their people’s ancient language. Oscar Wilde’s social status and education allowed him to thumb his nose at the English, oppressors of his native Ireland, by choosing to write a play in French, Salomé, which scandalized contemporary London audiences. During the Heian period in Japan, it was fashionable and a prerogative of the aristocracy to write kanshi, poems composed in Chinese rather than their own Japanese.
Like Lahiri, Eritrean poet Ribka Sibhatu switched to Italian, from her native Tigrinya. Like Lahiri, Sibhatu even published a dual-language edition of her literary work, titled Aulò: Canto-Poesia dall’Eritrea (1993). However, unlike Lahiri, Sibhatu created both of the texts, the Tigrinyan and the Italian, and she was drawn to Italy and Italian not out of some mystical attraction but because she was forced to flee violent oppression in her native Eritrea. The bestsellers that Lahiri published in English provided her the material security that enabled her to risk writing in Italian. Nevertheless, In Altre Parole is a brave, if not brazen, act, as foolhardy as the determination by Michael Jordan, at the height of his dazzling tenure with the Chicago Bulls, to retire from professional basketball and pursue a career as a Major League Baseball player. He failed and returned to the NBA, leading the Bulls to three more championships.
Lahiri anticipates that some readers might dismiss her excursion into Italian as “a dead end or, at best, a ‘pleasant distraction.’” Expressing the hope that Lahiri would soon return to English, Dwight Garner in the New York Times did in fact describe In Other Words as “a soft, repetitive, self-dramatic and self-hobbled book.” However, disapproval might merely inspire Lahiri, who acknowledges the flaws in her Italian but proclaims that “Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity. It stimulates. The more I feel imperfect, the more alive I feel.” Perfection, the kind for which her meticulous English style is often praised, thus becomes lethal, reason enough to grope her way through a strange new language. “If it were possible to bridge the distance between me and Italian,” she contends, “I would stop writing.”
Lahiri abruptly and unexpectedly became famous when her first book, Interpreter of Maladies, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Celebrity was personally discomfiting and, for a writer who thrives on disappearing into her work, an aesthetic handicap. “I wanted to be anonymous and ordinary,” she explained in an essay, in English, four years before In Altre Parole. Italian was an instrument of self-effacement, an exercise in humiliation, in reducing her proudest asset, command of language, to the level of a child’s prattle. Echoing Beckett’s famous explanation for his turn to French (“parce qu’en français c’est plus facile d’écrire sans style”—because in French it’s easier to write without style), Lahiri declares: “In italiano scrivo senza stile, in modo primitivo”—“In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way.” Disencumbering herself of the expectations created by her nuanced English style, she revels in a newfound freedom. In English, Lahiri cannot escape the burden of being a public figure, but in Italian, she can declare, “Scrivo per sentirmi sola”—“I write to feel alone.”
Estranged from both Bengali and English, Lahiri fumbles her way to Italian. “Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue,” she presents herself as “exiled even from the definition of exile.” In appropriating a statement by Nathaniel Hawthorne as the epigraph for her book Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri underscored the creative stimulus provided by exile. “The Custom-House” essay that serves as a foreword to The Scarlet Letter compares human vitality to that of a potato: “Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil.” Lahiri’s switch from English to Italian is a strategy for replenishing the soil. And her compounded exile—living in the language of Rome but admiring above all other poets Ovid, who was banished from Rome—is her literary ascesis, the mortification of her syntax, “an act of demolition.” To restrain his playful prose, Georges Perec concocted a lipogrammatic novel, La Disparition (1969), that excludes the letter e from the entire volume. In Altre Parole is like an elaborate lipogram, one of those texts that arbitrarily avoid a particular letter of the alphabet. It is purged of all the nuances and felicities that Lahiri could count on in the use of English.
To translate is, for a writer, to pursue another discipline of self-effacement, by subordinating her own imagination to the text of another writer. Two years after publishing In Altre Parole, Lahiri returned to English, but only as the translator of an Italian novel, Lacci (2014), which, at the invitation of its author, Domenico Starnone, she translated into Ties (2016). In her Introduction to the translation, Lahiri explains that, when she first read the novel, in Rome, “I was immersed in Italian, in a joyous state of self-exile from the language (English) and the country (the United States) that have marked me most significantly.” While expressing her admiration for Lacci, she describes the anxiety she felt about taking on the task of translating it. It would require a “return to English after a hiatus of not working with the language for nearly four years.” She feared that the project “would distance me from Italian, but the effect has been quite the contrary. If anything I feel more tied to it than ever. I have encountered countless new words, new idioms, new ways of phrasing things.” Lahiri’s work as translator furthers her ambition to immerse herself in the Italian language.
At the end of In Altre Parole, Lahiri is poised to leave Rome and return, reluctantly, to America and English. Recognizing her estrangement from English, a language in which she has ceased even to read, she wishes that she could remain in Italy and Italian. She confronts her ambiguous future with two questions: “Will I abandon English definitively for Italian? Or, once I’m back in America, will I return to English?” Or will she take up the discipline of yet another defamiliarizing language, such as Finnish or Amharic? The only certainty is that if Lahiri, who currently teaches creative writing at Princeton, does return to fiction, it and she will never be the same, whether in English or Italian.
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