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The far-fetched true story of a meteorically successful American writer who decided to write in Italian: Giovanni Tiso on Jhumpa Lahiri

Giovanni Tiso on American writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book, written in Italian, and put back into English by Elena Ferrante’s translator. What?

 

 

In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, Borges tells the story of a man who embarks on a project to rewrite Don Quixote word for word, not merely as a copy, but as an entirely new book that just happens to be identical to the original. If I could train myself to think and feel and act like Miguel de Cervantes, Menard tells himself, surely I will be able to recreate his masterpiece, and be its second author in my own right.

It is an absurd premise, but not vastly more far-fetched than the story of the meteorically successful American writer who, in her early 40s and with the publishing world at her feet, decides to become an Italian writer. By this I mean not merely a writer who writes in a language other than her native one, of which history numbers a few, but a proper Italian writer, immersed in the language and the culture, if not reborn into it; publishing in Italy first, for Italian readers, and then for the far wider market of her native language only later, in translation – a translation done by somebody else, as if the writer’s native language no longer belonged to her.

This is Jhumpa Lahiri and unlike Pierre Menard’s Quixote her book, In altre parole (In English: In Other Words), does exist. It was published in Italy last year to a warm if a little puzzled reception – along the lines of: we are thrilled that she is doing this but why is she doing it? – and has now been released by Bloomsbury in a translation by Ann Goldstein.

Goldstein is most famous for her work on Elena Ferrante’s novels and as the chief editor of the recent, three-volume complete works of Primo Levi. Her own journey into Italian also began well into adulthood, as she became fascinated with Dante and decided she was going to learn it well enough to be able to read the Divine Comedy in the original, as if this weren’t hard enough for native speakers to achieve. She then proceeded to convince colleagues at The New Yorker, where she works to this day as a copy editor, to call in a tutor and over a number of years they got up to the required level and read together the whole poem.

For her part, Lahiri studied Latin and Greek at university and began her love affair with Italian in her mid-twenties, at the same time as she was beginning to pursue her literary career. She continued taking lessons in New York, possibly at the same time as Goldstein, even as her debut collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer in 2000. Finally, in 2012, she decided she had to spend an extended period of time in Italy in order for her language to truly progress and she moved with her family to Rome. In Other Words is part-diary of that experience, part-short fiction, but mostly – as a way of connecting all of the material – an extended reflection on language(s), translation, cultural and geographic belonging, and being a writer who deals with all of those big issues and themes.

This may sound to you like a self-indulgent exercise, and perhaps it is. But learning another language as an adult is also a very humbling experience. At first it infantilises us, as we struggle to form the simplest of questions or express our most basic needs. Then we are trapped for the longest time in a sort of second adolescence, a period of oddity and confusion when the words we choose are never quite right to say what we mean. Finally, if we ever get that far, we settle into a comfortable fluency that is nonetheless filled with reminders that the new language is not the one in which we were born, and that we shall never be quite at home in it. This is what Lahiri grapples with, set down in the very tongue she is madly trying to learn.

“I write to feel alone”, she says at one point. At another, she confides that the project may be her reaction to achieving fame so young, and in a way that she didn’t feel warranted, so that she could feel as if she was starting out again.

The English edition presents the Italian text side by side with the translation, which I greatly appreciated but would have a little more than a decorative function for non-Italian speakers. It is an unusual choice, forcing the reader to reckon with what is traditionally hidden in foreign language books, aside from the occasional collection of poetry. But there it is. And because it’s there, I’m able – almost forced – to compare the two, with occasionally frustrating results.

At one point Lahiri writes about one of her characters feeling as if she was “stuck in a jail”, which Goldstein translates as trapped in a prison”. However the expression chosen by Lahiri, “essere incastrata in un carcere”, is not one any Italian person would use. It’s simply a back translation of the idiom “stuck in jail”, showing that even when we think and write directly in our second language, we are often influenced by the patterns of our first in ways we’re unaware of. The Italian editors didn’t pick this up, or decided to let it stand, and Goldstein didn’t attempt to preserve the oddness of that phrase because she probably didn’t realise that it wasn’t something a native speaker would say.

Yet in fact if I have a quarrel with the book is that it’s too polished, and Lahiri’s Italian is smoothed out too much, corrected too much, as a result of an editorial process she herself describes in detail. I’m not saying I would have wanted the text to be riddled with errors, but its cleanliness belies the author’s struggle to write in good Italian. I would personally rather have settled for the best Italian she could manage, which ought to have been impressive enough.

As a critic, pretty much my only measure of a good book is its capacity to make us think that it was necessary or important for us to have read it. In Other Words feels to me as if it’s not entirely persuaded that it’s a necessary book. But perhaps this time it’s no bad thing. It’s clearly a folly, this idea that Jhumpa Lahiri could ever become an Italian writer. I hope she’s going to stick with it.


 

In Other Words (Bloomsbury, $32.99) by Jhumpa Lahiri is available at Unity Books.