Trading English for Italian: Jhuma Lahiri’s Choice

Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies.

I happen to be a linguaphile, or lover of languages, having lost count of how many I’ve pursued, at one time or another, with French and Spanish at the top of my list. I like French for its euphony and cultural legacy. It’s also the language of my inheritance. But then I study Spanish, almost daily, largely for its ubiquity and hence utility.

Yet in all of this pursuit, I cherish English as the greatest repository for infinite articulation, featuring the largest vocabulary, eclectically drawn, rich in subtlety of nuance, syntactical variation, and thus fit vessel for poetry in particular. While learning Chinese seems to be catching on, myriad tones, script and accents spell difficulty for Westerners. Finally, English is like no other language in producing so universal a writer as Shakespeare. It bothers me when I see it abused.

I didn’t know until recently that Oscar Wilde wrote his play Salome in French or that celebrated beat writer Louis Jean Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, speaking French as his first language and began writing On the Road in French. Few Americans probably know he wrote other novels and poetry in French, writing in his journal, “It’s hard for me to talk in English.”

Conrad and Nabokov also come to mind, but I think they chose writing in a foreign language more from necessity, than disavowal of their inheritance, ultimately selecting English as their idiom, or much like Danish writer, Isak Denison. Nabokov was bilingual from childhood, never simply Russian speaking. Perhaps today’s most notable writer in another language is Czech born writer Milan Kundera, who insists he should be considered a French writer.

More recently, there is American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer Prize winner for her short stories in English, Interpreter of Maladies (2000), who became enamored with Italian after a student trip to Florence, subsequently relocating to Rome with her husband and children and no longer reading and writing in English, apart from lately translating her work into English.

As a West Bengali diaspora child, born in London, brought up in Rhode Island, Lahiri experienced the frequent immigrant sense of dislocation. Italian delivered escape from painful memories and opportunity “to reconstruct myself.” Her early novels and short story collections in English mirror the Indian immigrant experience in America. Of all America’s immigrant writers, Lahiri’s thematic is displacement, ironically providing for a universality of readership, whether of race, gender, age or sexual orientation, ad infinitum.

In a revealing essay in The New Yorker {2015), “Teach Yourself Italian,” originally composed in Italian and translated into English by Ruth Goldstein, Lahiri elaborates: “My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation….In a sense I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.”

One of our most accomplished contemporary writers, Lahiri has received many awards that include the Old Henry Award PEN/Hemingway Award, Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She has been a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and The National Book Award and as mentioned, the Pulitzer Prize. A graduate of Barnard College (Columbia), she has an MA, MFA, and Ph. D. from Boston University.

Her narratives are compelling for their empathetic unveiling of life’s myriad alienated, lonely, and distraught, the quotidian experience of failing relationships, the deaths of loved ones. Transcending the Indian diaspora, Lahiri renders universality without sentimentality.

Her style exhibits simplicity, housed in a refreshing directness, every word le mot juste that would make Flaubert proud. Imagery conveys inner moods, a day’s ordinariness, the anxiety of continuing challenge, inward as well as outer, to not fail, to move past and prevail.

Take this passage, for example, from her short story, “A Temporary Matter,” with its straight-forward sensory depiction of marital dissonance, that exhibits, not tells, as all good writing does the pathos of marital alienation:

Tonight with no lights, they would have to eat together. For months now they’d served themselves from the stove, and he’d {Shukumar} taken his plate into his study, letting the meal grow cold on his desk before shoving it into his mouth without pause, while Shoba took her plate to the living room and watched game shows, or proofread files with her arsenal of colored pencils at hand.

Her first work in Italian, In altre parole in which she writes of her choice of Italian, appeared in 2015, followed by her novel, Dove mi Trove in 2018, which she later translated into English, titled Wandering

The anomaly of her exile is that Italy doesn’t provide for the assimilation America features, despite its salient racism. Italians are notoriously xenophobic, resistant increasingly to immigrants who increasingly populate Rome. Lahiri admits to a swelling nativism reflected in the nation’s political life: “I am alarmed and terrified by the rise of the extreme right in Italy, by intolerance toward foreigners, and by acts of brutal violence perpetrated against them. I follow these events closely in the Italian press. I am equally anguished by the populism in this country that made Trump’s election possible. It really strikes me that the two countries I now shuttle between and consider home are places where xenophobia still thrive” (The New Yorker, January 29, 2018).

Has her writing suffered from her language transition? This is a serious question I can’t answer, as I don’t read Italian. There are critics who think so. “Whatever sharpness and shrewdness Ms. Lahiri possesses seems to have been surgically removed,”writes NYT literary critic, Dwight Gardner (February 9, 2016). In her non-fiction In Other Words, translated from Italian, she expounds on her linguistic displacement, confessing that “I know that my writing in Italian is something premature, reckless, always approximate.”

Ironically, Lahiri may now actually be a better writer in Italian than in English. Commenting on her most recent novel, Dove Mi Trovo, or Whereabouts (2018) in its English translation, Alessandro Giammei, an assistant professor of Italian at Bryn Mawr and former colleague of Lahiri, thinks so: “If, in English, Lahiri is an eye, he added, “in Italian, she’s an ear” (NYT, April 27, 2021).

While I appreciate her attempt to assuage the linguistic impositions of birth and early emigration, age three, to America, and transcend bicultural dissonance by deliberately choosing her idiom and culture, I think it a conflict of her own making. So much of life isn’t of our choosing. We don’t choose our parents, skin color, country of birth, ad infinitum.

Still, I admire her daring. It’s one thing to learn another language or more; quite another, to achieve literary mastery in a language not bequeathed by birth or upbringing. Besides, I confess “l’italiano è una lingua così bella.”


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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