In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

In Other Words was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

It is the story of writer Jhumpa Lahiri’s love for the Italian language, printed in bilingual format so the reader can enjoy both languages.

A student of Italian myself, I appreciate her description of the study of a language as a love story. Italian is the fifth language I studied and I was truly motivated per piacere (out of pleasure). Its musical nature and intricate grammar patterns are truly captivating.

I took two years of Italian at the university level and I hope when time allows to return to Italy, not as a tourist but to learn and marvel at the minute intricacies of the language as Lahiri did. She describes the periods she spent studying Italian outside of Italy as periods of exile.

I relived my relationship to the Spanish language as I read In Other Words, from purchasing the first symbolic dictionary to the sentimental bonds that form to place and culture, as well as the inherent challenges.

Lahiri quotes the famous novelist Carlos Fuentes. In an interview in Nuovi Argomenti he points out that “It’s extremely useful to know that there are certain heights one will never be able to reach” (page 89). Here Lahiri is indicating that native fluency is impossible to attain. (For an individual to be truly bilingual they must be equally exposed to both languages before the age of five.)

Thus, Lahiri feels like “a guest, a traveler” when she reads Italian (page 83). I can certainly relate to that feeling as I reflect on my study of other languages, but I must say it is not an alienating one, even in Italian, which I speak with the least fluency. I have found each language to be unique, but all have been welcoming.

Lahiri also reflects on her parents’ mother tongue, Bengali. She describes English, Bengali and Italian as having a triangular relationship. For me, Arabic occupies the place of Bengali in the triangle.

Language naturally gives way to literature. Lahiri eloquently observes that “… the power of art is the power to wake us up, strike us to our depths, change us. What are we searching for when we read a novel, see a film, listen to a piece of music? We are searching, through a work of art, for something that alters us, that we weren’t aware of before” (page 171). Language lies at the base of our ability to appreciate the art that is literature.

After finding that Lahiri, like all writers, furthers the idea that “Writing comes from reading,” I am asking for any and all humanities related suggestions for my 2018 reading list (page 229).

Interestingly, Lahiri wrote her doctoral dissertation about how Italian architecture influenced English playwrights.

Lastly, I would like to note that Lahiri could have translated the book herself but she felt it would have broken her disciplined relationship with it.

3 thoughts on “In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

  1. Let me know when you want to go to Italy. I am still in touch with Gesuino Vaccani. I am sure he will love to see you again. The last time we saw him was in August of 1997 when we went to Italy.


  2. Wonderful, Pamela. One of the many benefits of studying language is the realization that a word in one language may have multiple meanings and associations in another – a completely different way of thinking. That can lead both to greater precision of expression as well as appreciation of other cultures.


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