Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Vintage Books

ISBN: 978-1-101-91146-4

Jhumpa Lahiri wrote In Other Words (In altre parole) for me personally.

Or to put it another way, I can think of few books with which I identify so closely. Lahiri is in love with the Italian language; I'm carrying on an affair with it. Lahiri writes fiction; I write fiction. Lahiri has thought long and hard about translation (and has translated Domenico Starone's Ties (Lacci) among other works); I think long and hard about translation (and translate Japanese fiction).

In Other Words was  translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, an editor at The New Yorker, and is the translator of, among other works, the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan quartet. It's a book for me because the left-hand pages are Lahiri's Italian, the facing pages are Goldstein's English. Readers with Italian can read the original; readers with only English can read Goldstein; readers like myself who have some Italian can read the Italian (although as I do so, my lips move and I subvocalize) and compare the English. Why didn't Lahiri translate it herself?

Because, she says, "When I write in Italian, I think in Italian; to translate into English, I have to wake up another part of my brain. I don't like the sensation at all. I feel alienated. As if I'd run into a boyfriend I'd tired of, someone I'd left years earlier. He no longer appeals to me." Moreover, "the translation doesn't sound good. It seems insipid, dull, incapable of expressing my new thoughts."

The book includes personal history, observations about language learning in general and Italian specifically, anecdotes about learning Italian, and original fiction. (Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies and has published three other works of fiction.) Most of the chapters are short, and because only half the 233 pages are in English, it's a quick read—unless, like me, you struggle with the Italian.

I love the book, which is why I gave it five stars on Amazon. I find myself agreeing with thoughts I've had but never expressed. ("I think that the power of art is the power to wake us up, spike 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. We want to transform ourselves . . . ."

I'm delighted Vintage Books published it and I plan to return to it periodically to read the Italian and immerse myself in Lahiri's sentences. What I wondered as I read however was: Who is the reader for this book? How many people care about a writer wrestling with a foreign language? How many can identify with a writer who is able to move with her husband and children to Rome to submerge herself in the language? 

I rarely look at a book's reviews before I write about it. I don't want to be influenced even subtly. In Other Words is an exception. A number of the reviewers who gave the book one star complain that the book is boring and the Italian is not of a native speaker's, and they don't like Lahiri. One reviewer wrote: "The best thing this book does is give insight into a very self centered human being who feels like she is a 'victim' of her circumstances and the world. She is a perfectionist who can't fit into to the Italian language or culture because she doesn't fit. She gets upset that her husband seems to fit because of how he looks and his name, but really it's because he has the attitude of an Italian in him the ability to flow and not worry too much. He must be a saint to live with this woman actually! The amount of self-absorption is amazing to me—how does she even find time to be a wife and a mother? The book goes on and on about her inability to really get the Italian language and her fear of losing it and so on . . . ." 

Another critic wrote: "Let's leave alone motivation and talk about her Italian, her prose, her style. Undoubtedly, she has an advanced knowledge of the language. Yet her short memoir gave me the goosebumps. She piles up awkward adjectives that in Italian don't work, one after the other, all synonyms of sad, frustrated, confused and so on and so forth. Adjectives used perhaps by Verga, or Petrarca, or whomever she read, but that make little sense now . . . "

To be fair, at this writing, 62 percent of the 185 Amazon reviewers gave the book four or five stars. Saying, once again I guess, that different people bring different backgrounds to a book and take different experiences from it. I'm going to go with the San Francisco Chronicle's observation blurbed on the back cover: "In Lahiri's hands, these essays and stories become an invaluable insight into the craft of writing not as storytelling but as speaking the self into existence."