Is Language in my DNA?

How ‘In Other Words,’ by Jhumpa Lahiri resonates with a bilingual author

I read In Other Words several months ago, and I reviewed it on Amazon and Goodreads. I thought I was done, but I continue to think about. What follows are fragments of my review, along with new comments as to why her book has such meaning to me.

In her warm style, full of vivid metaphors, Jhumpa Lahiri describes her experience of immersing herself into Italian, a language she had always wanted to learn.

This touches me on two levels: the first is her actual description of the experience of learning and trying to write in Italian, with the limitations, challenges, and rewards such an endeavor contains; the second reflects on my being an immigrant as well as an author born and educated in Romania, living in the US, and writing in a language that isn’t my own.

Like Lahiri, I experience the frustration of a non-native language, which, no matter how rich the vocabulary, I don’t feel in my gut. I mean I understand it perfectly, but the language doesn’t always penetrate me. I attribute this to not growing up in an English speaking culture. There is a familiarity and a level of comfort with something — anything — that one grows up with. When you are a child and absorb something for the first time, you own it. I guess it’s in our DNA. When Lahiri talks about the limitations of the new language, I believe that’s what she means.

I find her comments about translation revealing. I remember an old quote Traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor) — to translate means to betray. By contrary, Lahiri calls translating the most involved kind of reading (profound and intimate, were the adjectives she used). I agree with her. I translate my own novels and short stories from English into Romanian, and from Romanian into English. Yes, the new version (the translation) seems always foreign, only vaguely familiar, and less polished. Yet the process is helpful. It gives me a new perspective of my own work, and it allows me to find my mistakes and make the original and the translation better. In fact, I do it every time I have the time, except when I use Romanian slang, which I don’t know how to begin to translate into English.

I liked Lahiri’s metaphor about Italian being the bridges of Venice, and English the water in the canals. I guess with Romanian and English, the bridges I would cross would be less renowned or romantic than hers.

A phrase in her book I loved: “…I consider a book alive only during the writing. Afterwards, at least for me, it dies.”

In the last chapter, Lahiri mentions a Hungarian author, Agota Kristof, who lives in Switzerland and writes in French. For Kristof, learning French was a necessity. “I chose willingly to write in Italian,” specifies Lahiri in closing, to make sure we understand. After all, this might be the essence of her book and the beauty of her entire experience: free choice, something that absolutely didn’t have to be…

Like French for Kristof, English is not a free choice for me; yet I love my new language like parents of adopted children love them as their own.

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Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.

Under the pen name Tudor Alexander I have written and published five novels and one collection of short stories. Please visit www.tudoralexander.com.