Saturday, April 2, 2016

Why not write in your native language?

Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her best-selling short story collection The Interpreter of Maladies (1999). She followed up with two novels, The Namesake (2003) and The Lowland (2013) and another short story collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008). She has now published a memoir, In Other Words.

Although Lahiri's parents immigrated from Bengal and spoke Bengali at home, they arrived in the US when Jhumpa was young enough that English is her native language and she wrote her stories and novels in exquisite English. In what sounds like her twenties, however, she fell in love with Italian. "When you're in love, you want to live forever. You want the emotion, the excitement you feel to last. Reading in Italian arouses a similar feeling in me. I don't want to die, because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language. Because every day there will be a new word to learn. Thus true love can represent eternity." And after spending 20 years struggling to learn Italian, she moved her husband and children to Rome so that she could learn enough to write in Italian. She wrote In Other Words in Italian; it was translated into English by Ann Goldstein. The Italian and the English are on facing pages.

I am fascinated by Lahiri's story because (a) I too am in love with Italian and have been studying it for almost 20 years; (b) I am also in love with Japanese and am currently translating—with the considerable help of a native speaker—a book of contemporary Japanese short stories into English. So I spend a lot of time thinking about English, Japanese, and Italian.

I began studying Japanese because it seemed to me we think in a language and our language forces us in many ways to have a certain view of reality. For example, there are no words "brother" or "sister" in Japanese; there are only the words "older brother," "younger brother," "older sister," "younger sister." To speak of your sibling you have to define your relationship. Similarly in Italian, there is only one word for "grandson," "granddaughter," "grandchild," "neice," "and "nephew" (nipote). You need more words to covey the relationship and gender of your relative. Lahiri quotes a friend, Dominico Starone, who wrote, "A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility."

Tim Parks in his review of In Other Words in The New York Review of Books writes, "I can think of no other book set in Italy that has less of the color and drama of Italy in it. Not a single figure emerges. Not a dialogue of any note. Not a single situation characteristic of Italy. Even the language is there only as a challenge."

Moreover, the translation does Lahiri few favors. "When translated," Parks writes about Lahiri's Italian, "this strangeness [in syntax and word choice] disappears, since such structures and word choices are standard in English. Instead, where Lahiri has deployed Italian idioms and rhetorical strategies, Goldstein follows her usual habit of bringing them more or less word for word into English, so that the strangeness of the English text is that of so many translations where what was ordinary in the original becomes quaint and off-key in translation."

Nevertheless (or because of the translation), In Other Words sounds like a book I should study.

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