Thursday, March 31, 2016

Interpreter of Languages: Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

(author Jhumpa Lahiri)

It is surreal. The first episode that she describes absolutely unsettles you. Perhaps, for me it is Dali and Chirico wound together with some American pastoral image and left me alone at the verge of it. Yes, I am talking about the opening episode of Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest experimental book, ‘In Other Words’. As we all know by now, this book is a translated book. An American/India writer, Jhumpa Lahiri’s book translated in English? Which language did she write then? ‘In Other Words’ is the answer for this question. Lahiri wrote it in Italian and it is translated by the well-known writer and translator, Ann Goldstein. The book has several layers than its apparent first person narrative about the adoption of a new language and writing in it.

Let me go back to the surreal image that Lahiri creates at the outset. She stands at the shore of a deep black pool and she sees people wading into the waters that hold too many enigmas that the author herself cannot fathom. At the other end of the pool, there is a building which almost looks like a Gothic Church. She does not dare to cross the water, but finally she does. She goes into the building, experiences something ethereal and comes back. She just does not know whether she would go back to it again or not. The very thought of it fills her with fear. And sooner than later we comes to know that the pool that she refers to is the pool of a new language and the edifice out there is the literary structures that have already been built in that language.

 (In Other Words promotional material)

This scene is perhaps is repeated in a different way, but very convincingly in her story ‘The Exchange’, which is originally written in Italian and translated into English, and included in this book. The story is about a young woman who wants to become someone else. She goes into a palatial boutique where women dressed in black hover around over rows of black designer wears, leaving whatever they have been wearing till then. She too removes her much loved black sweater and tries out a few new clothes. Having grown dissatisfied with the attires that she has chosen, she decides to get back to her own clothes. But the shop owner seems to have misplaced her black sweater. She demands it and the owner, a big woman in black makes a few phone calls and make sure that none has taken her sweater by mistake. Finally, the dressmaker gives her another sweater which is identical but not the same. Slowly, the woman grows into it and she forgets she had another sweater of the same cut.

‘The Exchange’ is pivotal to ‘In Other Words’ because, Lahiri herself has been wishing to try out another language and become ‘another’ writer. She leaves her beloved English behind; English that had given her the identity as a writer. But Lahiri has been living in ‘Other Worlds’ too. Born to a Bengali couple, Lahiri spoke chaste Bengali at home while growing up in the USA, where her mother preserved her pure Bengali for many decades as if she had never stepped out of Kolkata in her life. For her mother it was a rebellion. But for Lahiri to avoid that language was a rebellion to begin with. She found in a linguistically conflicting zone when she was with her teenage friends in the US and when she came to Kolkata and spoke in not so good Bengali. She grew up as a linguistic outsider who was craving for an anchor in some language. English being her first language and as she puts, luck favored her, she became an acclaimed writer. But her first novel ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ ‘took place’ in Bengal, exactly the Man Booker Award Winning ‘God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy ‘took place’ in Aymanam, Kottayam, Kerala. Lahiri wanted a language, which she gained for herself; not as a given either by the parents or by the country.

 (one of the statements of Jhumpa Lahiri)

17th century English literature and the influence of Italian architecture in it was Lahiri’s doctoral thesis and perhaps this was one of the reasons that she got attracted to the Italian language. She knew there were authors already in the firmament of world literature who wrote in adopted language, Beckett and Conrad being the best examples, who wrote in French and English respectively.  Lahiri was looking for a ‘home’ when she decided to take up learning Italian. The whole idea of finding a home became an artistic pursuit in itself and then it became a soul searching as well as transforming experience for her which continued for almost two years. None in the contemporary art scene or literature scene would have taken such great pains and gone such extents to learn a new literal as well as visual language in order to come out with an original work of art, here in Lahiri’s case a book, which narrates the story of making of the book itself.

A writer is automatically a translator. He/she walks between not only two languages but also many languages. She writes in one and reads in many other languages, even if they are translated. It is rare that a writer reads one language and writes in many. Lahiri says that for her, taking the Venice analogy, languages are like little lands separated by lagoons and she feels the need to create bridges constantly. Sometimes, these bridges are brittle and sometimes they are strong. Lahiri took up learning Italian as a challenge as well as a mission; to turn them together into a literary project. The great sacrifice that she did first was abstaining from English! A language that is her life line is now thrown aside for the sake of learning and experiencing a new language. She started taking lessons first by reading Italian books with Italian dictionaries. And then taking the assistance of a couple of teachers in consecutive sessions and finally going to settle down in Italy for a couple of years to be ‘inside’ the language.

 (The Italian connection - Jhumpa Lahiri)

Anybody who has experience in speaking a different language than the mother tongue or has acquired a new language as a part of growing up, would have felt the extra work that his/her brains have exerted in the act of constant translation. It starts from cognition of the others’ speech or visual or verbal codes, then moves on to the formulation of a reply in one’s own familiar language and then converting it into the newly acquired language. It takes quite some time to get the new language naturalized within the linguistic-cognitive-expressive system of a person. Initially it is very exhausting and above all the fear of committing mistakes would instill a sort of mortal fear into a person which could render the person absolutely speechless, silent, left out and lonely. Lahiri, an award winning and internationally acclaimed writer had to go through all these starting troubles when she picked up a new language. She elaborates how she used to go through each word and look into the dictionary for its meaning.

Language is ideological; in no uncertain terms Lahiri makes it clear in her new book. Language is something that is used for inclusion as well as exclusion of the speaker/user from the mainstream society. Lahiri married to a man who speaks Italian with a Spanish accent, though has learned the language painstakingly and speaks it without any accent is suddenly met with blind responses or vacant stares or outright neglect. When she goes into the shops the woman at the counter looks at her as if she just does not understand what Lahiri has just asked her even if the conversation is done in Italian, whereas when her husband speaks Italian to the same woman with an accent she wonders how a man who looks an English man could speak such ‘good’ Italian. Language therefore becomes a sign of discrimination also for Lahiri.

 (Jhumpa Lahiri with her husband, Alberto Vourvoulias)

Is Jhumpa Lahiri going to write more books in Italian? Not only the readers but also the author herself asks this question repeatedly. For the time being Lahiri does not know what she is really going to do with her Italian. May be like the woman in ‘The Exchange’ she would use the new sweater as the old one; that means she would continue writing in/from her new home, that is Italian language. And she will grow accustomed to it. She would then fondly remember her other languages that she has left behind. Here Italian is perhaps, for Lahiri, a language all created by herself for her exclusive use. She finds autonomy not only as a writer but also as a world citizen in the new language. But she has to go back. The perpetual migrants cannot stick to the new found land. They have to go back to their ‘homes’ elsewhere however harsher the realities are there. But as of now it looks like Jhumpa Lahiri would take off again to the shores of the Renaissance land. 

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