In 2016, the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri published In Other Words, the story of her quest to learn Italian, which involved moving with her family to Italy to immerse herself fully in her adopted language. The book builds on that account through eight essays that reflect her early career as a translator.
With the fervor of a true language person, Lahiri dives into the dictionaries. She savors unexpected etymologies. She offers lists of near-synonyms. She dedicates an entire essay to the optative mood in ancient Greek...Above all, she makes herself at home in the unhomey — unheimlich, eerie, uncanny — borderlands between languages ... she does not dwell on what one might call the postcolonial or political aspects of her own biography. Neither is she encumbered by the pieties that often surround writing on translation...The book, instead, is about the consequences of the apparently simple act of choosing one’s own words ... contains a hope for the liberating power of language.
Lahiri mixes detailed explorations of craft with broader reflections on her own artistic life, as well as the 'essential aesthetic and political mission' of translation. She is excellent in all three modes — so excellent, in fact, that I, a translator myself, could barely read this book. I kept putting it aside, compelled by Lahiri's writing to go sit at my desk and translate ... One of Lahiri's great gifts as an essayist is her ability to braid multiple ways of thinking together, often in startling ways ... a reminder, no matter your relationship to translation, of how alive language itself can be. In her essays as in her fiction, Lahiri is a writer of great, quiet elegance; her sentences seem simple even when they're complex. Their beauty and clarity alone would be enough to wake readers up. 'Look,' her essays seem to say: Look how much there is for us to wake up to.
Lahiri depicts the soul of translation ... a dizzying reflection on her personal relationship to language ... Too few of the essays address these dilemmas, though they make up the strongest part of the book. The collection also includes introductions published for Italian novelist Domenico Starnone, whose books Lahiri translated, but these pieces often read merely as praise for their authors. Elsewhere, in an essay about Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, Lahiri makes an unfortunate comparison between Gramsci’s confinement as a political prisoner under a fascist regime to her strictly-enforced time slot at an Ivy League library with reduced access to bathrooms and water fountains during COVID. It reads as a needless insertion of self and does not do much to propel the essay forward as a meditation on translation ... Overall, Lahiri achieves the task of portraying her profound love for linguistics and the ways languages give new life to one another in translation. It is, after all, the result of great passion and ongoing study that she is able to fluently and evocatively write in a wholly foreign language. One may surmise that the distinct lyrical quality is the result of her multilingual tongue adopting varied tonalities and rhythms. The beat of Lahiri’s writing is impeccably strong.