Jhumpa's Italian job

Jhumpa Lahiri is missing a language; Italy’s ‘Mystery’ writer is coming to India

  • Published 16.02.16

The first time we heard Jhumpa Lahiri was writing a book in Italian was from the author herself, when we asked her what was next, after The Lowland. That was January 2014 and Jhumpa was chatting to t2 a day after her session at the Kolkata Literary Meet. 

That book, In Altre Parole, is out now and you can read it too, as it’s also available in English, as In Other Words (Hamish Hamilton, Rs 399). The non-fiction title, available as a little hardback with a jacket in rich browns featuring a stunning Jhumpa looking thoughtful, has been translated into English by Ann Goldstein. 

Now, why would a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Booker-nominated writer have someone else do the English honours, you might wonder. Jhumpa addresses this question in the foreword, which is the only piece of English you get from her in this book. 

“… had I translated this book, the temptation would have been to improve it, to make it stronger by means of my stronger language.” 

In Other Words reveals how the writer of famous English books featuring Bengalis was drawn to Italian as an 18-year-old during a trip to Italy, her frustrating attempts to learn the language back in America and her decision to eventually move, husband and children in tow, to Rome, to live the language she was learning and yearning for. 

It also reveals why she decided at one point to stop reading in English entirely and then to write only in Italian. It must have been an enriching and thrilling experience for her to be able to finally find her way through a new language. 

The joys, however, are rather one-sided, at least for her English-language readers. 

Here’s what The New York Times has to say about In Other Words: “Learning to read and write in Italian has clearly been an invigorating experience for Ms. Lahiri.... In Other Words is, sadly, a less ecstatic experience for you and me. It’s a soft, repetitive, self-dramatic and self-hobbled book.... That someone gets a lot out of writing something does not necessarily mean anyone else will get a similar amount from reading that thing. If only literature worked that way.” 

One doesn’t know how a reader of Italian might feel about In Altre Parole, but for us, it seems a bit like casting Jennifer Lawrence in a film and then digitally superimposing another actress on her in every frame. 
The whole idea of translating Jhumpa’s Italian journal into English negates her decision to forego the language in favour of Italian. And it makes her dedicated fans pick up the book in excitement and then feel rather shortchanged. 
However, while In Other Words might not work as a book, it does provide a peek into the mind of this (grand) child of Calcutta and would have made for a brilliant essay in a literary journal. 

The ‘other’ writer in Italian

While we are on the subject of writing in Italian, Jhumpa’s translator Ann Goldstein has done the English-reading world a far bigger favour by translating the beautiful, beautiful books of Elena Ferrante. 

No one quite knows who this writer is, because Elena Ferrante is a pen name and despite writing hugely successful novels in Italian since 1992 and having sold thousands of copies in English translations, she remains an enigma. 
Here’s what she reportedly wrote to her publishers: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.... Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least­expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.” 

Well, there isn’t even confirmation whether this is a woman, though readers and critics insist that her voice is distinctly feminine, and a journalist with The New Yorker has revealed that in her written correspondence, the writer has referred to herself as a “mother”. 

But then even male writers are known to say they are “pregnant with my next book”. So there.

Some of the most famous Ferrante books, apart from Days of Abandonment, are the four Neapolitan novels — My Brilliant Friend, Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and Story of a Lost Child —  that follow the lives of two friends, Lenu and Lila, from their girlhood in post-war Italy to adulthood. 

Ferrante writes with a keen eye and a sharp pen, never papering over the cruelty that children are capable of inflicting on one another or the frequent death of dreams that mark ordinary lives. And her insights into human nature and pithy observations on life can cut through you like invisible laser, keeping you awake into the night far more than a whodunit ever could. No wonder her fandom is said to have “Ferrante Fever”!

Till now readers in India had to either buy expensive international editions of Ferrante’s English titles or read e-books but come March, Europa Editions will bring out Indian editions of the Neapolitan novels, to be distributed by Penguin Random House. 

Here’s wishing you catch Ferrante Fever too! 

Samhita Chakraborty
Are you looking forward to reading Jhumpa Lahiri or Elena Ferrante? Tell t2@abp.in