Imagine that you’re an award-winning writer – and you decide to write only in a different language, one that you fumbled your way through as a student and became passionate about in adult life.
Imagine not being able to draw on the range and richness of the language you’ve been seeking to master, as a writer, for the last 20 or more years. And imagine finding a purity and deceptive simplicity in your writing that results from the more limited vocabulary at your disposal and increased focus on getting the grammar right.
That’s what Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, has done. She fell in love with Italian, had several years of lessons and then moved, with her family, to Rome. She tells the story in her book In Other Words, which sets out her struggles and frustrations and also her determination to master the language. As well as being a memoir, the book contains two short stories that she wrote – in Italian.
She’s now back in the US, teaching – in English, I assume – and writing. I don’t know what language she’s writing in now, but the translation of In Other Words made me want to read her earlier books. That’s partly to compare the style, but also because she taps into a vein of magic in her writing and I’d love to see how that was achieved in English.
Do read this book. It looks as though it’ll take a while to read, but it’s really quite short. The “English” edition has the Italian original on the left-hand page, so it’s only half the number of pages – unless, of course, you read Italian.