In Other Words : Jhumpa Lahiri’s Italian Peregrinations

“The unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don’t know in this world,” writes Jhumpa Lahiri in her memoir about learning Italian, In Other Words/In Altre Parole. It was the first sentence I read as I flipped through the slim volume at the bookstore, and I flashed back on years of studying languages and the part I always loved–finding new words and new shades of meaning in the familiar ones.  Words, with their roots borrowed from distant times and places, hid other worlds of experiences, ideas and thoughts, and even as I stumbled upon the strange grammar constructions and irregular verbs, learning a new language felt like an exhilarating journey.


Lahiri’s particular gift as a writer, whether in her collections of short stories, such Interpreter of Maladies for which she won a Pulitzer prize, or in novels like The Namesake is to draw the curtain on the inner world of her characters. In her new book, Lahiri once again focuses on the subtle and the evanescent, but the exploration is of her own self. Without revealing personal details, it’s a strangely intimate and candid book. I read it, feeling alternatively as a voyeur or a trusted confidant. Days after finishing it, I kept missing Lahiri’s soliloquies and I re-read some passages several times. She’s an earnest, thoughtful companion, and her crisp, clear style–in both Italian and English–has the alluring simplicity of a Japanese calligraphy painting. A few lines say volumes.

The catalyst that lead to In Other Words was Lahiri’s move to Italy with her family. Or perhaps, it was the years of studying and falling in love with Italian. Either way, once in Rome, she decided to switch entirely to Italian. For an author who made her name writing in English, it seemed like a puzzling move. Some even warned that it could cost her a career. Nevertheless, she persevered, and the result is this book. The English version was provided by Ann Goldstein, the translator of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi–Lahiri felt that she was unable to make the reverse journey from Italian.

The real leitmotif of In Other Words is a quest, a pilgrimage. What becomes clear from the first page is that although the book is about learning Italian, it’s about Lahiri’s relationship with English and also with Bengali, the native tongue of her parents. She writes about her divided identity as a Bengali-American, of not being able to fit easily into either mold. “As a girl in America, I tried to speak Bengali perfectly, without a foreign accent, to satisfy my parents, and above all to feel that I was completely their daughter. But it was impossible. On the other hand, I wanted to be considered an American, yet, despite the fact that I speak English perfectly, that was impossible, too. I was suspended rather than rooted. I had two sides, neither well defined.”

Italian provides a refuge, a place where by virtue of being a non-native speaker, Lahiri can make mistakes. “I identify with the imperfect because a sense of imperfection has marked my life,” she says. And her next comment is heartbreaking in its honesty. “I’ve been trying to improve myself forever, correct myself, because I’ve always felt I was a flawed person.” Italian offers an escape from the stifling need for perfection.

Not long ago, while rummaging through my grandmother’s sheds, I found boxes containing my stepfather’s library. Among French novels and American detective stories, there was a mind boggling assortment of dictionaries and language study books: Latin, Croatian, Czech, German, Spanish, and even an Esperanto manual. As a young man, my stepfather longed to travel, but after a session with a local party official who demanded to know why he wanted to visit Bulgaria, he realized that he wouldn’t get far. “None of your damn business,” he replied to yet another question about his “foreign connections” and ended up on the “barred from travel” list. As I held in my hands the well-thumbed dictionaries draped in cobwebs, it dawned on me that until the fall of the Soviet Union learning new languages and reading was the only way for my stepfather to experience another culture. Like for Lahiri, languages were an escape.

The author’s sense of dispossession is a poignant element of the book. As someone who in three decades has managed to live in three different countries, I empathize with Lahiri’s rootlessness. My mother tongue is Ukrainian, but the language I use with my family is Russian. I feel most comfortable expressing myself in English, but I also work in French and a couple of other languages, depending on the assignment. It also makes me hyper aware of all of my imperfections and limitations.  Yet, where Lahiri sees the lack of solid ground under her feet, I feel freedom. The choices I make are less defined by who I am than by what I wish to know.

The book was criticized for being too narrowly focused on the process of studying the language, to the exclusion of day-to-day life in Italy, history and culture. But aren’t there enough books on such topics, the lost and found in translation kind of narratives? Such criticism misses the point of In Other Words. As much as it is an exploration of Italian, it’s a story of an artist in search of meaning in her craft. Lahiri’s happens to be words. Whether any given reader would enjoy the ruminations on such a topic is another story, but because I have always been intrigued by Lahiri and moved by her writing, I followed her Italian journey with pleasure.

In interviews Lahiri mused on giving up writing in English altogether. My hope is that her Italian peregrinations will not result in a linguistic boundary, but rather in a richer world to be revealed through her new words. In the end, the desire to explore the unknown moves writers and readers alike.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin.



  • Anka: Dear Victoria,
    thank you so much for this wonderful review, I had to order the book immediately, it sounds completely fascinating. I used to live in Bavaria, quite close to Italy and always considered Italian as one of the most beautiful languages (language of music etc.). I like that you write that choices are less defined by who you are (I am) than by what I wish to know (or wish to discover or learn). And there is a lot I wish to know… May 20, 2016 at 7:48am Reply

    • Victoria: The thirst for knowledge is such a great motivator. It’s not necessarily the academic knowledge of school and books, but also getting to know other people, finding out how they think, what they dream about. This inspires me very much. May 20, 2016 at 1:49pm Reply

  • Stefanie: I want to read The Namesake, because I saw the movie and loved it. Did you like the novel? May 20, 2016 at 8:51am Reply

    • Victoria: I loved both the novel and the film, so I can’t recommend it highly enough. May 20, 2016 at 1:50pm Reply

  • Julia: Thank you for an interesting, thoughtful review. I also love Lahiri’s work, but I was doubting whether this book is for me. I think I’ll give it a go. May 20, 2016 at 9:01am Reply

    • Victoria: I recommend it, especially if you like Lahiri’s work. The book elucidates so many of her thoughts, dilemmas, longings. May 20, 2016 at 1:52pm Reply

  • spe: Your stepfather’s story moves me (“barred from travel”). What a delight that he had an Esperanto language book. May 20, 2016 at 9:05am Reply

    • Victoria: Under the circumstances, it wasn’t such a grave outcome; worse things have happened to people who were too out-spoken, but it was frustrating nonetheless. The collection of dictionaries is splendid. I remember studying French from one of his study books. May 20, 2016 at 1:54pm Reply

  • Barbara: This was a pleasure to read, and I can’t wait to pick up a copy of In Other Words! I had the opportunity to move to Florence, IT to learn the language and work at a local museum. I look forward to reading about another’s wonderful journey and relive my own a bit. Thank you for this review! May 20, 2016 at 9:25am Reply

    • Victoria: I loved the way she described learning new words and the excitement of discovering interesting phrases. Made me want to read a novel in Italian, something I haven’t done in a while. May 20, 2016 at 1:57pm Reply

  • Maria: “The choices I make are less defined by who I am than by what I wish to know”. Yes! This is the sentence that resonated most powerfully with me too. I live, think and love in two languages and 2 very different cultures separated by a big ocean, and I no longer feel rooted anywhere… It is painful for a while, until you manage to see the whole world as your oyster 🙂 May 20, 2016 at 9:51am Reply

    • Victoria: True. It can be liberating. Maybe, that’s why I like Brussels so much, a city perfect for “misfits.” 🙂 May 20, 2016 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Munir: Did you read The Lowland? I just started it. May 20, 2016 at 10:58am Reply

    • Victoria: A while ago, but it wasn’t my favorite from Lahiri. May 20, 2016 at 1:58pm Reply

  • limegreen: I read an interesting review of this book (NYT ?) that seemed to understand why Lahiri has gone down this path. I loved Interpreter of Maladies but I feel guilt-stricken(weird) about it because winning the Pulitzer for her first work paralyzed Lahiri. She admitted as much when Namesake came out. She’s had been “disappointing” at book readings because she would just read and not meet and greet later, sometimes not taking questions from the audience. A shy person of whom much is expected. In Other Words says so much!
    Thank you for reviewing this book, Victoria. I agree with you, the multi-cultural multi-lingual life, while chaotic in its nature, is liberating. May 20, 2016 at 11:08am Reply

    • limegreen: Have you heard of the Third Culture? It was a designation originally devised for children of diplomats and in the military. One in the Third Culture has full ownership in neither First Culture (parental/guardian culture) or Second Culture (culture of place of residence, very fluid) but has a overlapping ownership in both to create a Third Culture. May 20, 2016 at 11:10am Reply

      • Maya: “Third culture”- fascinating, I’ll google the term and try to find a good article about it. I’ve often fantasized about a mandatory exchange program for every citizen of this world. If everyone had to live in another country and become conversant in an additional culture and language, hate and lack of acceptance would be much rarer. May 20, 2016 at 1:57pm Reply

        • limegreen: There are many books, some of which are not particularly good, but there are many “testimonials” by Third Culture Kids (TCK, for short). What was for the diplomatic corps and the military has expanded to included career mobility such as that seen in the oil industry, etc.
          I love your compulsory second language/culture education idea! May 20, 2016 at 6:28pm Reply

        • Nick: Oh, I agree. I would like some of my family to be in an exchange programme to broaden their horizon. I will try to get my parents to read translated books of foreign authors to get them excited about the world. May 22, 2016 at 4:25am Reply

        • Steph: Great idea, Maya! May 23, 2016 at 2:38pm Reply

      • Victoria: I haven’t, but it sounds interesting. In my case, even my First Culture is a melange, and dealing with that alone is plenty. But then again, that’s probably why adding a Second or Third Culture doesn’t distress me too much. 🙂 At this point, the more, the merrier. I love the concept, though. May 20, 2016 at 2:10pm Reply

        • limegreen: I think in the 60s the Third Culture designation was for more finite boundaries: American military families, for example, who moved from base to base. A child’s Second Culture could change from Germany to Okinawa. So the Third Culture would be a combo of “American” from the parents, and the fluid “German” or “Okinawan” but without full ownership in either culture.
          You are unique, Victoria! May 20, 2016 at 6:26pm Reply

          • Victoria: It used to be considered bad to raise children bilingual, because different languages might make them confused. But of course, this is silly, since children separate languages so easily. May 21, 2016 at 2:40pm Reply

            • limegreen: We know much more about code-switching now, thank goodness! May 21, 2016 at 3:53pm Reply

              • Victoria: And sometimes learning two languages at once can help adults too. May 23, 2016 at 2:06pm Reply

                • Mia: Spot on! And there is plenty of strong research evidence that learning languages, especially as a child but also as an adult, develops one’s brain more flexible and increases abstraction level and thus, again, e.g. ability to learn – whether languages or whatever.

                  The great majority of human population is multilingual, “monolinguals” are actually a little minority.

                  Happy multicultural multilingual life :)! May 23, 2016 at 8:27pm Reply

                  • Victoria: I read a fascinating book by Minae Mizumura called The Fall of Language in the Age of English. It focuses on the Japanese literature, but it makes many interesting observations that are relevant to all countries, the English speaking included. May 24, 2016 at 11:13am Reply

                    • Mia: It seems to be interesting one! It has provoked quite heated discussion among e.g. some linguists. I have not read it but read about it. It seems like the critics have missed some point there – that perhaps Mizumura is more like pro of Japanese than against English? But this is just guessing. Maybe I will find time to read it and it least have a look at it.

                      Thanks for the reference! May 24, 2016 at 9:59pm

                    • Victoria: Some people took her comments so personally, and it seemed as if they didn’t bother reading all of the book. She didn’t strike me as being anti-English, but her comments are valid. Consider the fact that English publishers translate a mere 4% of the foreign language literature, and what they translate is heavily driven by marketing, politics and the ease of translation. And there are many other interesting points, about which one can argue endlessly, but that are important to raise. May 27, 2016 at 5:31am

        • limegreen: You are a child of Third Culture parents, Third Culture squared! 🙂 May 21, 2016 at 12:01pm Reply

          • Victoria: Now, this sounds complicated. 🙂 May 21, 2016 at 2:42pm Reply

      • Nick: Yes! I feel that sentiment having lived over half of my life in five different countries and three continents alone. It feels frustrating to try to conform to the First or Second, knowing that sometimes it is not the right thing to do. May 22, 2016 at 4:23am Reply

        • limegreen: Wow, that’s a lot of mobility. I guess moving to the tropics will be just par for the course for you! 🙂 May 22, 2016 at 6:44am Reply

          • Nick: Going to another ‘home’, indeed! May 22, 2016 at 7:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Even in interviews she comes across as aloof and austere, which is why her candor in In Other Words was such a surprise. I can understand her feelings of uncertainty, of not being worthy of a prize (although she is, absolutely). These are all such complex questions. By the way, when after I read Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, I said to a friend that a book made me very melancholy. Not necessarily because of its content, but because I felt that there was something going on with the author, that she was going into a withdrawal.

      I wonder what will come next for her, but I really hope that she will find her quiet and serene place and be able to write, in any language she chooses, with confidence. May 20, 2016 at 2:08pm Reply

  • Maria: Thanks so much for. This. I loved The Namesake and I too love languages and words—and emotions and feelings. I help others (and myself) with the deadening struggle with the belief of not being good enough. May we all find peace no matter our circumstances. May 20, 2016 at 11:56am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a debilitating feeling, so yes, I join in with your wishes. May 20, 2016 at 2:11pm Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Victoria, I love this post and will have to seek out the book. I am an Italian-American
    born and raised in the USA. Except for my paternal Nonna, my Italian family spoke Italian to each other only when they did not want the children to know what they were talking about. As an older adult, I took Italian lessons many times, traveled to Italy 11 times and became semi-fluent in the language. However, due to financial restrictions, I have not been to Italy in over 8 years. Also, the older Italian-speaking members of my family are now deceased and there is no one left who speaks Italian. I am hoping to go back to Italy at least one more time and I would think that perhaps the language would come back to me somewhat. Now I have to stop buying so much perfume and save my money for that trip! May 20, 2016 at 12:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: It will come back. The only people in family with whom I spoke Ukrainian died about 20 years ago, and I don’t have as much practice anymore, apart from reading and my visit to Ukraine, and yet, the language is there. May 20, 2016 at 2:14pm Reply

    • Victoria: Do you watch Italian movies or listen to the podcasts/radio/TV programs in Italian? May 20, 2016 at 2:15pm Reply

      • Phyllis Iervello: I do watch Italian movies and have many Italian songs on my iPod. I also have a daily Italian phrase calendar. I still remember words and certain phrases and can understand but to have a real conversation in Italian with all the proper verbage would not be so easy at this point. Hopefully, it will come back to me if I ever have to opportunity to go back there and spend a little time. It is a beautiful and musical language. May 20, 2016 at 2:35pm Reply

        • Victoria: I hope so. Italian is one of my favorite languages, so I can understand why Lahiri fell in love with it. May 21, 2016 at 2:30pm Reply

        • Nick: Phyllis, do you listen to Italian opera? I started to appreciate Classical music from violin concerti, and from there, I got to opera the moment I heard the exclamation ‘Folie! Folie! Delirio vano è questo’ from La Traviata. It was the most voluptuous and beautifully ugly voice I have heard that I had to look up who it was. It was Maria Callas. After that, I got into Italian trying to understand the beautiful libretti! May 22, 2016 at 4:41am Reply

          • Phyllis Iervello: Nick, I have seen all the operas. La Traviata is one of my very favorites because it is not as “tragic” as the rest of them. May 22, 2016 at 12:55pm Reply

            • Nick: This makes me laugh. It cannot be more true! May 22, 2016 at 2:04pm Reply

              • Phyllis Iervello: 🙂 May 22, 2016 at 3:37pm Reply

              • Victoria: Phyllis’s comment also made me laugh out loud. And another fan here. May 23, 2016 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Nick: ‘I was suspended rather than rooted. I had two sides, neither well defined’ — that reflects my sentiment as well. Growing up with parents speaking two languages, I seek refuge in English, and when I fell in love with music, I seek out German. This book reminds me of a film about this Irish girl migrating to America, but it is from a rarely observed linguistic vantage. May 20, 2016 at 1:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s important to have that refuge, whatever form it will take. Perfumery is a type of language too, and for me, scents often function in this way. May 20, 2016 at 2:16pm Reply

      • limegreen: I suspect that’s why your article on the inadequate vagueness of “oriental” ran true for me. It’s perfume language in both scent and linguistic representation that needed coalescing. 🙂 May 21, 2016 at 11:59am Reply

        • Victoria: If you pay attention to language, then I can see how you would be frustrated by such vague terms. I hear you. May 21, 2016 at 2:44pm Reply

        • Nick: That is spot-on. In writing about scents, one finds it difficult to describe them. I think we have a division between how the fragrance industry describes scent and how a layperson describes it. And, I am torn between them! May 22, 2016 at 4:08am Reply

  • zephyr: Victoria and Nick, your way of expressing this – “suspended” – is perfect. My sisters and I felt this way, born in America and having cousins born here too, but with parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, all in various states of suspension between three countries, even within a single marriage. And not just between countries and languages, but suspended between cultures and customs as well. It felt schizophrenic sometimes to me when I was a child; I couldn’t even articulate it to my friends. But I accepted and embraced it all as a teen and have never looked back. This suspension has enriched me and my sisters and cousins in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we were kids. So, yes, maybe we are liberated! And I, for one, am not confused about who I am, nor do I feel “flawed”, though my spoken German and French are bad and worse, lol!

    I must read Lahiri’s book, this most recent one, and point my sisters and cousins to it as well. I have a feeling her words will help me clarify the atmosphere(s) I grew up in, again, not just linguistically but culturally as well.

    Ms. Lahiri couldn’t/wouldn’t translate In Other Words into English. Maybe the prospect was just too emotionally exhausting to even contemplate. I do hope she doesn’t stop writing in English. All indications are that she’s a very talented writer in any language – what a gift!

    Victoria, thank you for your review of In Other Words, and for adding your thoughts and the history of your own multi-linguistic/multi-cultural experiences. I admire your stepfather’s efforts to “travel”! May 20, 2016 at 3:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: Whenever I tried to translate some of my English articles into Russian, I found it such a difficult experience that it would have been easier to write new ones from scratch. If she indeed gave up working in English for a while, it would be even more complicated. And as you say, draining.

      Your story is also very moving. May 21, 2016 at 2:36pm Reply

      • Tara C: I believe this is what Denyse Beaulieu of Grain de Musc said she does – she writes a piece in French and writes it again in English, it is not a translation.

        This post reminds me of the anglophone writer Nancy Huston who moved to France and writes exclusively in French. May 25, 2016 at 8:32pm Reply

        • Victoria: I haven’t read Huston, but I heard her name come up in relation to Lahiri’s book. May 27, 2016 at 6:16am Reply

    • Nick: It feels like teetering on a precipice: should I go over the other side? What am I? Is this me? When one has been detached for too long, one starts to question one’s identity. And, I think even birds of the same feather can no longer flock together 🙂 May 22, 2016 at 4:15am Reply

      • Victoria: I agree on the last part. In the end, one doesn’t find friends and likeminded people based on one’s interests, rather than the place of origin. May 23, 2016 at 2:11pm Reply

  • Joy: Thank you for this wonderful review. I heard Ms. Lahiri interviewed on NPR earlier this year. Her explanation of her work showed such commitment. I had passed this book over a couple of times, but now think that was a mistake. I need to read it. I loved THE NAMESAKE.

    I have been studying art the last few years and very much relate to looking for and finding that perfect way to communicate what I see. May 20, 2016 at 5:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: I did too. I still have a soft spot for Interpreter of Maladies, probably because it was the first book by Lahiri I discovered and her writing touched me. May 21, 2016 at 2:37pm Reply

  • behemot: Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite American (yes, American ) writers, but I haven’t read her new book yet, being a bit discouraged by her previous novel, “The Lowland”. I absolutely love “The Namesake” and “interpreter of Maladies” and hopefully, I will read “In Other Words” next week. I have been waiting for this book because of many reasons, including a lot of personal ones. As an immigrant, who raised my only daughter in the US, I had a lot of thoughts regarding “liberation” vs. “loss”, but now I perceive it as “gain” My daughter is now 24, almost done with grad school in Canada, where she’s been living for the last seven years. She spent most of her life in the US and only 4 years in her native Poland yet surprisingly for many, she considers herself Polish/European instead of American. The language she’s the most comfortable with is English, though.

    Victoria, thank you so much for writing this review and starting such an interesting conversation, as always 🙂 Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts, I found it fascinating! May 21, 2016 at 1:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: I thank you and others for your interesting comments and observations. It’s such a complex and rich topic. I agree that it’s mostly gain, but it might also depend to what extent one longs for stability, certainty and a metaphorical ancestral home.
      Good luck to your daughter with her studies!

      As for the Lowland, I could neither relate to some of the characters nor understand their motivations well. Still, I enjoyed reading it, since I like Lahiri’s style and voice. May 21, 2016 at 2:51pm Reply

  • Brigid Kavanagh: Thanks for the review. I know how I’ll be spending my Sunday afternoon! May 22, 2016 at 7:39am Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that you like it! May 23, 2016 at 2:12pm Reply

  • Steph: I ordered a copy from my library. I always wanted to learn Italian, so it sounds like a book I’d like to read. May 23, 2016 at 2:39pm Reply

  • Vasilisa: Thank you for the wonderful review! Among your writing on perfumes, I have really enjoyed your blog for your musings on culture and identity and I have been inspired by your fluid, cosmopolitan transitions between cultures, drawing from Ukrainian, Belgian, American Iranian and Indian cultures to name a few. Being Russian-Jewish raised in Finland with roots in Ukraine, living in Germany, it is comforting to read how you allow all sides of your identity to coexist (I agree with you on this, I see having multicultural background to enable me to belong to several cultures at the same time, than being excluded for not representing any culture perfectly) Jumpa Lahiri is one of my favorite authors, and reading your review, where analysis of her book so effortlessly intertwines with your analysis of your own identity and study made me really happy. May 25, 2016 at 3:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: There are always those who try to make you fit into the boxes of their own making, and then to label you and ascribe various political choices, thoughts, etc. And if you refuse to fit, then they will make you feel deficient. But the tremendous richness that you have access to will nullify all of that. The best part today is that it’s so easy to meet other people, learn about other cultures, ways of life. So, thank you. I’m glad that you liked this review. May 27, 2016 at 6:12am Reply

  • Rita: Oh wow something to add to my book collection! Thank you🎉 August 19, 2016 at 4:25pm Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that you like it. August 20, 2016 at 4:37am Reply

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