The Italian Riveter: Why Italian? by Jhumpa Lahiri

After moving to Rome in 2015, I sought to respond to this question. For many years, I had studied Italian from afar, without ever having lived in Italy. The desire to speak it every day, to plunge into a new idiom, to encounter new people and a new culture, led me there. Once I arrived, I wanted nothing other than to express myself in Italian as often as possible. But nearly each time I opened my mouth, I would hear the same question: Why do you speak our language? I tried to explain. I said that I’d studied Italian because I loved it, that I felt the need to have a relationship with the language. I said that I’d learned to speak some basic Italian thanks to private lessons in New York. Given that I had chosen to do so without any practical need, and without any obvious connections – familial, personal, or professional – my explanation didn’t satisfy. People told me, You’re of Indian origin, were born in London, raised in America. You write books in English. What does Italian have to do with any of that? The more I explained, the more people I met in Rome persisted, intrigued, a little stupefied: But why, exactly?

While no one expected me to speak Italian, I didn’t expect the question. It was reasonable enough to ask, but it put me a bit on the defensive. Why was it, I wanted to ask my interrogators, that I needed to justify myself?

In truth, the reason I couldn’t respond to their question was because I had never asked it of myself. I didn’t think that my growing dedication to the Italian language was anything unusual. Before coming to Italy, I’d never paused to consider what it meant. I was more interested in the how than the why: how to speak the language better, how to make it my own.

It was only in Rome that I started to ask myself: Why Italian? I wrote In altre parole (‘In Other Words’) to give a definitive response, both to others and to myself. It was born from the realisation that I am a writer without a true mother tongue; from feeling, in some sense, linguistically orphaned. But that book, which I wrote in Italian, complicated the situation considerably.

After In Other Words was published, first in Italian and then in English, the question of Why Italian? – which I’d hoped to resolve – only turned more frequent and urgent. I was asked by friends, journalists, writers, readers, editors, Italians, Americans, everyone. The question has led to a realisation: that while the desire to learn a new language is considered admirable, even virtuous, when it comes to writing in a new language, everything changes. Some perceive this desire as a transgression, a betrayal, a deviation. What I did – distancing myself suddenly from English, passing precipitously into Italian – tends to trigger resistance, diffidence, and doubts.

Everyone wants to understand the genesis, the motives, the implications of my choice. Some people ask me, Why Italian instead of an Indian language, a closer language, more like you?

The short answer remains: I write in Italian to feel free. But when I would talk about the book in public, during speeches and interviews, I felt repeatedly forced to defend, to justify this liberty. To provide a key, to clarify the issue.

If In Other Words needs a key, it’s the book itself. I began with a metaphor that led me to another, and then another. That was how my thinking unfolded. In the book, my slow but stubborn learning of Italian is a lake to cross, a wall to climb, an ocean to probe. A forest, a bridge, a child, a lover, a sweater, a building, a triangle. If, by the last page of the book, Why Italian? remains incomprehensible, I am to blame.

Once my first attempt to write in Italian was behind me, I began another one. From time to time new metaphors came to mind, even if I didn’t look for them anymore.

In the days immediately preceding the release of the book, while I was preparing to discuss it in public, I discovered three new metaphors that I found particularly fruitful, ambiguous, and evocative. Had it been possible, I would have added three chapters to In Other Words. The present essay serves as a sort of ‘external’ epilogue.

For the last metaphors, all three, I was indebted to my readings in Italian. They came to me from two writers, both of whom are central points of reference for me. One has passed away, the other is still living. One was little known outside of Italy and the other is known all over the world, though no one knows her real identity. I discovered the former in Rome, the latter in the United States, before moving to Italy. They are two Italian writers, both women, with two distinctly different styles. The first is Lalla Romano. Elena Ferrante is the second.

I had never heard of Lalla Romano before coming to Italy. I learned about her thanks to an article published in La Stampa, written by Paolo Di Paolo. It’s not easy to find the works of Lalla Romano in Italian bookstores. But Paolo Di Paolo was a liaison between me and Antonio Ria, Romano’s second husband, who kindly sent me a large package of books.

I read several titles in one go: Nei mari estremi (‘In Extreme Seas’), Maria, Inseparabile (‘Maria, Inseparable’), L’ospite (‘The Guest’), Le parole tra noi leggere (‘Light Words Between Us’). I was struck straightaway by the singular force of her taut, meditative, sorrowful writing. I was drawn to her dry, essential style. I admired her concise sentences, brief chapters, and distilled language.

The evening before I discussed In Other Words for the first time, in Venice, I was reading Le metamorfosi (‘The Metamorphoses’), Romano’s first book of prose, published in 1951. It spoke to me; even the title was a word I had used for one of the chapters, and was one of the metaphors of my book. Romano’s work, which essentially recounts a series of dreams, represented a definitive turning point for the author, signalling her passage from painting to writing – from one means of creative expression to another. This, too, struck a chord. At the end of the fourth part, the author recounts a dream that she calls ‘Le porte’ (‘The Doors’), cited in its entirety here:

‘The door is not yet closed, but it is about to shut. One of the panels, tall and massive, falls slowly upon the other. I run and succeed in passing through. Beyond it is another door, identical to the first. This one is also on the point of closing; this time, running, I also succeed in passing through. There is another one, then another. One must be very quick in order to get there on time. Nevertheless, I hope I can always pass through, seeing as no door is closed. But one must keep running, and I am getting increasingly tired: I’m starting to lose my strength. The doors appear, one after the other, all of them the same. I can still pass through; but it is useless. There will always be another door.’¹

I read Romano’s dream as an existential nightmare: the tale of an ominous, frustrating, and difficult road. It indicates a trial, disorienting and exhausting. It describes a sense of dismay, desperation, and finally, defeat. The doors represent an ongoing effort, a journey without end: the condemnation of finding oneself forever waiting, on the outside, in a kind of purgatory.

This paragraph – this dream – made me reflect at length on the excitement and anguish of my path to Italian. For decades, ever since I immersed myself in the language, ever since I fell in love with it, I’ve struggled to open a series of doors. Each one leads me to another. The more I confront them, the more I pass through them, the more others appear, needing to be opened, to be overcome. This is how the study of a foreign language – an asymptotic trajectory – proceeds.

In order to conquer any foreign language, one needs to open two principal doors. The first is comprehension. The second, the spoken language. In between, there are smaller doors, equally relevant: syntax, grammar, vocabulary, nuances of meaning, pronunciation. At this point, one gains relative mastery. In my case, I dared to open a third door: the written language.

Bit by bit, as one studies, the door to comprehension swings open. The spoken language, apart from a foreign accent and some mispronunciations here and there, also opens with relative ease. The written language, certainly the most formidable door, remains ajar. Since I started thinking and writing in Italian only at the age of forty-five, I knocked on this door quite late, and it creaks a little. Although it welcomes me, it keeps odd hours, and is rather unpredictable.

The more I write in Italian, the more I feel in turmoil, suspended between my old knowledge of English and the new door in front of me. I’m forced to acknowledge that there is a distance between me and both languages. Sometimes I fear that the next door will be boarded up. Writing in another language reactivates the grief of being between two worlds, of being on the outside. Of feeling alone and excluded.

In In Other Words, I refer to a door as well: it’s the door of our first home in Rome that, one evening, our second evening in Rome, refused to open. It was an absurd moment, a nightmare with a significance perhaps too obvious, but which took time to fully understand.

Each door has a dual nature, a contradictory role. It functions as a barrier on the one hand; as a point of entry on the other. The doors keep urging me forward. Each leads me to a new discovery, a new challenge, a new possibility. How wonderful that, in Italian, the etymology of the word for door, porta, comes from the verb to bring, portare, which also means to raise, sollevare, ‘because Romulus, in mapping out the walls of the city with a plow, raised them in the very place where the gates [porte] would be constructed’.² Although a door remains something inanimate and concrete, the word’s root conveys a decisive and dynamic act.

Confronting a foreign language as an adult is a considerable challenge. And yet, the many doors I’ve had to open in Italian have flung wide, giving onto a sweeping, splendid view. The Italian language did not simply change my life; it gave me a second life, an extra life.

Reading, writing, and living in Italian, I feel like a reader, a writer, a person who is more attentive, active, and curious. Each new word encountered, learned, and listed in my notebook constitutes a small door. My Italian dictionary, meanwhile, serves as a doorway. I think of the books I read, the sentences I write, and the texts I finish all as doors, along with every conversation with an Italian friend, each occasion to express myself.

Italian, in my opinion, is a door more inclusive than exclusive. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible for me to write In Other Words. That said, even today, when I write in Italian, I feel guilty for having broken open a door I shouldn’t have. This new language has turned me into a burglar. That is the strange effect of the question, Why do you know, speak, and write in our language? The use of the possessive adjective, our, underlines the fact, banal but painful, that Italian is not mine. The process of writing and publishing a book in Italian involved opening another series of doors: all the people with whom I worked, discussed, corrected, and cleaned up the text. I asked of each person, May I write this sentence, use these words, combine them like this? That is: May I cross the border between me and Italian? May I come in?

After the book was published, the doors that stood before me were my readers. It was their turn to open the cover, to read it. Some would accept my words, some would welcome me. Others, not. This uncertain destiny, for any book, is normal, even right. Each volume, once published, written in whatever language, finds itself on this threshold. To read means, literally, to open a book, and at the same time, to open a part of one’s self.

I don’t wish to live, or write, in a world without doors. An unconditional opening, without complications or obstacles, doesn’t stimulate me. Such a landscape, without closed spaces, without secrets, without the presence of the unknown, would have no significance or enchantment for me.

Jhumpa Lahiri

1. ‘La porta non è ancora chiusa, però sta per chiudersi. Uno dei battenti, alto e massiccio, ricade lentamente sull’altro. Corro e riesco a passare. Di là c’è un’altra porta, uguale alla prima. Anche questa è sul punto di chiudersi; anche questa volta, correndo, riesco a passare. Ce n’è ancora un’altra, poi un’altra. Occorre molta prontezza per arrivare in tempo. Tuttavia spero che potrò sempre passare, dal momento che nessuna porta è chiusa. Ma bisogna continuare a correre, e io sono sempre più stanca: comincio a perdere le forze. Le porte si presentano, una dopo l’altra, tutte uguali. Posso ancora passare; ma è inutile. Ci sarà sempre ancora una porta.’

2. ‘perché Romolo, nel tracciare le mura della città con un aratro, lo sollevava proprio nel luogo dove sarebbero state costruite le porte.’ Dizionario etimologico (Santarcangelo di Romagna: Rusconi Libri, 2012).

WHY ITALIAN?

By Jhumpa Lahiri

From Translating Myself and Others

Published by Princeton University Press (2022)

Excerpted from TRANSLATING MYSELF AND OTHERS. Copyright © 2022 by Jhumpa Lahiri. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.


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