Jhumpa Lahiri: ‘I am, in Italian, a tougher, freer writer’

My relationship with Italian takes place in exile, in a state of separation. Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread. But usually it’s tied to a geographical territory, a country. Italian belongs mainly to Italy and I live on another continent, where one does not readily encounter it.

In a sense, I’m used to a kind of linguistic exile. My mother tongue, Bengali, is foreign in America. When you live in a country where your own language is considered foreign, you can feel a continuous sense of estrangement. You speak a secret, unknown language, lacking any correspondence to the environment. An absence that creates a distance within you.

In my case, there is another distance, another schism. I don’t know Bengali perfectly. I don’t know how to read it or even write it. As a result, I consider my mother tongue, paradoxically, a foreign language, too.

As for Italian, the exile has a different aspect. Almost as soon as we met (on a trip to Florence with my sister in 1994), Italian and I were separated. My yearning seems foolish. And yet I feel it.

How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine? That I don’t know? Maybe because I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.

I buy a book. It’s called Teach Yourself Italian. An exhortatory title, full of hope and possibility. As if it were possible to learn on your own.

Having studied Latin for many years, I find the first chapters of this textbook fairly easy. I manage to memorise some conjugations, do some exercises. But I don’t like the silence, the isolation of the self-teaching process. It seems detached, wrong. As if I were studying a musical instrument without ever playing it.

I attend elementary courses. The first teacher is a Milanese woman who lives in Boston. I do the homework, I pass the tests. But when, after two years of studying, I try to read Alberto Moravia’s novel La ciociara (Two Women), I barely understand it. I underline almost every word on every page. I am constantly looking in the dictionary.

In the spring of 2000, six years after my trip to Florence, I go to Venice. In addition to the dictionary, I take a notebook and on the last page I write down phrases that might be useful: Saprebbe dirmi? Dove si trova? Come si fa per andare? – Could you tell me? Where is? How does one get to? I recall the difference between buono and bello. I feel prepared. In reality, in Venice I’m barely able to ask for directions on the street, a wake-up call at the hotel. I manage to order in a restaurant and exchange a few words with a saleswoman. Nothing else. Even though I’ve returned to Italy, I still feel exiled from the language.

A few months later, I receive an invitation to the Mantua literary festival. There, I meet my first Italian publishers. One of them is also my translator. Their names are Marco and Claudia.

Marco and Claudia give me the key. When I mention that I’ve studied some Italian, and that I would like to improve it, they stop speaking to me in English. They switch to their language, although I’m able to respond only in a very simple way.

They tolerate my mistakes. They correct me, they encourage me, they provide the words I lack. They speak clearly, patiently. Just like parents with their children. Thanks to them, I finally find myself inside the language.

Returning to America, I want to go on speaking Italian. But with whom? I know some people in New York who speak it perfectly. I’m embarrassed to talk to them. I need someone with whom I can struggle and fail.

One day, I go to the Casa Italiana at New York University to interview a famous Roman writer, a woman, who has won the Strega prize. I am in an overcrowded room, where everyone but me speaks an impeccable Italian. The director of the institute greets me. I tell him I would have liked to do the interview in Italian. That I studied the language years ago but I can’t speak well.

“Need practising,” I say. “You need practice,” he answers kindly.

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