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Where Jhumpa Lahiri finds herself linguistically

In 2018, author Jhumpa Lahiri published a novel in Italian, Dove mi trovo. In 2020, Margit Knapp’s German translation, Wo ich mich finde, was published. This was followed in 2021 by the English translation by Lahiri herself, Whereabouts. Writing in Italian and only then translating herself into English is the result of an artistic metamorphosis for this writer, who previously wrote in English. The deliberate shift in her own language focus invites me to question several things: the linguistic pressure to conform that migrants of Colour often experience. And the common idea that people can only express themselves well in one language – their mother tongue.

In The Namesake and The Lowland, both written in English, Lahiri is interested in migration and life between different places. She leads such a life herself: she was born in London to Indian immigrants, grew up in Rhode Island in the U.S., and frequently visited her parents’ hometown of Calcutta, India. The subject of her writing – likely drawing on her own everyday life – was the experience of Indian-American characters. Being the daughter of immigrants who speak a different language often means feeling intense pressure to adapt, including linguistically. Becoming an award-winning author who writes in English and whose native language is Bengali looks like a great public achievement, the attainment of a linguistic ideal. But she confesses in interviews to wanting to escape English because it oppresses her.  

The white writer Joseph Conrad, is often referred to as one of the most important English-language writers of the 20th century, even though he spoke no English until his 20s and his mother tongue was Polish. That ‘even though’ expresses amazement and a sense of the sheer impossibility of mastering a foreign language one was not born speaking. Conrad’s achievement is hailed as extraordinary. Lahiri, in some ways, feels the same way. But she always experiences pressure to conform, while Conrad and his work were warmly received. It was certainly beneficial that the content of his writing hit the European zeitgeist: among other things, he wrote stories of colonial encounters in Africa from the perspective of racist Europeans and thus offered argumentative groundwork for legitimising colonialism.

In contrast to mobile white people who move to various places in the global North throughout their lives and with that switch between languages, the situation seems to be different for People of Colour/people from the global South. Olga Grjasnowa, whose situation in Germany resembles Lahiri’s in the U.S., explains in her book Die Macht der Mehrsprachigkeit (The Power of Multilingualism) that people in a socially non-privileged position, such as migrants of Colour, still have to prove themselves despite possible successes as writers. Even as award-winning writers, they are sometimes denied equally good (or better) linguistic expression compared to a person born in the country without an immigrant background. The reason for this is that the concept of mother tongue is linked to people’s place of origin and race. Grjasnowa refers to a study by linguist Thomas Paul Bonfiglio, in which he states that “correct” English or English as a mother tongue is readily associated with whiteness and the United States or Great Britain. This notion ignores that there are People of Colour living in these countries and that English has become the official language in many formerly colonised countries of the global South. 

In 2015, Lahiri’s essay “Teach Yourself Italian” appeared in the New Yorker, describing how a foreign language can be a new adventure for writers. Her love of Italian came out of nowhere in “linguistic exile” in the United States. She already knew this feeling of exile with regard to language, because her mother tongue was also always a foreign language in the U.S., where she has lived most of her life. As a multilingual person, she was also familiar with the question of who languages actually belong to and what is an appropriate level of fluency. Power and value, considered individually or socially, colour Lahiri’s relationship with English and Bengali. Italian at first seems to have nothing to do with her life and yet she feels a strong desire to learn it. The desire eventually prompts her to move to Rome with her family. Unexpectedly, her love for a new language evolves into a kind of literary self-liberation: she allows herself to acknowledge that there is room in her life for multiple languages, that she can shift her focus from one language to another, and that languages can take on different roles in her life at different times.

After years of learning in exile, Italian became an integral part of Lahiri’s daily life for several years. And those who speak several languages themselves may also know the feeling of thinking, seeing, and feeling differently in other languages. So it’s not surprising that writing in another language affects the composition and register of the text. Another language allows one to express oneself in a different voice. Thus Whereabouts, which I read in English like Lahiri’s other works, has a very different tone. The sentences are shorter and more direct. The chapters are short flashes, detailed and distant at the same time. The story follows an unnamed protagonist who lives alone in what is probably an Italian town – hinted at by terms like piazza. Based on what I was used to from Lahiri’s other work, I wondered for a long time if the protagonist was an immigrant, especially since she seemed to observe everything with a certain detachment and maintained few close ties to people around her. It was a moment of surprise to realize that this was an Italian woman living for herself, and a moment when I caught myself expecting an author of Colour like Lahiri to write about experiences of migration, belonging, or exclusion. Lahiri frees herself from this mistaken expectation of (perhaps majority white) readers with the switch from English to Italian: Whereabouts intimately examines, through a focus on interiority, the effects of loneliness on a person who could be anyone. Not only the protagonist, but other characters and places remain unnamed and relatively anonymous, though detailed descriptions nevertheless make them vivid and familiar. The only thing reminiscent of The Namesake is the unspectacular nature of the text. 

In an article in the online magazine Words without Borders, Lahiri reflects on the process of translating her own text into English:

“When an author migrates into another language, the subsequent crossing into the former language might be regarded, by some, as a crossing back, an act of return, a coming home. This idea is false, and it was also not my objective”.

A linguistic home can shift just as much as people can make new homes in different geographic places, and multilingualism thus contradicts entrenched nationalisms. The beauty of translating the text into English herself is probably to take another deep look at it and – based on the Italian – it allowed Lahiri to write a different English than before. Today, Lahriri teaches, amongst other courses, literary translation into English at Princeton University. There, in linguistic exile, translating from Italian helps her maintain contact with the language she loves.