by Clara Burghelea
I first read Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel Interpreter of Maladies, while I was taking my MA in Translation Studies, at the suggestion of my English professor, a visiting scholar from India. He asked me to read it first in the original English language and then continue with the Romanian translation. He said it made a good case for linguistic diversity: if I liked it, I could choose what language to dream in at night.
Many years later, as an MFA in Creative Writing in New York, I had the chance to see Jhumpa Lahiri in the flesh, as part of a Great Writers, Great Readings event. In the cold, tall theatre, among unfamiliar faces, she made a great entrance -first, with her slender silhouette and elegant black dress, then with her clear, musical voice. She had an aristocratic poise and a pair of bright eyes that measured the audience prudently as she introduced the story of her Italian identity. A past visit to Florence was a coup de foudre that made her fall in love, rather with a language, than a place. She relocated to Rome to speed up her Italian acquisition process and emerged into a new culture. In no time, unconsciously, she wrote her first story in Italian.
That evening, she read the English translation of her story. When asked how it felt to have her own writing translated into her native language, she mentioned lexical displacement—the strange feeling of connecting to a familiar story, yet being unable to internalize it as well as its Italian source text. As a speaker and writer of English as a second language, I found the process to be fascinating in its intricate progression of shifting between languages and identities. The greatest challenge, as Jhumpa Lahiri said, is to see ourselves as writers who do not belong to one language, much as the language belongs to a specific place. We can migrate and spread past its geographical territory and develop a cosmopolitan identity.
After the reading, she was asked what language she used daily during her stay in Rome as she tried to emerge into the Italian language and culture and discard English. Surprisingly, it was Bengali, her mother tongue. Not because she felt a need to remap her identity and reconnect to her ethnic roots, but because of the large number of Bengali-speaking population she interacted with for her daily chores in Rome. Still, it was precisely in this linguistic triangle that she realized the benefits of the multi-sidedness of her identity.
As for the language of her dreams, she simply said her nights we quiet and languageless, yet riddled with multiple uses.