Swimming in the Deep: A Review of In altre parole (In Other Words)

Swimming in the Deep: A Review of In altre parole (In Other Words)

If you’ve read my other post about dual-language short stories, you’ll know that one of my favorite ways to learn Italian is by reading books written in both English and Italian. So, when I discovered In altre parole (In Other Words) on a display table at Barnes & Noble®, mixed with other nonfiction books, I couldn’t pass it up.


In altre parole
is Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir about her experience with Italian. She first fell in love with the language in her early twenties when visiting Florence with her sister. She went to see the architecture and history, but it was the language that had the greatest impact on her.

[D]all’inizio il mio rapporto con l’Italia è tanto uditivo quanto visuale. Benché ci siano poche macchine, la città ronza. Mi rendo conto di un rumore che mi piace, delle conversazioni, delle frasi, delle parole che sento ovunque vada. ([F]rom the start my relationship with Italy is as auditory as it is visual. Although there aren’t many cars, the city is humming. I’m aware of a sound that I like, of conversations, phrases, words that I hear wherever I go.)

It was like a chance encounter with an intriguing stranger who would change the rest of her life.

“Sembra una lingua con cui devo avere una relazione. Sembra una persona che incontro un giorno per caso, con cui sento subito un legame, un affetto. (It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship. It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond.)”

After studying the language for many years, she moves with her family to Rome for a year to completely immerse herself. Her book tells of the challenges and joy of diving deeply into the language and culture. “Per conoscere una nuova lingua, per immergersi, si deve lasciare la sponda. Senza salvagente. Senza poter contare sulla terraferma. (To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore. Without a life vest. Without depending on solid ground.)”

In Italian, Lahiri finds a new mode of expressing her creativity. In doing so, she struggles with the limitations imposed by a foreign language and the imperfection that inevitably results. Yet, the limitations also free and inspire her. Instead of becoming discouraged by the imperfection, she finds the beauty and inspiration in it. “L’imperfezione dà lo spunto all’invenzione, all’immaginazione, alla creatività. (Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity.)

I enjoyed In altre parole, because I connected with Lahiri’s experience with Italian. Like her, I have no Italian relatives or close friends. Yet, there was something in its sound that drew me to it. An obsession that likely will serve no practical purpose, but which I have found myself unable to give up. I was envious of the dive she took into the language by spending a year in Rome, while I swim in the shallow waters of the lake, keeping my salvagente of English close by. Having lived in Southern Italy for over two months in a place where few people spoke English, I know how daunting, yet important, it is to swim in the deeper waters. Hopefully, In altre parole and this website will inspire you to do so one day.


Favorite New Words and Phrases from In altre parole:                                                 

  • A notte fonda: in the middle of the night                                                      

    la luce del crepuscolo
  • Uno stato di smarrimento totale: a state of complete bewilderment
  • Malgrado il rischio: in spite of the risk
  • La luce del crepuscolo: the light of dusk
  • Ciononostante: nevertheless
  • Né di qua né di là: neither here nor there
  • Spina nel fianco: thorn in my side
  • Inutile dire: needless to say
  • La malinconia: melancholy
  • Inquietante: unsettling
  • Un punto di svolta: a turning point
  • Un’accozzaglia di pensieri: a hodgepodge of thoughts
  • Titubante: hesitant
  • Impavido: bold

For more dual-language options, you can check out my other post on Italian short stories.

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