Teach Yourself Italian

Jhumpa Lahiri shares their personal history of learning Italian, and how that changed upon moving to Italy for a more immersive experience.

On the impulse to write, to express, even—especially?—in this unfamiliar language:

I write in a terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes. Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone. I grope my way, like a child, like a semiliterate. I am ashamed of writing like this. I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere. I can’t stop.

On learning about yourself through the constraint of writing in another language:

I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new, approximate language. But I know that it’s the most genuine, most vulnerable part of me.

In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way. I’m always uncertain. My sole intention, along with a blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself.

On the deeper experience gained by struggling to read a work written in a foreign language:

It was an unforgettable encounter, maybe the most satisfying reading of my life. To understand this poem I had to be persistent, translating every word. I had to devote myself to an ancient and demanding foreign language. And yet Ovid’s writing won me over: I was enchanted by it. I discovered a sublime work, a living, enthralling language. I believe that reading in a foreign language is the most intimate way of reading.

Reading this essay also prompted some other observations.

  • I found it by picking up an old issue of the New Yorker sitting under my bed. There’s a serendipity to browsing physical objects—you don’t have to decide which issue to open in your app before “browsing” the un-paged contents, you just pick an issue out of the stack and flip to a page at random.
  • Their tactile, spatial qualities also shine through: though I read it on paper, I quoted these from the digital edition; instead of re-reading the whole thing online, I could recall passages that moved me based on their physical location on the article’s pages, cross-referencing those passages with the digital edition.

10:46 pm on December 23, 2018