The importance of language in “The Interpreter of Maladies” is alluded to in the story’s title itself. Language is central to Mr. Kapasi’s second job as an interpreter of patient ailments in a doctor’s office, where he must rely on his linguistic prowess to communicate effectively between people who do not understand one another. The power—and limits—of language is further present in the interactions between Mr. Kapasi and the Das family, as well as within the Das family itself. As all of the characters struggle to express themselves meaningfully, Lahiri’s story suggests the depth of the gap that often exists between language and communication.
In addition to his work as an interpreter, Mr. Kapasi reveals that he had a passion for languages in his youth and became proficient through self-study in several. As a young man, Mr. Kapasi’s interest in languages was motivated by his belief in the nobility of translation as an occupation. He once dreamt of serving as an interpreter to “diplomats and dignitaries,” and thereby hoped to help resolve “conflicts between people and nations.”
Mr. Kapasi’s youthful passion points to his idealistic belief in the power of language as an instrument of communication and reconciliation. However, his work as an interpreter at a doctor’s office is a far cry from his dream of serving as a translator for dignitaries. Though he himself views the job as a “sign of his failings,” the dignity of his current work is affirmed by Mrs. Das, who is impressed by the responsibility that he carries in interpreting the illnesses of patients. By highlighting Mr. Kapasi’s interests and background , Lahiri evokes the power of language as a tool for understanding.
Yet, even as the story emphasizes the positive potential of language, it also highlights the ways in which language often fails people. This is reflected in the interactions between members of the Das family, who are unable to engage with each other meaningfully and effectively during their excursion with Mr. Kapasi. Though members of the Das family speak to one another often, they are not really communicating. Mr. Das warns his son Ronny against touching a goat at the beginning of the story, for example, and yet the boy ignores his father. Mr. Das commands his second son, Bobby, to follow Ronny, but Bobby refuses. Mr. Das’s linguistic commands are repeatedly rebuffed, stripping his voice of any power when it comes to controlling his children.
The Das family also often interacts through bickering rather than meaningful discussion of the sights around them. Mrs. Das complains to her husband about ordering a car which is not air-conditioned to take them on their excursion, for instance. When Tina asks her mother to polish her nails for her, Mrs. Das, untouched by her daughter’s pleading, simply tells the girl to leave her alone. Though Mr. Kapasi once believed in the healing potential of language, the tensions that characterize the communication between the Dases suggest the ways in which language can heighten, rather than resolve, conflict and disagreement.
Despite Mr. Kapasi’s talent for languages, it’s clear that he has trouble interpreting and understanding his relationship to Mrs. Das, even though they both speak English. Mr. Kapasi fixates on Mrs. Das’s description of his work as an interpreter as “romantic.” He takes her use of this word to indicate the fact that she has more than a friendly interest in him. By the end of the story, however, it becomes clear that Mrs. Das has no romantic interest in Mr. Kapasi at all. Instead, she views him as someone who might help her deal with the guilt that she carries as a result of having an affair. The words that Mrs. Das speaks to Mr. Kapasi, therefore, communicate something other than what he thinks they do. Her flattery is likely an attempt to get what she wants out of him, again suggesting a distinction between language and genuine meaning.
“The Interpreter of Maladies” works to challenge readers’ understanding of the relationship between language and communication. While the story acknowledges the potential of language as an invaluable means for understanding, it also points to all of the ways in which language falls short in allowing people to communicate effectively. In the end, language is presented as a tool that can both reveal and obscure meaning.
Language and Communication ThemeTracker
Language and Communication Quotes in Interpreter of Maladies
While Mr. Das adjusted his telephoto lens, Mrs. Das reached into her straw bag and pulled out a bottle of colorless nail polish, which she proceeded to stroke on the tip of her index finger.
The little girl stuck out her hand. “Mine too. Mommy, do mine too.”
“Leave me alone,” Mrs. Das said, blowing on her nail and turning her body slightly. “You’re making me mess up.”
For this reason it flattered Mr. Kapasi that Mrs. Das was so intrigued by his job. Unlike his wife, she had reminded him of its intellectual challenges. She had also used the word “romantic.” She did not behave in a romantic way toward her husband, and yet she had used the word to describe him. He wondered if Mr. and Mrs. Das were a bad match, just as he and his wife were.
She would write to him, asking about his days interpreting at the doctor’s office, and he would respond eloquently, choosing only the most entertaining anecdotes, ones that would make her laugh out loud as she read them in her house in New Jersey. In time she would reveal the disappointment of her marriage, and he his. In this way their friendship would grow, and flourish.
“For God’s sake, stop calling me Mrs. Das. I’m twenty-eight. You probably have children my age.”
“Not quite.” It disturbed Mr. Kapasi to learn that she thought of him as a parent. The feeling he had had toward her, that had made him check his reflection in the rearview mirror as they drove, evaporated a little.
“I told you because of your talents.” She put the packet of puffed rice back into her bag without folding over the top.
“I don’t understand,” Mr. Kapasi said.