Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language Analysis

Eva Hoffman


Eva Hoffman was thirteen years old when, in 1949, she left Poland with her father, mother, and younger sister, traveling by ship to Canada, where the family settled in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Hoffmans had been among the small remnant of Jews in Poland after World War II, and they were never allowed to forget completely the irrational power of anti-Semitism. The family’s early years in Canada were hard--they began by selling second-hand merchandise (“junk,” Hoffman calls it) from a basement, later opening a store--but Eva excelled in high school and went on a scholarship to Rice University, where she majored in literature. She was an excellent pianist as well, and for a long time she considered a career in music, but ultimately, after receiving a doctorate in literature from Harvard University, she became a journalist, specializing in literary and cultural subjects; she is currently an editor at THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW.

Hoffman’s story sounds like a typical tale of immigrant success. In the telling, however, it is richer and more ambiguous than a summary suggests. The first section of the narrative, “Paradise,” centers on her childhood and adolescence in Cracow. “Exile” describes the voyage to Canada and her years in Vancouver, while “The New World” recounts the long process of her assimilation as an American and her discovery that she is finally at home in the English language. Even her childhood memories (the intensity of which is sharpened by exile) have been “infiltrated” by English: “I begin to trust English to speak my childhood self as well, to say what has so long been hidden.... Perhaps any language, if pursued far enough, leads to exactly the same place.” Hoffman’s title, then, is (perhaps intentionally) misleading, for in the end her book celebrates all that which is not lost in translation: the shared humanness that enables people to cross linguistic and cultural borders.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXV, January 15, 1989, p.833.

Chicago Tribune. February 1, 1989, V, p.3.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, November 15, 1988, p.1655.

Library Journal. CXIV, January, 1989, p.91.

Los Angeles Times. March 22, 1989, V, p.4.

The Nation. CCXLVIII, June 12, 1989, p.821.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, January 15, 1989, p.1.

Newsweek. CXIII, January 23, 1989, p.64.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, December 9, 1988, p.54.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 17, 1989, p.1263.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, January 15, 1989, p.3.

The World & I. IV, December, 1989, p.447.

Lost in Translation

Any book with the words “translation” or “language” in the title deserves some initial skepticism with regard to its basic entertainment value. This book soon dispels all such skepticism, however, and proves to be an engrossing personal account of a life in two cultures and languages. Eva Hoffman was thirteen years old, her identity already formed, when she and her family left Poland in 1959. Today she has a new identity as a successful literary journalist, an editor for The New York Times Book Review.

Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language recounts that transformation, telling how Polish Ewa became American Eva, and all that such a change entailed. Within this memoir, pieces of abstract reflection are carefully placed so that the reader is forced to think about the implications of living in different cultural worlds and conflicting linguistic realities. Hoffman tells her story in vignettes that skip back and forth over time and space with a peculiarly dreamlike quality, lending emotional force to her assertions of nostalgia and loss of identity.

Hoffman is particularly conscious of the essential arbitrariness of linguistic expression, something only a person who becomes bilingual as an adult can fully appreciate. She notes, for example, that in the most common usage there is at once the least structure and the most culture:“You’re welcome,” for example, strikes me as a gaucherie, and I can hardly bring myself to say it—I suppose because it implies that there’s something to be thanked for, which in Polish would be impolite. The very places where language is at its most conventional, where it should be taken most for granted, are the places where I feel the prick of artifice.

In a way at once analytical and intuitive, Hoffman touches on sociolinguistics, that area of language which goes beyond the conventions of sharing information to the conventions of personal and cultural identity through which we perceive all the other linguistic and social agreements we make and by which they are judged. Truth may not be relative, but Hoffman clearly shows us how our access to it is relativized by who we are, how we think, and in which language that all takes place.

Much of this book is highly personal, yet it is Hoffman’s achievement to move easily and persuasively from the particulars of individual experience to larger truths. Sometimes these connections are implicit, left for the reader to develop fully. Speaking of her father’s acclimatization to Canada, where her family settled after leaving Poland, Hoffman observes that, “while he learns the language, my father never really catches on to how different the rules are here, to the genteel and rational methods of doing business in Vancouver.” Put in a more general form, what Hoffman seems to be saying is that language is easy, but culture is hard. Or again, that sharing information is one thing, but sharing values and identity is quite another. The sadness that pervades much of this book can be traced to an intense awareness of the basic untranslatability not so much of words and their meanings but of personal consciousness and its values, mediated through words and their meanings taken in a larger sense.

Hoffman is able to take an outside, if not objective, look at North American culture. Again, it is the little, usually unnoticed, and always value-laden things which transmit culture:My mother says I’m becoming “English.” This hurts me, because I know she means I’m becoming cold. I’m no colder than I’ve ever been, but I’m learning to be less demonstrative. I leam this from a teacher who, after contemplating the gesticulations with which I help myself describe the digestive system of a frog, tells me to “Sit on my hands and then try talking.”

The teacher was no doubt trying to encourage precision of thought and expression; it would not have occurred to him...

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