Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: Lost in Translation

I finished a book called Lost in Translation: A Life in A New Language by Eva Hoffman. The book is a memoir about Hoffman’s emigration from Cracow, Poland, to Vancouver, Canada, in the late 1950s and her struggle to adapt to a new culture and language.

Hoffman writes lovingly about her childhood in the first part of the book, which she names “Paradise.” She details playing in the countryside with her friend Marek, burrowing into haystacks and standing under waterfalls. She learns to play the piano from various teachers and eventually goes to music school to train to become a professional pianist.

It’s the little moments she describes that stand out to me. I think it’s only in childhood that you have those moments that are so overcome with feeling, that are completely new and as a child you are incapable of describing, and I’m glad she does take the time to go back and try to capture them in words:

The Planty are another space of happiness, and one day something strange and wonderful happens there. It is a sunny fall afternoon and I’m engaged in one of my favorite pastimes—picking chestnuts. I’m playing alone under the spreading, leafy, protective tree. My mother is sitting on a bench nearby, rocking the buggy in which my sister is asleep. The city, beyond the lacy wall of trees, is humming with gentle noises. The sun has just passed its highest point and is warming me with intense, oblique rays. I pick up a reddish brown chestnut, and suddenly, through its warm skin, I feel the beat as if of a heart. But the beat is also in everything around me, and everything pulsates and shimmers as it were coursing with the blood of life. Stooping under the tree, I’m holding life in my hand, and I am in the center of a harmonious, vibrating transparency. For that moment, I know everything there is to know. I have stumbled into the very center of plenitude, and I hold myself still with fulfillment, before the knowledge of my knowledge escapes me.
But Hoffman’s childhood wasn’t altogether easy, and her account is quite dark in places as she writes about her war survivor parents, and the increasing influence of the Soviet Union in Poland and oppression of Jews, which leads to her family’s emigration to Canada.

I suppose I’ve never really grasped what an intensely painful experience it must be to lose your language and culture and be forced to learn entirely new ones. The next section of the book is called “Exile,” and clearly the teenage Hoffman is not happy to be in North America, where her family goes from a middle-class existence to struggling to make a living, and she feels extremely alienated from her peers at school. Even the houses seem to offend her Polish sensibilities:
The spaces are so plain, low-ceilinged, obvious; there are no curves, niches, odd angles, nooks or crannies—nothing that gathers a house into itself, giving it a sense of privacy, or of depth—of interiority. There’s no solid wood here, no accretion either of age or dust. There is only the open sincerity of the simple spaces, open right out to the street.
But it’s the loss of a language that hits her the hardest:

The worst losses come at night. As I lie down in a strange bed in a strange house—my mother is a sort of housekeeper here, to the aging Jewish man who has taken us in in return for her services—I wait for that spontaneous flow of inner language which used to be my nighttime talk with myself, my way of informing the ego where the id had been. Nothing comes. Polish, in a short time, has atrophied, shriveled from sheer uselessness. Its words don’t apply to my new experiences; they’re not coeval with any of the objects, or faces, or the very air I breathe in the daytime. In English, words have not penetrated to those layers of my psyche from which a private conversation could proceed. This interval before sleep used to be the time when my mind became both receptive and alert, when images and words rose up to consciousness, reiterating what had happened during the day, adding the day’s experiences to those already stored there, spinning out the thread of my personal story.

Now, this picture-and-word show is gone; the thread has been snapped. I have no interior languages—those images through which we assimilate the external world, through which we take it in, love it, make it our own—become blurred too.
In the last part of the book, named “The New World,” Hoffman writes about her life as an adult, navigating through Rice and Harvard and forming a professional life as an author and “New York intellectual.” Years after she arrives in America, cultural barriers still stand between her and her “American Friends.” According to Hoffman, we’re a young and too open culture that is continuously “trying to reinvent the wheel.”

My American Friends and I are forced to engage in an experiment that is relatively rare; we want to enter into the very textures, the motions and flavors of each other’s vastly different subjectivities—and that requires feats of sympathy and even imagination in excess of either benign indifference or a remote respect.
...I have to translate myself. But if I’m to achieve this without becoming assimilated—that is, absorbed—by my new world, the translation has to be careful, the turns of the psyche unforced. To mouth foreign terms without incorporating their meanings is to risk becoming bowdlerized. A true translation proceeds by the motions of understanding and sympathy; it happens by slow increments, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase.
I didn’t like this section as well as the earlier two. Perhaps the struggle to find your way in American culture is all too familiar to me. By this time Hoffman has taken the American psyche into her own, along with its neuroses. Stylistically, I thought this section was too weighted down with words, too academic, like she’s trying to form a complicated diagnosis of American culture. The cloud of words does eventually work in getting Hoffman’s point across, but it’s a bit much.

Hoffman returns to Poland as an adult, but she realizes that there can be no alternate self, no person she would have been had she stayed.
“Of course, your life is so much more interesting there,” she says.
“No, that’s not it,” I say, and truly, I don’t know how to compare the interest of our lives. “It’s just that it happens to be the life I happen to have lived.”
“Ach, darling,” Danuta says ruefully. Of course, she understands—the poignancy, and the inevitability of having only one, peculiar version of a life, and living it within the confines of the first-person singular.
I suppose I was particularly interested in Lost in Translation because it is very much about language. As was hammered into me in grad school, language forms our reality. After reading this book, I realize that having to relearn something so fundamental as the way you express yourself, even the way you talk to yourself in your mind, is basically like having to relearn who you are as a person. Hoffman succeeds in bringing us with her on that difficult journey.

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