Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation

Language and self in cross-cultural autobiography: Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation

Mary Besemeres

The scale of the problem of emigrating into a new linguistic environment is suggested with particular subtlety and force by the title of the Polish-Canadian1 author Eva Hoffman’s autobiography: Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989). The second half of the title answers the question implicitly posed by the first: it is the immigrant’s whole life before emigration that is imagined as “lost in translation,” by analogy with the meaning of a literary text. “Lost” refers likewise to the author herself, who is at once lost as in a maze or in a reverie, in the activity of translating from Polish into English cultural perspectives-and, more poignantly, in danger of losing her very self in the course of the translation. The metaphor of fidelity to an original is an especially suggestive one in the context of an immigrant’s life: are the cultural assumptions with which he or she arrives susceptible to extension and revision, and to what extent can a “self ‘ be identified with them? Problems of translation may pertain as much to “selves” inducted into a new language and culture as to texts to be rendered in a new linguistic code.

In a lecture of 1934 which has been posthumously entitled “The Difficulty of Delimiting a Boundary Between Personality and Culture,” the linguist and pioneer of cultural psychology, Edward Sapir, himself a child immigrant, has written:

[The attitude comprised in the individual’s nuclear personality has an analogue in a cultural attitude, or what we might call] cultural loyalties-loyalties imbibed from your own culture which makes you a little insensitive to the meanings in different cultures. You are obtuse to meanings that are not welcome, that do not fit into the old scheme of things…. [Consider what happens to a person upon] entering a new cultural environment. The essential invariance of personality makes one alive and sensitive to some things and obtuse to others, [depending upon how the] new environment [matches up with] pivotal points from the old. [Your] awareness of certain things in a new cultural [setting] is a test of the old one, [a test of what the old one’s pivotal points in fact were.] 2

Sapir’s definition of culture as what makes its bearers obtuse to the systems of understanding prevailing elsewhere is both relative and negative, not unlike de Saussure’s classic definition of meaning in terms of valeur, the relations which obtain between linguistic signs. Seen from within, a culture is infinitely more than what makes it unintelligible to outsiders. Similarly, the notion of the invariance of personality now seems to smack of an archaic essentialism. On both counts, however, taken as mutually inclusive by Sapir, his formulation coincides revealingly with a recurrent theme in immigrant and ethnic autobiographical narratives. This could be summed up as the sensation of “switching personalities” across the cultures and languages of their experience, in the words of Japanese-American autobiographer, Monica Sone.3 In this article I will be discussing how Eva Hoffman’s autobiography bears out Sapir’s intuition, while rendering his terms both more dynamic and more personal through the medium of her metaphor of self-translation. Lost in Translation offers insights into questions of the relation between language, culture and selfhood which are of a broad theoretical interest, potentially illuminating the condition of bilingual and bicultural authors ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to Kazuo Ishiguro.

In his book Dickens and Romantic Psychology: The Self in Time in Nineteenth-Century Literature,4 Dirk den Hartog argues for the presence of an underlying, informing dialectic in the work of Dickens and other nineteenthcentury writers. This dialectic represents the clash of two Romantic traditions, drawn under the encompassing terms “Wordsworthian” and “Byronic.” What Hartog calls the Wordsworthian tradition is in essence one of allegiance to one’s memories of childhood, as to a potential source of stability and integrity for the self. The “Byronic” tradition is committed to an expansive, revolutionary energy which, in breaking with the established order (and therefore also with one’s personal past), liberates the self.

Hartog, following Marshall Berman in All That is Solid Melts into Air,5 sees an ambiguity born of these conflicting traditions as the defining characteristic of modernity. Without necessarily accepting these authors’ emphasis on the centrality of such a dialectic to contemporary Western culture, one could see how the expatriate condition might confront a person in an extreme way with broadly analogous alternatives. As Salman Rushdie has written, while it is self-evidently “part of our common humanity” that “the past is a country from which we have emigrated,” “the writer who is out of country and even out of language may experience this loss in an intensified form.”6

Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation (hereafter LT) reflects on immigrant experience explicitly in terms of a movement back and forth between two possible selves, associated with two distinct cultural and linguistic life-models. Embracing the model of the adopted country for Hoffman means following a forward and outward personal trajectory, albeit one flung over a “dizzying emptiness” (p. 138). Retaining the original sense of self intact is seen as implying an essentially backward and inward curve, as when the author writes: “[n]ostalgia… directs my vision inward” (p. 115; my italics-MB.).

Eva7 Hoffman emigrated to Vancouver with her parents from the old Polish city of Cracow in 1958, when she was thirteen. Her Polish cultural identity, in its “pure,” unthreatened form8 coeval with her childhood and early adolescence, makes an archetypally Wordsworthian claim on her, in Hartog’s terms. Acquiring a Canadian and subsequently an American identity, which she must do if she is to function as an adult in either of these new countries, to some extent requires that readiness to cut herself free of roots which Hartog identifies as “Byronic”-an act which, for Hoffman, could never be without cost. The relationship between her Polish and Anglophone selves is not always predicated on a dialectical model of conflict, however. Towards the end of her narrative, Hoffman suggests some ways in which these selves, often so rawly at odds, have proven mutually supportive, each providing a medium and a structure in which the other might speak for the whole person. Her autobiography is a theatre for their continuing dialogue.

The metaphor of voice is important in Hoffman’s book, since one of her central concerns is the question of the relationship between language and the self. At various points in the narrative she dramatizes the interaction of her interrupted Polish and nascent “Anglo” identities as a dialogue. Being intimately familiar to one another, these inner interlocutors anticipate and try to pre-empt each other’s utterances in an alternate battle to subdue, and struggle to understand, the other:

If you had stayed there… you would be going to the movies with Zbyszek… with whom would you go out here? One of these churlish boys who play spin the bottle? You’ve become more serious than you used to be.

What jokes are your friends in Cracow exchanging?

…you prefer her, the Cracow Ewa.

Yes, I prefer her. But I can’t be her. I’m losing track of her…

But she’s more real anyway.

Yes, she’s the real one (p. 120).

As this brief passage indicates, even the separated voices of “the Cracow Ewa” and the Vancouver Eva are not altogether certain which is which. The Polish voice addresses the English as “you” (“your friends in Cracow”), but in a somewhat schizophrenic vein, the same Polish voice talks about itself as “she,” “she’s more real,” a change of grammatical person to which the English voice ruefully acquiesces: “Yes, she’s the real one.” The way in which the phenomenon of voice presupposes connection between language and an individual, lends itself to Hoffman’s use of metaphorical voices for conflicting selves, or for different cultural holds on the self.

One of the main reasons why her Polish voice can claim a greater authenticity than the English one-“she’s more real”-is that it speaks in her native language. In a later dialogue between the two “selves,” the English voice sulkily resists the primacy of the mother tongue, only to re-affirm it: “You don’t necessarily know the truth about me just because you speak in that language. Just because you seem to come from deeper within” (p. 199). Polish is the “interior language” through whose “interior images” Ewa first learnt “to assimilate the external world,” “to take it in, love it, make it [her] own” (p. 108). This formulation resonates uncannily with a phrase in a little-known essay by the German Romantic thinker, Johann Gottfried Herder, commonly acknowledged as the father of the theory of linguistic relativity, which declares: “Our native language impressed itself upon us first, in our tenderest years, as by means of words we gathered the world of concepts and images into our soul.”9 Hoffman’s most striking contribution to the debate over the relationship between the self and language is her insistence that any language implies a cultural universe, whose contours remain invisible as long as they are shared but which become unmistakable upon collision with another such world, another language. She gives eloquent expression to this conviction in a remembered argument with fellow students at an American university: Surely, [“my friends” assume,] inside our heads and souls things are… universal, the ocean of reality one and indivisible. No, I shout in every one of our arguments, no! There’s a world out there; there are worlds. There are shapes of sensibility incommensurate with each other, topographies of experience one cannot guess from within one’s own limited experience (p. 205).

As outlined at the outset, the primary metaphor the autobiography offers for the process by which Hoffman’s dual identity comes about is translation rather than (Bakhtinian) dialogue, although the metaphors are related. The title Lost in Translation presents Hoffman as engaged in a double effort of translation: firstly of herself from Polish into English, and then of the reality of her Englishspeaking peers into the Polish reality she first internalized. This figure of ongoing two-way translation ingeniously characterizes her immigrant life as she looks back on it, and the act of writing it, as she conceives it.

LT is made up of three parts, “Paradise,” “Exile” and “The New World,” each presented as corresponding loosely to life in a different country: Poland, Canada and the United States respectively. Rather than maintaining an impression of chronology, however, the structure is thematic, in the manner of a musical composition, a quality which seems in keeping with the fact that music was Eva Hoffman’s first talent and inclination, before writing.

The “paradise” of the first part summons the author’s childhood in Cracow, the ancient capital of Poland, in her parents’ “lumpen apartment”-on the face of it an unlikely Eden. Hoffman’s parents, among the sole survivors of the Holocaust in their families, were Jewish members of the Polish intelligentsia who decided to leave Poland when the ban on the emigration of Jews was eased after 1956. The second part of LT is governed by the theme of exile indicated in its title. While it more or less coincides with a remembered adolescence in Vancouver, this part traces a looser time-straying into the last section’s province of adulthood-in which “Eva,” as Ewa is abruptly christened at school,10 is preoccupied with the wound inflicted on her by emigration. In the same way, while the final section broadly evokes Hoffman’s student years and her career as an editor and writer in the United States, it is concerned thematically with her growing readiness to engage with the reality of her “host” language and culture. This evolution is presented as uneven, subject to mutinies by her beckoning Polish self, which warns: “I’ll never leave you quite alone” (p. 231), but by the end of it Hoffman can affirm: “there’s something I know in English too” (p. 273).

While Hoffman’s terms for her oscillation between homesickness and desire for acculturation correlate closely with those of Hartog’s post-Romantic dialectic, his schema is complicated in her case by the fact that each tendency is associated with a different culture. A blend of the two Romanticisms, weighted towards the one that Hartog calls “Wordsworthian,” seems to form a crucial, mainstream part of the culture from which Ewa emigrates. The one into which she immigrates seems significantly more hospitable to the “Byronic” impulse to move beyond one’s roots into a wholly self-created identity. In Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture, Werner Sollors quotes from several early modem characterizations of an emergent American tradition which claim that its most salient feature is its very rejection of tradition (or “descent”) as a foundation on which to establish one’s identity (the source of one’s “legitimacy and privilege”).11 Instead, the fledgling culture is said to favour the self-made, freely chosen identity (a matter of individual “consent”). Sollors argues persuasively that this self-perception forms a persistent element in the dynamics of contemporary American culture, one in tension with the “descent” element consolidated by generations of immigrants.

Hoffman repeatedly returns to the feeling of a haunting longing for her homeland which she sometimes translates as “nostalgia,” sometimes gives us the Polish word for: tesknota. This is the sensation which she remembers overwhelming her as she stood on the ship, moving away from the Gdansk port, when she and her family were leaving Poland: “I am suffering my first, severe attack of nostalgia, or tesknota-a word that adds to nostalgia the tonalities of sadness and longing” (p. 4). It is, moreover, a feeling which she recalls experiencing as a young child in Poland when she heard the possibly preChristian songs of the peasants in the mountains where her family spent their vacation, and there the longing was “I don’t know for what” (p. 20).

Yet while on these occasions the feeling seems to be the most private and indefinable of desires, it also appears to be one of the most communicable. It is something Ewa is taught and expected to convey by her piano-playing, a feeling listeners can be relied upon to recognize, and for which there is a special, resonant word. To this extent, tesknota appears to be at the elusive intersection of the personal and the cultural realms, the difficulty of delimiting which was defined at the outset in the passage from Sapir. At school in Canada and among friends in the United States alike, Hoffman feels herself to have been rigourously socialized out of a strong attachment to home. By contrast, tesknota was positively encouraged by her education in Cracow, with its strong diet of Romantic poetry and music. Tesknota emerges from the range of her references to it as an important cultural concept, while being one of her innermost experiences: a “communal meaning,” in cultural psychologist Jerome Bruner’s terminology,12 or a “vital understanding,” in that of anthropologists Dorothy Holland and Naomi Quinn. 13

A further complication to the Wordsworthian/Byronic dialectic in Hoffman’s account, is that her sense of dislocation and uprootedness as an immigrant is itself something she shares with her highly mobile generation of Americans. It might even be mistaken for a sign of assimilation. Yet it is in her continuing tesknota-a “residual nostalgia… for the more stable, less strenuous conditions of anchoring, of home” (p. 197), which strikes her “Byronic” American friends as “a bit unseemly,” and admission to “a shameful weakness”-that her still palpable difference from them resides.

Of the other quality most admired in both writing and playing, the Polish polot, loosely translated as “panache,” Hoffman writes:

I am picking up notions about flair, and panache, and sparks of inspirationtonalities of character that are the true Polish values, and that are encouraged by my peers and my school-teachers, not to speak of the Romantic poetry we read. There is a romantic undercurrent to much of the education I get. What counts in a written composition-whether it’s about our last school excursion or a poem by Mickiewicz-is a certain extravagance of style and feeling… polot-a word that combines the meanings of dash, inspiration, and flying… IT]hose Polish cavalrymen, about whom we hear so often, who went out to meet German tanks when the Nazis invaded [had polot]. Chopin’s A Major Polonaise coming over the loudspeakers in the last heroic moments of the Warsaw uprising, as bullets and grenades ricocheted through the streets-that is a gesture that captures the essence of polot. And polot, of course, is absolutely necessary in music; without it… the flair,… the melancholy,… the wildness that ignite the sounds with fire and tenderness, you can practice all you want, and you won’t come anywhere near greatness (p. 71).

In this passage, Hoffman speaks on behalf of the national culture that honours polot, although there is a note of ironic re-appraisal in the phrase “the true Polish values.” Elsewhere, less obliquely, she positions her Jewish family on the margin of these traditions (“No, I’m no patriot, nor was I ever allowed to be” [p. 74]).

Hoffman’s account of the concepts tgsknota and polot suggests that in midtwentieth-century Polish cultural consciousness a revolutionary “Byronic” impulse was not deemed incompatible with the lyrical “Wordsworthian” appeal of native place. The Romantic tradition in music and literature which Hoffman shows her child-self eagerly imbibing at school (with a retrospectively quizzical touch, “those… cavalrymen, about whom we hear so often”) was created in the nineteenth century by Polish exiles, preeminently by the figures she mentions, Chopin and the poet Mickiewicz. The country’s modem history was marked by a collective experience of her own deracination, with the imperial partitions of the late eighteenth century forcing several large-scale waves of emigration. Tgsknota for the oppressed homeland was a feeling that helped to define the emerging national culture, and it went hand in hand with visions of a liberation of Poland. Hoffman telescopes the two suppressed national insurrections under the Russian partition into her reference to the Warsaw uprising, enacted to the strains of the Polonaise typically associated with the earlier uprisings. It is not surprizing then, that the attributes Ewa was urged to capture in her musical performances should interweave without any apparent sense of contradiction the values which Hartog’s dialectic conceives of as necessarily in opposition: “the melancholy [and…] the wildness that ignite the sounds with fire and tenderness…” (p. 71).

The beginning of Eva’s “life in a new language” is, as the adult narrator reinterprets it, the throwing into doubt of the capacity of Polish words to render reality absolutely. The Polish word for “river14” was, she remembers, a “vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood,… of my being immersed in rivers”; the English “river” seems “cold” by comparison, “a word without an aura” (p. 106). In entering English, Eva’s problem, at least in the language of Hoffman’s present consciousness, is that “the signifier has become severed from the signified” (p. 106). English words do not “stand for things in the same unquestioned way” as Polish words did. The knowledge that “words are just themselves” which is forced on Ewa by immigration, according to Hoffman makes her a premature “living avatar of structuralist wisdom”-predisposed to be receptive to the structuralist ideas she later encountered at university:

This radical disjoining between word and thing… drain[s] the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances-its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection (p. 107).

The suggestion here that the normal and desirable state of being is one in which language is believed to mediate reality absolutely implies that such a belief is more than merely comforting. Insofar as it provides a “living connection” with the world, the belief must to some extent be necessary for psychological survival, however cogent de Saussure’s insight into its contingency. If there is a skeptical note inscribed in Hoffman’s use of structuralist keywords here, it is developed more fully in a later part of the book.

The sudden, unwelcome awareness of the relativity of meanings, especially of core cultural meanings like tesknota, has a deeply disorienting effect on thirteen-year-old Ewa. Hoffman describes the experience in retrospect as a kind of spiritual dizziness, a “thinness” in the head. She relates her attempts as an immigrant adolescent (attempts based on a chance reading of Zen) to take advantage of this thinness by seeing in it a liberating detachment from the sordid, mundane realities that other people were immersed in. Underneath this assumed serenity, naturally enough, was a “cauldron” of seething, barely contained “loves and hates,” a raging at the loss of her earlier Polish normality. In the light of inescapable comparison with English, that sense of normality was exposed as an illusion maintained by the Polish language itself.

While in one sense for the author words really are only “themselves”-i.e., language-specific tokens-in another, she argues, they must be trusted to appropriate the world, to render a reality. The Polish ties straining against the American ones hurt, and this pain seems evidence (contra relativistic structuralist claims) that the alternate meanings, however relative, really do signify:

The fissures sometimes cause me pain, but in a way, they’re how I know that I’m alive. Suffering and conflict are the best proof that there’s something like a psyche, a soul; or else, what is it that suffers? (p. 273).

In his critique of de Saussure’s theory of the sign, Emile Benveniste draws a distinction implied here by Hoffman’s tone of appeal, when he opposes the perspective of the linguist to that of the speaker of a language:

For the speaker there is a complete equivalence between language and reality. The sign overlies and commands reality; even better, it is that reality… [T]he point of view of the speaker and of the linguist are so different in this regard that the assertion of the linguist as to the arbitrariness of designations does not refute the contrary feeling of the speaker.15

Benveniste suggests that de Saussure’s perception is a pseudo-problem psychologically. Hoffman in fact combines the two points of view in her interpretation of her experience. The sense of the contingency of one’s own language is a significant psychological possibility, on her account; a bilingual immigrant, especially one severed at an early age from his or her native language and its conceptual environment, can feel the force of it. But it may threaten sanity; at least in the short term, the adolescent immigrant, still wavering between identities, is obliged to identify more fully with one of the two languages.

The inevitable pull the further one enters the “host” culture is towards the second language, although this need not imply a neat resolution of the conflict. In his recent, thoughtful and evocative memoir The Factory of Facts, bilingual author Luc Sante recounts how in adolescence he settled for an uneasy entente between his two languages and cultures, Belgian French and American English, until French was displaced by English as the language of his “internal monologue” in his late teens.16

Ultimately, the near-paradoxical state Eva Hoffman sees herself and other immigrants as subsisting in, and which she finally embraces, is that of someone aware of the relativity of the languages in which they live yet open to the possibility that each language may render fully and in some sense absolutely, a particular, unrepeatable world.

When Eva receives a diary from a Canadian friend, she is immediately faced with the problem of which language to write in. Polish would seem proper to the recording of immediate experiences, but since it has begun to atrophy through lack of use, and since those experiences themselves are as yet “untranslatable” (p. 120) into Polish, they will have to go unrecorded. In a related way, after meeting some Canadian acquaintances of her parents Eva is at a loss for words with which to describe them to herself: “Are [they…] pleasant or dull? Kindly or silly?” (p. 108). These people’s very reality, and therefore her own in relation to them, seems suspended, incomplete, until she can name them. The difficulty in doing so, Hoffman suggests, arises because there is no category of judgment in Polish equivalent with “kindly”; from a Polish cultural perspective the word sounds as if it ought to be ironic. It requires a leap out of that expectation to use “kindly” in English with unstinting approbation, as she hears fellow Canadians do. English words, as Hoffman puts it, as yet “don’t hook onto anything” (p. 108).

For Eva, the author muses in retrospect, writing her newly acquired diary in Polish would now be like choosing “Latin or ancient Greek” (p. 120). English is the language of school, of her public self, and is therefore distant from her in a different sense. Polish is at once her personal vernacular, and thus closer, and the language of a faraway land, a kind of vanished civilization of the self, a currency as valid in Vancouver as a Roman coin. This changed dimension of Polish is accentuated by a vignette from the Vancouver classroom in which Eva shows Poland on the map to her classmates, and is rewarded with the question, “Is Poland a part of Russia?” (p. 132). The last lines of a poem by the Polish emigre poet Czeslaw Milosz, “The Fall,” comparing the death of a man to the end of a nation, can also be read as a powerful meditation, akin to Hoffman’s thinking, on the fate of the immigrant’s inner language:

Its land once bringing harvest is overgrown with thistles,

Its mission forgotten, its language lost,

The dialect of a village high upon inaccessible mountains.17 Hoffman and Milosz might be paraphrased as saying, what has been a rich medium of cultural expression dwindles for the immigrant to an incommunicable idiolect.

In the end, Eva writes her journal in English. The result, however, is not intimate forth-pourings of daily experiences, but more or less abstract reflections. This gives her at least a written self, a foothold in the new language, when the spoken self is still unsteady and, she fears, made ridiculous by its accent. But it is a curiously disembodied and distant identity, at the double remove of both English and writing. She can only lay claim to it by addressing it in writing as “you,” unable to identify it as “I,” rather as Maxine Hong Kingston in The Woman Warrior balks when faced at school by the bold, stripped-down upper case English “I” instead of the more intricate and multiple Chinese ideograph.18 In Touching the World, Paul John Eakin emphasizes the role of speech and silence in “cross-cultural lives,” and in this context quotes Kingston’s account of her failure to appropriate the first person of the new language. As he points out:

While any autobiography… is necessarily based on tacit assumptions about the relation between language and identity, the special circumstances of ethnic autobiography tend to make these assumptions explicit as felt experience.19

In another passage, Hoffman recounts the dismal experience of hearing a joke she translated verbatim from Polish fall resoundingly flat when she tried it on some fellow teenagers at a Canadian drive-in. She likens the act of telling a joke to a “linguistic pirouette,” a performance in which the self is precariously on show. Like the “I” on the page which she cannot make her own, her failure to carry off this performance in English in front of her peers forces her into a false persona like a “clumsy and overblown astronaut suit” (p. 119). Speaking and writing with confidence in the language of the adopted country is seen as tantamount to existing in it; Kingston’s narrator puts it similarly in The Woman Warrior: “If you don’t talk, you can’t have a personality.”20

While Hoffman defends the value of a “living connection” with one’s childhood world and native tongue, she also addresses the way in which unrelenting irony towards one’s adopted country can force one to remain at its margin, causing a peculiar disease of inhibition. The Hungarian-born Australian author Andrew Riemer in his autobiography Inside Outside comments that irony and a parodic trespassing on the learnt language are the immigrant’s archetypal condition.21 He points to Nabokov, Stoppard and Perec as exemplars of this phenomenon. For Hoffman, however, it is to some extent a question of choice:

Theodor Adorno… once warned his fellow refugees that if they lost their alienation, they’d lose the souls. A bracingly uncompromising idea of integrity: but I doubt that Adorno could have maintained it over a lifetime… without having a friendly audience [at home] for his dialectical satires. The soul can shrivel from an excess of critical distance, and if I don’t want to remain in arid internal exile for the rest of my life, I have to find a way to lose my alienation without losing my self. But how does one… strike an elastic balance between rigidity and self-effacement[;]… stop reading the exterior signs of a foreign tribe and step into the inwardness, the viscera of their meanings? (p. 209).

The immigrant who attempts to transmute him or herself utterly to fit the contours of a new culture suffers, in Hoffman’s quote from Milan Kundera, from the “unbearable lightness of being” (p. 116). In the extreme form of a “Byronic” self-extension and absorption of new experience, the original self becomes “efface[d].” The perpetual parodist and ironist, however, is in danger of remaining through “rigidity” a foreign body in the life of his or her adopted country.

On Hoffman’s account, mastering the new language is more than a necessary skill in an economic sense: it is a matter of entering a whole world constructed according to certain shared understandings.22 Such understandings are implicit in the routine phrases that Eva encounters in Canada and America, in particular, “liv[e] [your] own life” (p. 161Wa troubling individualistic dictum that counsels her to “extricate” herself from “the mesh of family need and love”-and later, “you’ve got to stay in control” (p. 203). A phase of heightened, vocal revolt against her peers at university which Hoffman calls “immigrant rage” causes Eva to see with unfortunate and alienating clarity, “drawn all over” the individual with whom she is arguing, a “grid of general assumptions” (p. 203):

My American Friends… share so many assumptions that are quite invisible to them, precisely because they are shared. These are assumptions about the most fundamental human transactions, subcutaneous beliefs, which lie just below the stratum of political opinion or overt ideology: about how much “space,” physical or psychological, we need to give each other, about how much “control” is desirable, about what is private and what is public,… about what we’re allowed to poke fun at and what we have to revere, about how much we need to hide in order to reveal ourselves (pp. 210-11).

When Eva falls in love with an American, there is an even stronger than usual impetus to understand and be understood by him, and a greater resistance to viewing him as anything other than himself, a unique and particular individual. But in Hoffman’s portrayal of their relationship, language continues to raise a barrier between them. They talk at cross-purposes, as when she mistakes his reluctance to become involved (“I’m afraid to hurt you”) for an overly ginger approach: “If you hurt me, I’ll tell you…. I’m pretty strong, you know” (p. 188). They are forced to “translate” themselves for one another, a joint enterprise that itself sparks a “tenderness” between them, but each represents an arduous task of deciphering. The sense of strangeness that persists is, Hoffman feels sure, something other than the recognition of another’s “ineradicable separateness.” Ultimately, they do not share a common language:

It is, ironically, in the smallest, quietest phrases, when we’re nearest those soft and vulnerable crevices where intimacy is lodged, that my Texan and I know most poignantly that we don’t speak exactly the same language (p. 190).

In a later, apparently happier love, intimacy is reached not by virtue of an extra-linguistic insight into the other, a transcendence of their different languages, but (in part) because of a deepening in Eva’s English-language sense of self. Her lover’s language is now partly her own, his attitudes find a welcome and point of recognition among her own. Hoffman speculates: “Perhaps you cannot love one person when you don’t love the world surrounding him, the common sensibility that somehow expresses itself in each one of us” (p. 245). A similar thought surfaces in a later reflection on her friendship with a fellow Jewish but American-born woman, Miriam. Hoffman has learned to “detect” her friend’s “truths,” to distinguish “what she [really] feels” from among “concealments and confessions” (p. 278). She can in turn reveal her own truths to Miriam, a listener skilled at “catch[ing]” personal “nuances as they fly by” (p. 279). Part of what makes their affectionate understanding possible is that Eva has “to some extent… assimilated the tenor of [Miriam’s] mind and the accent of her speech,” for “it is only within an intelligible human context that a face can become dear, a person known” (p. 278).

While Hoffman represents the influence of Polish as a voice which continues to resonate in her and to demand translation, practicing it so much less often than English takes its toll on her older language of the self. She describes the intersection of Polish and “Anglo” accounts of her life, cultural “narratives” in Bruner’s term,23 as uneven exchanges. A “barely discernible” voice whispers “pianissimo” in response to the complicated, pop-psychological thought, “I’m learning a lot about intimacy in this relationship,” the teasingly simple: “I love him, that’s all…” (p. 273). When Eva attributes a difficult colleague’s “territorial tendencies” to his underlying “insecurity,” it is a small “imp of the perverse”24 which prompts, “Well, simply, he’s a bastard” (p. 275). The slightly awkward adverb “simply,” which Hoffman uses without comment, seems to echo the characteristic usage of the Polish expression po prostu. Despite their potentially subversive character, these Polish phrases, Hoffman points out, have a “weaker life” than the English ones because she is less likely to say them to American friends. To translate a language without losing something in the process, she insists, would involve “transport[ing] its audience as well” (p. 273).

What she makes clear in her autobiography, however, is that in emigrating to the “New World[s]” of Canada and America, this is what she herself has inadvertently accomplished: transported a Polish audience there in herself. It is this audience which her English-speaking friends are obliged to face whenever they engage in conversation with her-although increasingly, the Polish members of the audience have had to make way for interloping Americans. Eva’s American friends encounter both hostile and welcoming voices in their public, as when an angry argument between herself and some fellow-students is diverted from its track by a comment from her which is recognizably in the same language:

“Speaking of false consciousness,” Don says casually, “did you guys see Peterson’s article?… I mean the guy is half man, half book, and who knows which half is which…”

“Well, of course, anyone who thinks that Bulwer-Lytton is the greatest writer who ever lived has a lot to answer for,” I say, and we are off on safer ground… (p. 215).

The common ground Eva finds herself on with these friends, the “larger territory of affection” which assures her of their liking “despite the discomfort of [her] opinions,” has partly grown out of a body of shared beliefs and agreements which she has gradually internalized. The Canadian reality she was deposited in as a child immigrant was for so long “outside” her because on leaving Poland she was still “filled to the brim” with what she was “about to lose” (p. 4). Canada was only so completely external by virtue of the Polish reality concentrated in her.

It is this movement of internalization, ideally happening by “slow increments, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase” (p. 21 1) that constitutes the process of self-translation, and it is a movement rife with both typically retrogressive and forgetful dangers:

To remain outside such common agreements is to remain outside reality itself-and if I’m not to risk a mild cultural schizophrenia, I have to make a shift in the innermost ways. 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 (p. 211).

The expression “bowdlerized” in this context is characteristic of Hoffman’s poise between detachment and engagement. While it implies that she herself is a “text” (since “bowdlerizing” is a form of censorship), it bathes that familiar trope in a delicate irony. Perhaps for Hoffman, the self as textual construct represents the category of idea which she would rather not “mouth” without fully meaning. (The equation of personhood with an objectified text should be distinguished from Hoffman’s own reflexive metaphor of “self-translation,” where the self is understood as both struggling agent and elusive object of the enterprise.)

The book’s central engagement is with the way in which two domains of meaning, each assuming itself to be final, stake out a claim on the author which cannot be evaded. This is persuasively brought out in Hoffman’s recollection of going home to her parents’ house as an adult working in a high-profile position on the editorial board of The New York Times, and suddenly feeling overcome by what she sees as her parents’ Polish and Jewish fatalism. However inappropriate to her own circumstances she feels their pessimism to be, she suspects it will to some extent remain with her. Faced with her parents’ “puzzlement” at her justification of her recent divorce, Eva is “shaken in [her] own belief as well,” and tries to take refuge in a historical analysis of their differences: “My father’s fatalism, I explain to myself carefully, was perfectly suited to his conditions…” (p. 249). Hoffman brings these tensions into dramatic relief by presenting her thought that, were some people from work to ring her now, she would be almost unable to answer them:

My professional, self-confident American identity recedes like an insubstantial mirage… I’m afraid somebody from my work life might call me while I’m here; if they did, my tone would be all wrong: supplicating, intimidated, pleading (p. 248).

From the point of view of her colleagues, and usually from her own, this trembling, uncertain state of mind would be a spectacle of regression. As Hoffman makes clear, the relationship between her confident working American voice and her rarely heard, rarely exercised Polish one is such that the Polish voice has had to be sublimated. In a congenial environment, the Polish spoken by her parents, her own Polish voice rises and threatens the American.

Her parents’ speech is, Eastern-European-style, “thick with fundamentals” (p. 248). They question her directly about decisions which they cannot understand, such as her divorce and her resolve to become a freelance writer, instead of engaging in “light-hearted banter” or employing “discreet restraint in approaching problematic issues” (p. 248). Her voice takes on a petulant edge with them: when her mother asks if she has a warm enough coat, she answers mentally: “I can buy myself such things now, though I still, if you must know, feel as though I’ve gone on an indecent binge when I do” (p. 247). It is petulant because she finds herself under the spell of the preserved atmosphere of her childhood, but also because some part of her continues to entertain disquieting, undermining suspicions that her mother and father are right.

Hoffman affirms that it is in expressions like “emotional incompatibility” with which she tries both to answer and to ward off her parents’ questions about her divorce, that her usually tacit sense of Americanness resides. Such concepts imply an ethos alien to her parents. Eva’s Polishness consists in a sensibility, in some ways foreign to her adult self, implied by phrases such as the one Hoffman translates as “Tell me, do you ever regret that you got divorced?” (p. 247; my italics-M.B.). The Polish for “tell me,” powiedz mi, is a common expression. In an “Anglo” cultural context, her father’s urgent bidding that she “tell” him what she feels sounds intrusive; but so much of herself is still embedded in their shared Polish that an unhesitatingly critical reaction to what he says cannot ring quite true for her. In her account of her visit to her parents, Hoffman is prepared to reveal a vulnerability, even confusion in the face of her two languages.25

Because Hoffman allows her Polish voice so much leverage in her autobiography, the tensions between it and the English voice notwithstanding, she is not obscurely burdened by it as some other cross-cultural autobiographers are by their former non-Anglophone selves. In their distinctive “language memoirs,”26 both the Hungarian-Australian of Jewish descent Andrew Riemer and Mexican-American Richard Rodriguez tend to cast their relation to their childhood self and to its disrupted language in a bleak light of irrevocable loss, which may be seen as itself a symptom of that disruption. The possibility of integrating their experiences from within another language in any coherent way in their English-speaking adult lives is not overtly entertained. Nevertheless, insofar as they revisit the past at all in these works, however obliquely, an ambivalence on this score may yet be registered in their texts. There are ambivalences in Hoffman’s autobiography too, but she appears more conscious of where these take her and whence they emerge. Or to put it another way, Hoffman is less often ambivalent about her bicultural experience than she is ambidextrous, her right hand as aware as it can be of what her left is secretly writing.

1 The article refers to Eva Hoffman as a Polish-Canadian author because her original emigration from Poland was to Canada. When contrasting the cultures that Hoffman defines herself by, I refer to her “Polish” and “Anglo” senses of self; the second tenn covers the shared “Anglo” component of “Anglo-Canadian” and “Anglo– American” cultures and is not meant as an exhaustive description of either culture. Once in the world of English, Hoffman’s “narrated” self (as opposed to the narrating author) is termed either “Canadian” or “American” depending on where the autobiographer locates it (e.g., “I am a Jew… half-Pole, half-American” [Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (London: Minerva, 1991; ist edition 1989) 198]). Eva Hoffman’s ethnic-and continuous-identity is Jewish.

2 Edward Sapir, The Psychology of Culture: a Course of Lectures. Judith T. Irving, ed. (Hawthorn, NY: Mouton de Gruyter, 1993) 175-76.

3 Monica Sone, Nisei Daughter (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1953) 22.

4 Dirk den Hartog, Dickens and Romantic Psychology: The Self in Time in Nineteenth-Century Literature (Hampshire: Macmillan, 1987).

5 Marshall Berman, All This is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983).

6 Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991 (London: Granta, 1991) 12.

7 Henceforward the author will be referred to as “Hoffman,” her childhood “self” in Cracow as “Ewa” (the Polish spelling) and her English-speaking “self’ as “Eva.”

8 In her moving autobiographical essay “Pictures of a Displaced Girlhood” ( 1994) which begins with an appreciation of LT that is part tribute, part criticism, Rumanian-born, American-Jewish critic Marianne Hirsch raises some important doubts with regard to Hoffman’s description of her childhood in Poland as “not yet divided” (LT 74). Writing from a postmodern perspective that emphasizes “displacement,” Hirsch is skeptical of Hoffman’s evocation of a passionate

childhood sense of oneness with her world, which to some degree transcended the divisions of Polish society. Moreover, in virtue of the proximity that the critic sees between her own life and Hoffman’s (both Jewish immigrants to North America), Hirsch is compelled to protest Hoffman’s “nostalgically Edenic representation of Poland” as one that obscures Poland’s significance as the site of their people’s mass destruction: “Thinking about my own experience, I want her to see that in Poland, as a child, she was already divided” (Marianne Hirsch, “Pictures of a Displaced Girlhood,” in Angelika Bammer, ed., Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994] 77). Finally, she speaks of Hoffman’s “desperate desire to displace the relativity, the fracturing, the double

consciousness of immigrant experience” (77). I cannot do justice here to the complexity of Hirsch’s argument, but I think it calls for at least a brief response on three points. Firstly, Hoffman’s declaration about childhood’s non-dividedness should be read not as an absolute or descriptive statement but as an experiential one, relative to her own life “in” the Polish language. As Marianne Hirsch herself points out (78), before emigration Eva Hoffman lived only in the same, Polish-speaking city, whereas Hirsch as a child moved from one multilingual centre to another (from Timisoara to Bucharest and Vienna). Thus, neither author can propose an exact template for the other’s linguistic and cultural transformations. Secondly, throughout LT Hoffman honours each of two immigrant impulses: to keep faith with the old cultural self and to embark on the new. Far from rejecting the “relativity… the double-consciousness” of immigrant life, she embraces it, as I hope to show in this article. Finally, Hirsch’s sense, shared by Mark Krupnick (see his “Assimilation in Recent American Jewish Autobiographies,” in Contemporary Literature 34 [1993]:

458), that Hoffman “deni[es]” (77) the fact that her parents’ horrific war-time experiences took place in the very country she recalls with affection, is, I believe, based in part on a misunderstanding. Hirsch assumes that Cracow was the scene of the death of Hoffman’s relatives: “What repressions are behind the feeling that Cracow is both home and the universe when only a few years before all of her parents’ relatives had died there… What does it take for Hoffman to consider this place paradise?” (77). In fact, as LT attests, Hoffman’s parents’ relatives perished at the hands of the Nazis not in Cracow but in the area of Lwow, the town near their shtetl-birthplace Zalosce; Cracow was the safe post-war destination to which her parents fled from Lwow upon its annexation by the Soviet army. For these reasons the city could not have had the associations for the Wydra family which Hirsch ascribes to it. For Hoffman personally, then, the Holocaust was not bound up with Cracow.

9 As quoted in Michael Morton, Herder and the Poetics of Thought (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989) 103.

10 Hoffman describes her own and her sister’s Polish names (Ewa and Alina) as hitherto unquestioned extensions of themselves: “[They] didn’t refer to us, they were as surely us as our eyes or hands” (p. 105). The as yet unpronounceable English names they receive at school in Canada (“Eva” and “Elaine”) are mere “identification tags” which estrange them from themselves. See Jerzy Durczak, “Multicultural Autobiography and Language: Richard Rodriguez and Eva Hoffman,” in Jadwiga Maszewska, ed., Crossing Borders: American Literature and Other Artistic Media (L6dz: Polish Scientific, 1992): 27, and William Profriedt, “The Education of Eva Hoffman,” The Journal of Ethnic Studies 18.4 (1991): 130 for fuller discussions of this passage. See also Marianne Hirsch’s (88) interesting parallel account of her own multiple transitions between German, Rumanian, French and American versions of her name (Marianne, Marianna, Mary Anne etc.).

Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 4.

Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990) 33.

Dorothy Holland and Naomi Quinn, “Introduction,” in Holland and Quinn, eds., Cultural Models in Language and Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) 12.

14 This is rzeka, although it is not given in LT.

Emile Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics, Mary Elizabeth Meek, trans., (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1971) 46. 16 Luc Sante, The Factory of Facts (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998) 32.

17 Czeslaw Milosz, Bells in Winter (Manchester: Carcanet, 1980; 1st edition 1974) 15.

18 Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (New York Vintage Books, 1976).

19 Paul John Eakin, Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) 117-18. 20 Kingston 117.

Andrew Riemer, Inside Outside (Pymble: Angus & Robertson, 1992) 178-81.

22 See earlier citations from Sapir (176) and Bruner (33).

23 Bruner 51.

24 By a telling convergence of thought or perhaps experience, Andrew Riemer uses precisely the same metaphor to describe the interventions of his native Hungarian into his learnt English: “[T]here remains… an ineradicable substratum of your ‘native’ language ready to pop up like a malicious imp at the least provocation” (Reimer 85).

25 As William Profriedt points out, Hoffman has also “forged those voices into a self that accepts the responsibility for the task of making meanings out of her own life.” Profriedt 132.

26 I borrow this phrase from Alice Kaplan’s brilliant, definitive essay “On Language Memoir,” which discusses Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (Boston: David R. Godine, 1982) among other works. See Alice Yaeger Kaplan, “On Language Memoir,” in Bammer, cited above.

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