Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman
I have taken my time with this autobiography of Eva Hoffman, not really wanted to finish it. Lost in Translation is a multi-layered story of one woman and three countries. In some ways, I understand her story in reverse. She was born and grew up in Poland until her family emigrated to Canada when she was 13 years old. Later, she studied in the United States, and made that country her home. She was very successful in her field, working as a literary editor for The New York Times, and publishing several books. (I read The Secret earlier this year.)
And yet, for her, there was a lifelong struggle to translate the Polish self that felt was her true, fundamental "self," into an American self, comfortable in an entirely different environment with different values, different cultural clues, and most of all, a different language. I cannot imagine writing anything entirely coherent and without error in Polish, let alone beautiful, forceful and evocative. Yet Eva Hoffman has made English her own--her vocabulary is far from ordinary, and she crafts complex sentences that probe into the spiritual, non-concrete aspects of human experience. I envy her that true embracing of a different language, because I know that my Polish will never reach that level.
The first part of the book, which describes her life in Krakow during the post-war era, is probably the most interesting to me. I love to know more about this city where I live. When she describes the library that she visited, I wonder if it is the same one that I use?
The library is located in a narrow, old street, in an ancient building, which one enters through a heavy wooden door. The interior is Plato's cave, Egyptian temple, the space of mystery and magic, on whose threshold I stand a humble acolyte.I rather think it is the same, except that the wooden door has been replaced by a modern glass one.
Eva Hoffman's early love of words is part of what makes the transition to another language so hard for her. The second language lacks the depth of connotations that the first language has. She complains that "river" in English does not evoke for her the images that the Polish rzeka does, and I sympathize in reverse. River means something to me--I grew up near a river, and the word evokes images for me that rzeka never can. A great deal of this book is devoted to Ms. Hoffman's transition, and that this book exists at all, and was written in English, is a testament to her ultimate success.
But I think even without the personal connection that I feel for this story, it is a worthwhile book to read. The fundamental question of personal identity--who we are, and how we define our "self" in relation to our families, our culture, and our experience is a common question for all of us. On a smaller scale, the wrenching change from one location to another, from one job to another, or from one stage of life to another is always an occasion to adjust our perceptions of ourselves. No one can escape these transitions entirely, as life is not homogenous from birth to the grave, although most of us do not have to undergo the life-changing shift of moving into an alien culture and country.
I'm going to make a point of reading more of Eva Hoffman's books, and I do hope she keeps writing.