Lost in Translation.

Last December, John Cowan said: “I note that there’s no mention of Eva Hoffman anywhere in LH, and I’d urge any interested Hattic to read her book, which is wonderful.” I’ve just finished the book, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (thanks, Sven & Leslie!), and he was absolutely right. I don’t know how to describe it other than to say it’s about life and language, and specifically about moving from Poland to Canada to the US and navigating the many changes involved, so I’ll just quote a few passages and repeat John’s urging to read the book.

Childhood memories from Cracow:

Bramaramaszerymery, rotumotu pulimuli,” I say in a storytelling voice, as if I were starting out a long tale, even though I know perfectly well that what I am making up are nonsense syllables. “What are you talking about,” my mother asks. “Everything,” I say, and then start again: “Bramarama, szerymery . . .” I want to tell A Story, Every Story, everything at once, not anything in particular that might be said through words I know, and I try to roll all sounds into one, to accumulate more and more syllables as if they might make a Möbius strip of language in which everything, everything is contained. There is a hidden rule even in this game, though — that the sounds have to resemble real syllables, that they can’t disintegrate into brüte noise, for then I wouldn’t be talking at all. I want articulation — but articulation that says the whole world at once.

Like so many children who read a lot, I begin to declare rather early that I want to be a writer. But this is the only way I have of articulating a different desire, a desire that I can’t yet understand. What I really want is to be transported into a space in which everything is as distinct, complete, and intelligible as in the stories I read. And, like most children, I’m a literalist through and through. I want reality to imitate books — and books to capture the essence of reality. I love words insofar as they correspond to the world, insofar as they give it to me in a heightened form. The more words I have, the more distinct, precise my perceptions become — and such lucidity is a form of joy. Sometimes, when I find a new expression, I roll it on the tongue, as if shaping it in my mouth gave birth to a new shape in the world. Nothing fully exists until it is articulated. “She grimaced ironically,” someone says, and an ironic grimace is now delineated in my mind with a sharpness it never had before. I’ve now grasped a new piece of experience; it is mine.

From her first years in Canada:

Every day I learn new words, new expressions. I pick them up from school exercises, from conversations, from the books I take out of Vancouver’s well-lit, cheerful public library. There are some turns of phrase to which I develop strange allergies. “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 most taken for granted, are the places where I feel the prick of artifice.

Then there are words to which I take as equally irrational liking: for their sound, or just because I’m pleased to have deduced their meaning. Mainly they’re words I learn from books, like “enigmatic” or “insolent” — words that have only a literary value, that exist only as signs on the page.

But mostly, the problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. “River” in English is cold — a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke.

The process, alas, works in reverse as well. When I see a river now, it is not shaped, assimilated by the word that accommodated it to the psyche — a word that makes a body of water a river rather than an uncontained element. The river before me remains a thing absolutely other, absolutely unbending to the grasp of my mind.

When my friend Penny tells me that she’s curious, or happy, or disappointed, I try laboriously to translate not from English to Polish but from the word back to its source, to the feeling from which it springs. Already, in that moment of strain, spontaneity of response is lost. And anyway, the translation doesn’t work. I don’t know how Penny feels when she talks about envy. The word hangs in a Platonic stratosphere, a vague prototype of all envy, so large, so all-encompassing that it might crush me — as might disappointment or happiness.

I am becoming a living avatar of structuralist wisdom; I cannot help knowing that words are just themselves. But it’s a terrible knowledge, without any of the consolations that wisdom usually brings. It does not mean that I’m free to play with words at my wont; anyway, words in their naked state are surely among the least satisfactory play objects. No, the radical disjointing between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colors, striations, nuances — its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection.

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.[…]

From her undergraduate years at Rice, in Houston:

I’m sitting in a bracingly uncomfortable chair in the Rice University library, reading slowly, laboriously. The chestnut tree in the [last] stanza summons my private chestnut tree, and the last line moves me all on its own, because that’s what it’s like to play the piano, in those moments when I can no longer tell whether I’m playing the music or the music is playing me. But what does “bole” mean, or “blear-eyed,” or “midnight oil”? I have only the vaguest idea, and by the time I look up these words in a dictionary and accomplish the translation from the sounds to their definition, it’s hard to reinsert them into the flow of the lines, the seamless sequence of musical meaning. I concentrate intensely, too intensely, and the lines come out straight and square, though I intuit a beauty that’s only an inflection away.

After her postgraduate study at Harvard:

I’ve become obsessed with words. I gather them, put them away like a squirrel saving nuts for winter, swallow them and hunger for more. If I take in enough, then maybe I can incorporate the language, make it part of my psyche and my body. I will not leave an image unworded, will not let anything cross my mind till I find the right phrase to pin the shadow down. Each week, as I drive a route of leafy New England roads to teach a class at the University of New Hampshire, my head heats up as if the circuitry were overloaded. “Beveled, chiseled, sculpted, ribbed”, I think as a wooden lampstand I liked flashes through my mind. […]

The thought that there are parts of the language I’m missing can induce a small panic in me, as if such gaps were missing parts of the world or my mind—as if the totality of the world and mind were coeval with the totality of the language. Or rather, as if language were an enormous, fine net in which reality is contained—and if there are holes in it, then a bit of reality can escape, cease to exist. When I write, I want to use every word in the lexicon, to accumulate a thickness and weight of words so that they yield the specific gravity of things. I want to recreate, from the discrete particles of words, that wholeness of a childhood language that had no words.

I pounce on bits of colloquial idiom, those slivers of Americana in which the cultural sensibility is most vivid, as if they could give me America itself. “Hair of the dog that bit me,” I repeat to myself with relish; “pork-barreling”; “I’m from Missouri, show me”; “He swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.” When I speak, I’m awkward in using such homely familiarities; I still feel the presumption in it. But in writing, I claim territorial prerogative. Perhaps if I cast my net wide enough, it will cover the whole continent.

I’d love to keep on quoting — the section beginning “It’s as important to me to speak well as to play a piece of music without mistakes,” or how she cracks “the last barrier between myself and the language” while reading “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — but I’ll reluctantly let it go at that. Thanks for nudging me to move the book to the top of the pile, John!


  1. I heartily echo the recommendation. After reading Hoffman’s book a few years ago, heeding a comment on my own blog from John Cowan, I could not resist quoting from it at some length, and have set aside another passage (on childhood and libraries) for a future one, maybe. It’s engrossing, beautifully written, and astutely observed. Reviewing my post I see that it served to bump the book onto your wishlist, so I’m glad you got around to it, knowing how much you were likely to enjoy it.

  2. Aha, then I thank you as well!

  3. But what does “bole” mean, or “blear-eyed,” or “midnight oil”?

    I daresay there are many native speakers who don’t know what a bole is, wouldn’t recognize blear as a word out of context, and have no idea why “burning the midnight oil” is called that.

  4. This doesn’t exactly belong here, but could anybody fix the following:

    Balashov was also the Master of Sports of the USSR in Sambo and coached Anatoly Kharlampiyev.


    In Russian Wiki:
    Мастер спорта СССР по самбо (ученик А. Харлампиева[5]), чемпион Москвы.


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