Sunday, August 2, 2009

Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language

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Front cover of "Lost in Translation" by Eva Hoffman.
Front cover of "Lost in Translation" by Eva Hoffman.

Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language is a memoir by Eva Wydra Hoffman. Hoffman as a teenager emigrated from Cracow Poland to Vancouver Canada in 1959. From there she goes to school in Texas followed by Harvard and then eventually settles into the New York literary world. As she describes this journey, Hoffman talks about place and belonging, about being different, about being in exile. And when she finally settles into her American “life” she encounters yet another sense of exile from her childhood friends from Cracow. One aspect about her story that foreign language students may find interesting are her observations about adopting a new language, expressing yourself in that language, and about “translating” yourself honestly in the new language. About two thirds through the book Hoffman writes:
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.
Anyone who has spent more than a few weeks immersed in a foreign language (in a country that speaks the language) can appreciate this concept. 

I found her style – particularly, sentence structure - a little hard to read at times. And, there were turns of phrases that I found myself having to research to puzzle out the meaning of (e.g. I Love Lucy is a TV madeleine – that is, something that evokes a memory, not a small cake). Perhaps I should spend more time in the New York literary circles? Anyway, I like books that introduces new concepts so overall the sentence structure and phrasing was not too big of a deal. What some readers may not find acceptable or appreciate are Hoffman’s critical descriptions of North American, and specifically, American culture. She does seem to come out a little negative, but, her observations are interesting and accurate enough to allow her the space to do it. It is her memoir after all.

Back cover of "Lost in Translation" by Eva Hoffman.
Back cover of "Lost in Translation" by Eva Hoffman.

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