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Lost in Translation

An interview with Eva Hoffman

Interview conducted by François Grosjean

Back in 1989, Eva Hoffman published her first book, Lost in Translation, a memoir about immigration, language loss, second language acquisition, and discovering a new land and a different culture. Her autobiography was to have a worldwide success - the Nobel prize winner Czeslaw Milosz called it "graceful and profound" - and it helped launch a new genre, the language memoir. To celebrate this blog's fifth anniversary, it was only fitting that we should ask Eva Hoffman if she would answer a few questions. She very kindly accepted to do so and we wish to thank her wholeheartedly.

More than a quarter of a century has gone by since you published Lost in Translation. How do you consider it now after all these years and the success it has had?

Occasionally, I’ve had to go back to it and reread parts of it – and I find that I have a double reaction: One is to wonder who wrote it; and the other is to think, “This is pretty good.” The success of the book was initially entirely amazing to me. When I was writing it, I didn’t know if it would be published, or whether anyone would understand, or care about, the experience I was trying to describe – the internal journey involved in emigration, and the process of translating yourself into another language and culture. But since then, of course, emigration and other cross-national movements have become one of the central phenomena of our time; and it seems that I identified something about that experience which many others understand -- perhaps in part, because I was writing about it innocently, so to speak; that is, by trying to capture my own perceptions as directly as possible, without thinking about previous literary models, or worrying about the book’s reception. What can I say, I was lucky.

Your book was presented as a "classically American chronicle of upward mobility and assimilation", but it is also a narrative of becoming bilingual and bicultural in adolescence. Is there any reason you do not use these words in your text: "bilingual" appears only once, as does "bicultural"?

The book is about the process of becoming bilingual and bicultural – rather than having achieved these conditions. But also, I didn’t want to start with these external labels – I wanted to talk about their meanings from within.

The account you give of your first day at school with your sister has marked many readers, especially those who have experienced something similar. Do you feel things have changed in the half century that has gone by?

Yes, it is half a century, or a bit more… And yes, I feel things have changed enormously. We have become much more aware of cultural difference, and how important our first language and culture is to our identity – how deeply raveled it is with our basic sense of self. I don’t think there are many schools now where children are forcibly yanked out of their first names – although I’m sure these rites of passage can still be difficult for immigrant children.

You state about the time you were monolingual in Polish: "The more words I have, the more distinct, precise my perceptions become...." Does it apply even more as a bilingual since you do have more words now if you combine both languages?

Hmmm… I’m not sure it works quite like that. What I was talking about in that passage was a certain relationship to language – a relationship in which words seemed to correspond to things and to name them directly (this is partly an illusion which we all have to grow out of). Polish at that point made the world vivid, as English did not. On the level of sheer vocabulary, English is a fantastically rich language – and so is Polish, for that matter. Both are rich in salty, colloquial, culturally particular expressions. So yes, sometimes I reach for a phrase in the other language, to express a particular tone or vein of humor, perhaps more than for specific words. And of course, since those first stages of emigration, I have acquired an adult vocabulary – of politics, for example, or literary criticism – which I didn’t have then; and which to a large extent, I had to translate from English to Polish.

Towards the end of your book, you write about your Polish and English: "Each language modifies the other, crossbreeds with it, fertilizes it. .... I am the sum of my languages". Do you share the idea that a bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person?

I think perhaps we need to distinguish between functional and internal bilingualism. You can speak two languages very well, but not incorporate them into your psychic life. But if both languages are deeply incorporated into your psyche – your consciousness, and perhaps deeper layers as well -- than hopefully you do become one, linguistically integrated person. For me, one crucial moment in my trajectory was when I started dreaming in English. Later still, I had a dream in English which I had originally had in Polish; that was the moment when I understood I had become truly internally bilingual.

Again, at the end of your book, you state, "...I begin to trust English to speak my childhood self as well...". Now that you have gone back to Poland so often, and have so many contacts there, is the reverse true, that is you trust Polish to speak your adulthood self?

Yes, that was a gradual process as well – as I mentioned, I learned certain parts of the Polish vocabulary after I’d had them in English; but also, as I have come to use Polish more frequently – and to write e-mails in it! – it has become a more fluent language for my adult perceptions and self.

What was your own sense of the accuracy and authenticity of the translation of your book into Polish, Zagubione w przekładzie? Were there moments when you felt that English and Polish refer to incommensurable realities?

Yes, there were such moments – although they did not have to do with the accuracy of the translation, but rather with the tenor of the two languages. Written Polish is very grammatically precise and, in comparison to American English, quite formal. So one of the things I was missing in the translation was the flexibility, the looseness of American English. Indeed, one of the surprises of reading Lost in Translation in Polish was to see just how Americanized I had become – in my cultural references, but also, in this informality of expression.

Do you still enjoy Polish poetry and if so, is there a difference in the ways in which you respond to verses in Polish and English?

I read Polish poetry much more rarely – so when I do, I am perhaps more freshly struck by its beauty. But my responses to English poetry are now also very primary and (with some poems!) intense.

You moved to England in 1993 and have lived and worked there for many years. Could you state, as you did at the very end of your work about the United States, "I am here now" and, if so, what does it mean about your triculturalism?

My semi-joking formulation for this is that London is my midway point between Manhattan and Cracow. It’s a good synthesis, and I’m certainly here to stay

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo by courtesy of Eva Hoffman.


Eva Hoffman (1989). Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language. New York: Dutton / Penguin.

François Grosjean's website.

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