Non-Fiction Challenge (Book 1): ‘Lost in Translation’ by Eva Hoffman (1998)


Eva Hoffman’s memoir is subtitled: ‘Life in a New Language’ and it felt like the perfect place to start my journey as I branch out into non-fiction literature.  I realised early on that I was in good company; Hoffman herself is clearly a fiction addict and many of her childhood memories focus around favourite books.  ‘Lost in Translation’ however is far more than a nostalgic bibliography.  It is a powerful tale of dislocation and the accompanying trauma.  Hoffman left Cracow at the age of thirteen, and so her teenage loss of identity was compounded by a very real, simultaneous loss of language.

Beautifully subjective, Hoffman’s memories of Cracow are unapologetically idyllic.  Part 1 of the book is entitled ‘Paradise’ and, through a child’s view, the city becomes a lost Eden of comfort, hope and belonging.  When the family move to Canada the heading ‘Exile’ barely does justice to the teenage Eva’s feelings of isolation.  There is something deeply upsetting about a person who has such an innate love of language being barred from self-expression and Hoffman, as an adult, makes a powerful attempt to use literary theory to explain the emotions felt by her younger self:
The worst comes at night.  As I lie down in a strange bed in a strange house … 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, shrivelled 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 yet penetrated to those layers of my psyche from which a private conversation could proceed … I have no interior language, and without it, interior images – those images through which we assimilate the external world, through which we take it in, love it, make it our own – become blurred too…
… What has happened to me in this new world?  I don’t know.  I don’t see what I’ve seen, don’t comprehend what’s in front of me.  I’m not filled with language anymore, and I have only a memory of fullness to anguish me with the knowledge that, in this dark and empty state, I don’t really exist.’

Fortunately, the book provides its own hope and its own answer.  As the above quotation amply demonstrates, Hoffman does manage to master her new language and, while she can never recapture her former state of certainty and innocence, the passage of time does eventually bring a new acceptance of her changed self.  In the final section, ‘The New World’, Hoffman finds a home in the cosmopolitan literary world of Manhattan.  By the end of the book, she is not a lone exile, but part of the community of neurotics who make up the modern American intelligentsia.

‘Lost in Translation’ has been an excellent place to start my non-fiction challenge for 2016.    It may be based on fact, but I felt it was more about language and loss than real people and so, for me, still comfortably close to the fiction I love.    Continuing the theme of travelling (and inspired by a recent visit to the Science Museum) my February non-fiction will be Michael Collins’s memoir of his time with NASA.   I can only hope that it will be as satisfying as my first foray into the intimidating world of non-fiction.

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9 Responses to Non-Fiction Challenge (Book 1): ‘Lost in Translation’ by Eva Hoffman (1998)

  1. roughghosts says:

    That does sound like a wonderful read. Moving during the teen years is traumatic enough without the added trauma of having to learn a new language. Listening to interviews with young Syrian and other refugees who have come to Canada in recent years and months echo that same sentiment of dislocation.

    • I think it is a really powerful story and definitely one that transcends its particular historical moment. A passage I didn’t quote deals with the difference in connotation and manners between Poles and Canadians; this is a further source of disorientation for Eva and one I’m sure is relevant to travellers and refugees through the ages.

  2. Sounds fascinating – the quote you pulled out is terrifying! It’s made me realise how much I take language for granted, and how easily it can disappear.

    • I know! Reading it made me feel extremely fortunate never to ave experienced anything so traumatic – ironically, I do think she articulates her emotions and though processes beautifully!

  3. I’m hoping to read some non-fiction this year too – well done for getting this first one read 😉

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