Language and Self in Cross-Cultural Autobiography: Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation

By Besemeres, Mary | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 1998 | Go to article overview

Language and Self in Cross-Cultural Autobiography: Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation


Besemeres, Mary, Canadian Slavonic Papers


The scale of the problem of emigrating into a new linguistic environment is suggested with particular subtlety and force by the title of the Polish-Canadian1 author Eva Hoffman's autobiography: Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989). The second half of the title answers the question implicitly posed by the first: it is the immigrant's whole life before emigration that is imagined as "lost in translation," by analogy with the meaning of a literary text. "Lost" refers likewise to the author herself, who is at once lost as in a maze or in a reverie, in the activity of translating from Polish into English cultural perspectives-and, more poignantly, in danger of losing her very self in the course of the translation. The metaphor of fidelity to an original is an especially suggestive one in the context of an immigrant's life: are the cultural assumptions with which he or she arrives susceptible to extension and revision, and to what extent can a "self ' be identified with them? Problems of translation may pertain as much to "selves" inducted into a new language and culture as to texts to be rendered in a new linguistic code.

In a lecture of 1934 which has been posthumously entitled "The Difficulty of Delimiting a Boundary Between Personality and Culture," the linguist and pioneer of cultural psychology, Edward Sapir, himself a child immigrant, has written:

[The attitude comprised in the individual's nuclear personality has an analogue in a cultural attitude, or what we might call] cultural loyalties-loyalties imbibed from your own culture which makes you a little insensitive to the meanings in different cultures. You are obtuse to meanings that are not welcome, that do not fit into the old scheme of things.... [Consider what happens to a person upon] entering a new cultural environment. The essential invariance of personality makes one alive and sensitive to some things and obtuse to others, [depending upon how the] new environment [matches up with] pivotal points from the old. [Your] awareness of certain things in a new cultural [setting] is a test of the old one, [a test of what the old one's pivotal points in fact were.] 2

Sapir's definition of culture as what makes its bearers obtuse to the systems of understanding prevailing elsewhere is both relative and negative, not unlike de Saussure's classic definition of meaning in terms of valeur, the relations which obtain between linguistic signs. Seen from within, a culture is infinitely more than what makes it unintelligible to outsiders. Similarly, the notion of the invariance of personality now seems to smack of an archaic essentialism. On both counts, however, taken as mutually inclusive by Sapir, his formulation coincides revealingly with a recurrent theme in immigrant and ethnic autobiographical narratives. This could be summed up as the sensation of "switching personalities" across the cultures and languages of their experience, in the words of Japanese-American autobiographer, Monica Sone.3 In this article I will be discussing how Eva Hoffman's autobiography bears out Sapir's intuition, while rendering his terms both more dynamic and more personal through the medium of her metaphor of self-translation. Lost in Translation offers insights into questions of the relation between language, culture and selfhood which are of a broad theoretical interest, potentially illuminating the condition of bilingual and bicultural authors ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to Kazuo Ishiguro.

In his book Dickens and Romantic Psychology: The Self in Time in Nineteenth-Century Literature,4 Dirk den Hartog argues for the presence of an underlying, informing dialectic in the work of Dickens and other nineteenthcentury writers. This dialectic represents the clash of two Romantic traditions, drawn under the encompassing terms "Wordsworthian" and "Byronic." What Hartog calls the Wordsworthian tradition is in essence one of allegiance to one's memories of childhood, as to a potential source of stability and integrity for the self. …

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