I mentioned Eva Hoffman’s book Lost in Translation here in April when it featured in a bookmash, Forest of Symbols. John Cowan, in a comment, said it was wonderful, which prompted me to bump it up the unread pile. I can now agree wholeheartedly with John, and am grateful for the prod – it’s the best book I’ve read in months.
Hoffman was a child when she and her family fled Poland for Canada, and later the U.S.; her book, subtitled Life in a New Language, is a memoir of this migration in three parts: Paradise, Exile, and The New World. In it she writes with grace and deep insight about her happy youth in Poland, her alienation across the Atlantic, and her gradual psychological and cultural integration into an English-speaking world.
[M]ostly, 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 accommodates 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. . . . this radical disjoining 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.
Slowly, things improve; the severance heals and the self is forged anew in a different tongue. Hoffman becomes obsessed with words, determined to incorporate the language and mesh it fully with her mind. She strives to re-create “from the discrete particles of words, that wholeness of a childhood language that had no words”.
Eventually she breaches the last barrier dividing her from the language. It happens when she is a teacher of literature: she is re-reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot, in preparation for discussing it in class the next day:
My eye moves over these lines in its accustomed dry silence; and then – as if an aural door had opened of its own accord – I hear their modulations and their quiet undertones. Over the years, I’ve read so many explications of these stanzas that I can analyse them in half a dozen ingenious ways. But now, suddenly I’m attuned, through some mysterious faculty of the mental ear, to their inner sense; I hear the understated melancholy of that refrain, the civilized restraint of the rhythms reining back the more hilly swells of emotion, the self-reflective, moody resignation of the melody. “And I have known the eyes already, known them all –/The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase . . .” I read, tasting the sounds on the tongue, hearing the phrases somewhere between tongue and mind. Bingo, I think, this is it, the extra, the attribute of language over and above function and criticism. I’m back within the music of the language, and Eliot’s words descend on me with a sort of grace. Words become, as they were in childhood, beautiful things – except this is better, because they’re now crosshatched with a complexity of meaning, with the sonorities of felt, sensuous thought.
Her reference to music has added significance because she trained as a pianist and came close to turning professional. Closer than I did, but I could relate to her accounts of learning and playing piano and I loved hearing about the different strategies and sensibilities of her teachers.
The passages I’ve quoted here are quite representative. Lost in Transation is lucid, perceptive and absorbing from start to finish. For further reading, there’s a short excerpt about childhood objects on my Tumblr blog, and a long profile of Eva Hoffman in the Guardian.