Eva Hoffman’s autobiography, Lost in Translation, published by Penguin Books in 1990, is the memoir of a woman of dual identities, striving to find her self. This work of non-fiction uses the metaphor of translation rather than simple straightforward dialogue. It is implied that her language difficulties, because of her being taken to Canada from Poland as a child, are the basis of the story, when the reality is that her problems stem from her loss of original identity. She has the difficulty of making herself understood when translating her thoughts from Polish to English and then translating the Canadian children into understandable Polish. She struggles to make some senses of who and what they are and her position in their world, which must become her own. The two metaphors are directly related and both refer to her loss of self and the ubiquitous Jewish guilt. Such guilt is not uncommon to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, and particularly the survivors who witnessed other Jews not surviving. Hoffman said, “My mother and father had found someone who was willing to shelter them, “ (Hoffman, 20). Her duality is a result of this guilt as much as it is her being uprooted and transplanted to an alien land. Hoffman uses the idea of translations lost to explain her emotional upheaval as she loses her language and her homeland while still a child.
Hoffman maintains the metaphor throughout the memoir, giving the reader the initial idea that her emotional distress is caused by her being taken from Poland and put down among a strange group of people, most of whom have no idea where her homeland is located on a map. The title Hoffman chose is a subtle metaphor in itself, for the roots of the word translation, in Greek, are a reference to displacement and removal from one’s land. Hoffman suffers acute cultural shock and her communication skills are challenged as she loses her Polish language skills and does not improve rapidly enough in English to be articulately expressive.
She is literally and figuratively displaced or ‘translated’ and lost in that very process. She says, “No, I’m no patriot, nor was I ever allowed to be. And yet, the country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love,” (74). The metaphor of her continuous struggle with the basic idea of two-way translation is deceptive in its cleverness. There seems to be a straight forward account of her life but woven into it is the sense of guilt and alienation characteristic and endemic to her new life in Canada and later Texas. She relates her tale of immigrant life from her unique perspective and by use of the metaphor of translation as a dispossession.
Hoffman calls herself ‘linguistically dispossessed.” She feels herself to be virtually a “man without a country.” She is quoted as saying that, “ Linguistic dispossession… is close to the dispossession of one’s self,” (124), and hammers that point home consistently. Readers are reminded of how intimately connected is the idea of losing one’s roots and having to move away and an act of losing something in translation.
There is a deep and abiding connection that exists between displacement and translation. It is used in this work as a rhetorical device to make the reader sympathetic to Hoffman’s story. She takes the idea of displacement and removal from her home, and, using the metaphoric idea of having lost something in the translation, has produced a stirring memoir.
Hoffman, E. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language New York:
Penguin Books 1990