Negotiating the self: eva hoffman's lost in translation and the question of immigrant autobiography abstract

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Using Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation as an example, the article discusses the genre of immigrant autobiography as a form of therapeutic healing of the immigrant's nostalgia for the lost childhood; a narrative of the acquisition of cultural literacy; and a site of the immigrant's negotiating a new identity in the new world. Hoffman's autobiographical project, viewed as "translation," is examined in relation to the traditional forms of autobiography. With the help of feminist and postcolonial theories, the author questions some ideological implications of Hoffman's project and tries to define the conditions for the possibility of immigrant self-representation.

I use Eva Hoffman's Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language to focus on the problems related to immigrant autobiography and the multiple functions it has both for the writing subject and within the culture that legitimizes its production. More specifically, I look at the immigrant autobiography as a form of therapeutic healing of the anxieties connected with living between two cultures; as a narrative of the acquisition of cultural literacy; and as a site of the immigrant's negotiating a new position in the host culture. For Eva Hoffman the immigrant autobiography is subsumed by the project of "translation." It is, thus, necessary to ask questions about the ideological implications of such a project, as well as its relationship to the traditional forms of autobiography. Finally, I try to define, albeit sketchily, the conditions for the possibility of immigrant self-representation.

Lost in Translation (1989) records three phases in Hoffman's pursuit of dual cultural citizenship: Part I, significantly called "Paradise," presents her Polish childhood in the beautiful old city of Cracow up to 1958, when she, at the age of thirteen, and her Jewish family left for Canada; Part II, "Exile," recounts her "birth into the New World" (104),[ 1] from the initial culture shock to her increasing efforts at adjustment and assimilation; Part III, "The New World," takes her to the U.S., to study at Rice University, then to complete her Ph.D. at Harvard and, finally, to secure the executive editorial position at the influential and prestigious New York Times Book Review. Written in English, her autobiography is a truly postmodernist hybrid: a mixture of individual history, intimate journal, cultural chronicle, literary criticism, and even poststructuralist theorizing. Hoffman speaks in a discontinuous voice, from the intersection of multiple cultural codes, contradictory discourses, competing ideologies. Hers is a vision of the immigrant self as a paradoxical site of conservatism and anarchy: of clinging to the past so as to provide oneself with the fixed centre, the stable core, the source of continuity and identity, while at the same time embracing variety, difference, multivalence that may subvert the very notion of the continuous self on which our social and cultural order is based. Hoffman's self-presentation seems to suggest a precarious marriage of several traditions, most notably of Polish romanticism, with its individualistic cult of the difficult, artistic personality, and American pragmatism, with its Horatio-Algerian reverence for the self-made hero, both filtered through the contemporary ambience of postmodern skepticism.

Not surprisingly then, the positions that Hoffman occupies in her narrative are often contradictory and paradoxical. In her personal mythology, her Polish childhood is coded as the place of the familiar, of the lost unity and wholeness, whereas her American adulthood connotes fragmentation and divisiveness, splintering and insecurity. She is nostalgically committed to and pursuing the myth of complete "selfhood," while living a life of dispersion that actually deconstructs that myth. On one hand, the country of her childhood becomes a symbol of that lost holistic Paradise, providing her with the centre that holds:

the country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love ... All it has given me is the world, but that is enough. It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind. It has given me the colours and the furrows of reality, my first loves. The absoluteness of those loves can never be recaptured: no geometry of the landscape, no haze in the air, will live in us as intensely as the landscapes that we saw as the first, and to which we gave ourselves wholly, without reservations (74-75).

At the same time, however, the country of her childhood has prepared her to cope well with the sense of discontinuity, disaffiliation, and cognitive disjunction that later become the staple of her immigrant experience. She learns survival strategies, including the loosening of her sense of identity, in her childhood: from her parents' Holocaust memories; from the knowledge of their own marginality as a Jewish family in the largely Catholic Poland; from the absurdities of life under the communist system, polarized between the two mega-symbols of Russia and America.

What Canada, her new country, initially has to offer is "an enormous, cold blankness -- a darkening, an erasure, of the imagination, as if a camera eye has snapped shut, or as if a heavy curtain has pulled over the future" ( 4). She uses the imagery of dislocation from the centre, as if her transplantation meant falling out of "the net of meaning into the weightlessness of chaos" (151). Canada to her becomes a place of exile primarily because it is associated with linguistic uprooting. It is here that Hoffman initially experiences a loss of "interior language" parallel to the loss of identity or lack of identity in a new language. She perceives the world around her as covered with "the verbal blur," and since for her articulation is the basis of one's sense of identity, she loses hers. With the loss of the inner language, comes the loss of interior images "through which we assimilate the external world, through which we take it in, make it our own" (108).

Haunted by "linguistic dispossession," she starts to see language as a crucial instrument in overcoming "the stigma of [her] marginality" (123). She is a linguistic absolutist: not only does she believe that articulation is everything and nothing fully exists until it is articulated, but she also wants articulation "that says the whole world at once." As she continues:

The thought that there are parts of the language I'm missing can induce a small panic in me, as if such gaps were missing parts of the world or my mind -- as if the totality of the world and mind were coeval with the totality of language. Or rather, as if language were an enormous, fine net in which reality is contained -- and if there are holes in it, then a bit of reality can escape, cease to exist. ... I want to re-create, from the discrete particles of words, that wholeness of a childhood language that had no word (217).

To Hoffman, language is like an organic substance: she dreams of English words which are like "bits of chromosomal substance trying to rearrange itself [sic] ... in her bloodstream" (243). In a Whorpian manner, she seems to believe that language determines one's perception of reality and that there is "cultural memory" encoded in it (211).

In this context, Hoffman's two-way translation, which proceeds not simply from language to language but back to the word's source in emotion, combines two simultaneously applied mechanisms of coping: assimilation ("passing") and finding a "fixed centre" in her past. The translation process is thus both inwardly and outwardly oriented; projecting herself into the future and retrieving her past are part of the same project of overcoming her arrest in the middle (the present):

To some extent, one has to rewrite the past in order to understand it It is the price of emigration, as of any radical discontinuity, that it makes such reviews and rereadings difficult; being cut off from one part of one's own story is apt to veil it in the haze of nostalgia, which is an ineffectual relationship to the past, and a haze of alienation, which is an ineffectual relationship to the present (242).

Hoffman's translation attempts to transcend self-defeating nostalgia and alienation, offering the model of acculturation that is more integrative. In a way, it can be seen as an attempt to strike a balance between what Werner Sollors, in his analysis of the American models of ethnicity, calls "descent" and "consent,"[ 2] and what can be recognized as a distinctly American way of negotiating the self. Hoffman moves between the culture of descent and the culture of consent, in a kind of cultural dialogue conducted with herself. Her experiment in translation inadvertently turns into an anthropological project of exploring the interrelatedness of language, culture and identity. She is aided in the process by her "semiotic" way of looking at the world as text, of reading its signs, being alert to the symbolic potential of both linguistic and paralinguistic signs.

The process of acculturation she describes as taking place in herself is presented in terms of traditional literacy narratives, complete with descriptions of language acquisition and cultural education (Eldred and Mortensen 513). It involves not only learning to decode simple linguistic messages and body language, but also transformation of her own self-image (realignment of values, new character traits, or even revision of the aesthetic criteria of beauty). Moreover, "translation" requires the rewriting of gender scripts according to the local notions of the "feminine" and the "masculine," as well as the mastering of complex symbolic codes (for example, the domestic versus psychoanalytic connotations evoked by the word "mother" for Poles and Americans, respectively). Thus, she casts herself in the role of a cultural anthropologist for whom the semiotics of a particular culture is inextricably bound up with language. Throughout her translation, she is deeply aware of this connection between language and culture. Her major observation about language is that language is not so much part of the person as of the entire context of enunciation: "In order to translate a language, or a text, without changing its meaning, one would have to transport its audience as well" (273).

Negotiating her position, in time, she realizes the advantages of displacement: emigration has relativized her perception of the world. She can now consider the fact of "being an immigrant" a privilege and "a sort of location in itself -- and sometimes a highly advantageous one at that" (133) -- which is neither peripheral nor central. From the relative position of immigrants one can "triangulate?' that is, project oneself into different cultural space until all versions of reality appear arbitrary (170).

A different type of "gain" for the immigrant is mobility. Maybe the real sense of "emigration" is that it gives one freedom of movement. Actually, the imagery Hoffman uses occasionally plays on the frontier motif: the new land to which an immigrant arrives is "an uncharted landscape"(173) to be tamed and made one's own. She philosophically embraces dislocation as "the norm rather than the aberration in our rime":

the fabulous diverseness with which we live reminds us constantly that we are no longer the norm or the centre, that there is no one geographic centre pulling the world together and glowing with the allure of the real thing; there are, instead, scattered nodules competing for our attention. New York, Warsaw, Teheran, Tokyo, Kabul they all make claims on our imagination, all remind us that in a decentered world we are always simultaneously in the centre and on the periphery, that every competing centre makes us marginal (274-5).

Thus, the condition of exile, viewed as "a point of leverage from which to see the world" (275), makes cultural relativists of us all.

Hoffman's theorizing about immigration/exile as the archetypal condition of contemporary lives (197) is partly due to the postmodern context of her experiment. Extremely revealing are her observations on the differences between Mary Antin's turn-of-the-century "immigrant tale," The Promised Land (1911), and her own story. She stresses the fundamental split in perception that separates their parallel accounts. Antin's story is firmly anchored in such traditional certainties as "a belief in self-improvement, in perfectability of the species, in moral uplift" (164). The zeitgeist of Hoffman's own postmodern times does not allow for such comforts: the self and the culture itself have been deconstructed and presented as splintered, fragmented, shifting. It is no longer possible to write (or to live) a fable of success:

A hundred years ago, I might have felt the benefits of a steady, self-assured ego, the sturdy energy of forward movement, and the excitement of being swept up into a greater national purpose. But I have come to a different America, and instead of a central ethos, I have been given the blessings and the terrors of multiplicity (164).

The above passage signals her alertness to the decentralizing processes affecting not only contemporary individual life stories, but also collective cultural self-definition. However, despite her consciousness of a new episteme, it is still the politics of nostalgia that may account for her constant references to the lost unity and centrality of her childhood experience and her present desire to reinstate herself at some fixed position of mastery.

Part of her struggle is directed towards preserving her integrity and dignity in the midst of a society that thrives on excess. This she does by looking back into her past from which she salvages the idea of her "essential humanity." Actually, she makes an effort to strike a balance between her "essential humanity" and sheer ambition that drives her to become "a recognizable somebody placed on a recognizable social map" (140); in fact, the abstraction of "essential humanity" can be seen as a kind of rationalization of the unbearable situation of anonymity and marginality, as an antidote to the initial absence of status in American society.

Ultimately, Hoffman's book is about negotiating power, from the desire for absolute mastery of the language to the achievement of a desirable editorial position on one of America's most prestigious journals. Apart from the traditional association of language with power and control, which in part may account for her celebration of words and the cult of articulation, her adoption of English as the language of her writing and self-expression already presupposes her disidentification with the ethnic culture.[ 3]

For Hoffman, writing in English becomes symbolic empowerment, where English itself is symbolic of domination and control. Hoffman's Polish is the language of "the other," the memory of the preverbal state of "wholeness" associated with childhood that "had no word" (217). Contrary to this "muteness" or "voicelessness" in Polish, her English represents the fullness of "articulation." Thus, the story of her transition from East to West becomes a literacy narrative about finding a voice in English. Despite her claim that she is the sum of her languages, it is Polish that "is infiltrated, permeated, and inflected by the English in [her] head" (273). Hoffman's translation, through the force of her representations, "disarticulates" the original and, therefore, reminds one of the violence inherent in the act of translation.

The dynamics of power are also visible in the interplay of semiotic clusters recognized as "mother country" and "host country": rejection/longing vs. attraction/ hostility. The notions of periphery and centre are being constantly displaced in the immigrant experience; the mother country is usually peripheral in relation to the host country, but for the immigrant it remains the central locus of his or her sense of selfhood. Again, it is interesting to recall Hoffman's coding of Canada as a place of exile, associated with the loss of her mother country, a radical sense of displacement, and linguistic dispossession. She knows she will never be able to love this place, which to her is "the dullest country in the world" (133). Polite, constrained, bland, uneventful, boring are the adjectives that keep coming back in her Canadian memories. Significantly, it is the United States that is the "real" new world to her, Canada being discarded as too "peripheral" for her new self. It figures as a transitional zone, a place inhabited by her immigrant self and her "ethnic" parents.

Her writing inevitably provokes some "political" questions: Does her narrative share in the tradition of "an immigrant success story"? Every immigrant has a story, but not everybody writes his or her autobiography. What are the dynamics behind the impulse to commit the immigrant experience to paper? What legitimizing power does it take to attempt an autobiography? Is it not always a story of being co-opted by the centre?

Hoffman realizes that, "[a]s a radically marginal person, you have two choices: to be intimidated by every situation, every social stratum, or to confront all of them with the same leveling vision, the same brash and stubborn spunk" (157). The question haunting every immigrant is "[h]ow much time and energy I'll have to spend just claiming an ordinary place for myself" (160). Seduced by the challenge to reinvent herself, Hoffman wants to fit in the context of the American Dream.

The whole of Part III chronicles the process of her Americanization, her transition from the role of "an exotic stranger" to that of an ordinary person. Tired of the state of "attractive otherness," she tries "to break out of [her] difference and reclaim a state of ordinariness in which, after all, we want to live" (179). As she confesses,

I want to figure out, more urgently than before, where I belong in this America that's made up of so many sub-Americas. I want, somehow, to give up the condition of being a foreigner. I no longer want to tell people quaint stories from the Old Country, I don't want to be told that 'exotic is erotic,' or that I have Eastern European intensity, or brooding Galician eyes. I no longer want to be propelled by immigrant chutzpah or desperado energy or usurper's ambition . . . . I want to reenter, through whatever Looking Glass will take me there, a state of ordinary reality (202).

This passage reveals how strongly Hoffman has been attracted by the power of dominant cultural ideologies. She confuses "ordinary reality" with the ethnocentric "norms" of American culture, thus implying that the immigrant reality is peripheral and somehow less real.[ 4] Still, in this context, the "exoticism" of her Polish memories has an important function. As if to counterbalance the potential risk of turning her project of translation into a simple story of assimilation, she clings to her past, trying to salvage from it some sense of the self, something that would give her "distinctive shape and flavour" (205).[ 5]

Indeed, reading her cultural self-definition, I cannot but suspect that she has traveled from centre to centre, so to speak, substituting the centrality of New York for that of Cracow in her childhood. She speaks of herself in a tone which is both ironic and self-congratulatory:

I know that I'm a recognizable example of a species: a professional New York woman, and a member of a postwar international class; somebody who feels at ease in the world, and is getting on with her career relatively well, and who is as fey and brave and capable and unsettled as many of the women here -- one of a new breed, born of the jet age and the counterculture, and middle-class ambitions and American grit (170).

She has acquired a New Yorker's perception of the world, confident that she lives in "an imperial centre whose currency is the international standard and whose language is the Esperanto of the modem world" (251). Perhaps the idea of translation is only possible in the context of power? Can an average immigrant afford such translation? If "passing" is still a necessary technique of survival, then Hoffman's "translation" would be only the post-fact rationalization of someone who already speaks from a position of power, who has demanded and been given a voice.

It is interesting to note the paradoxical thrust of her translation, which is both extremely conservative and rich in subversive potential. Adapting the feminist notion of translation to immigrant writing, one can say that any translation or self-translation attempted by an immigrant recasts the immigrant's role in language, changing the immigrant's position from an object of discourse to that of its producer.[ 6] Using the immigrant subjectivity as a generative locus of speech means granting immigrants linguistic agency as speakers and writers. By attempting her translation, Hoffman elevates her Polish background "into the realm of translatability" (Kristeva 178), making it accessible to her American readers. At the same time, however, she also foregrounds the asymmetry between the two cultures, reinforcing the symbolic domination of her American identity. Interestingly, in recent translation studies and in postcolonial theory, the word "translation" is used not just "to indicate an interlingual process, but to name the entire problematic [of the power to represent]" (Niranjana 8).

Ultimately, as the subtitle of her book suggests, she chronicles the process of her crossing over to the mainstream, dramatized as a struggle for the control of the metropolitan language. Although she acknowledges her "hybridity" as a translator, she falls to make it "the source of literary and cultural redefinition" (Ashcroft, Griffiths, & Tiffin 78). The price she pays for losing her alienation is that she is unable to shake off her nostalgia. Her narrative doesn't go beyond a nostalgia trip, a piece of cultural anthropology that flaunts cultural generalities, which seems to be implicated by both the kind of discourse she uses (Western autobiography) and the material conditions of its production.

Subversion of the dominant culture, potentially inscribed in the project of translation, cannot be fully realized in Hoffman's project, largely because she adopts the traditional, androcentric model of autobiography. Despite her appropriation of poststructuralist rhetoric, she is still committed to the concept of essential selfhood whose experience can be of universal value. In its celebration of power and control, of individual triumph over the language, Hoffman's narrative shows complicity with the tradition of bourgeois autobiography as "a progressive narrative of individual destiny, from origin through environment and education to achievement" (Smith 19). Her autobiographical self disseminates what Julia Kristeva calls "the actor's paradox: multiplying masks and 'false selves' [she] is never completely true nor completely false" (8). In that sense, the pun in the book's title refers not only to what can't be translated, what's left out, but also to a loss of identity. For Hoffman, autobiography is a stage upon which her unique self can display its multiple guises, a place where she "can observe and be observed" (41).

She reserves for herself the privilege of resisting totalization, of refusing narrative closure ("any confidently thrusting story line would be a sentimentality, an excess, an exaggeration, an untruth," 164). Her references to "mosaic" and "fragments" illuminate her narrative method which, after all, reflects the working of memory, with its leaps and lapses. However, she exhibits a curious predilection for closure and confinement relating other people's life narratives, especially those of her Polish childhood peers, whose lives, contained in her brilliant verbal "cameos," suggest the chilling finality of failure.

As Edward Said says, "The capacity to represent, portray, characterize, and depict is not easily available to just any society; moreover, the 'what' and 'how' in the representation of 'things,' while allowing for considerable individual freedom, are circumscribed and socially regulated" (79). The possibility of immigrant autobiography seems to be premised on its ability to serve the interests of the culture it addresses, to be a mirror held up to this culture. According to Paul Eakin, "the tension between the experiential reality of subjectivity, on the one hand, and the available, cultural forms for its expression, on the other, always structures any engagement in autobiography" (1992: 88).[ 7] Indeed, inasmuch as Eva Hoffman's autobiography, like Mary Antin's, "duplicates" the normative success story of its time, it shows that the dominant culture needs the immigrant autobiography as a voluntary "tribute" to itself.


1 All subsequent page references in the text are from Eva Hoffman, Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (New York: Penguin Books, 1989).

2. Sollors uses the concepts of "descent" and "consent" to foreground "the conflict between contractual and hereditary, self-made and ancestral, definitions of American identity" (5-6).

3. Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, in her study of immigrant autobiography, suggests that the choice of language should be considered as a possible determinant of cultural responses reflected in immigrant autobiographies, and has to be reckoned with "as an epistemological and ideological filter" (152).

4. Similarly, William Boelhower, discussing Mary Antin and the xenophobic pressure of the dominant culture, notices that "most immigrant/ethnic autobiographers sought to pass themselves off as Americans by didactically copying and promoting officially acceptable behavioral codes" (127).

5. Interestingly, it is not her Jewishness that becomes a primary source of her "difference," as it is continually displaced in her attempts at "passing" first in Poland, then in the United States. It seems that in the process of "socialization into the codes of Americanness" (Sollors 7), Hoffman, after all, tends to favour "consent" rather than "descent."

6. Cf., Susanne de Lotbiniere-Harwood's definition of translation "as a rewriting in the feminine": "Translation as a feminist practice shares with women's writing the intention of recasting women's role in language, changing her place from phallocentric object of discourse to gynocentric subject/producer of discourse" (150-1).

7. He further comments, following Philippe Lejeune, on the autobiographer's complicity with the dominant culture: "such lives can gain access to the printed world only through an intermediary belonging to the dominant class that controls the production and consumption of such texts" (88).


Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Boelhower, William. "The Making of Ethnic Autobiography in the United States." In Eakin (1991): 123-141.

de Lotbiniere-Harwood, Susanne. Rebelle et infidede/The Body Bilingual. Toronto: Women's Press, 1991.

Eakin, Paul John. American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

-----. Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Eldred, Janet Carey, and Peter Mortensen. "Reading Literacy Narratives." College English 54.5 (September 1992): 512-539.

Hoffman, Eva. Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Niranjana, Tejaswini. Siting Translation: History, Post-structuralism, and the Colonial Context. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Smith, Sidonie. Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women's Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. "Immigrant Autobiography: Some Questions of Definition and Approach." In Eakin (1991): 142-170.



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