Review: “Lost in Translation” by Eva Hoffman

Thumbs up for Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language by Eva Hoffman. Memoir.

A magnificent book. Ironically and wonderfully – since it’s about Hoffman’s struggle to express herself, and find her identity, in English – Lost in Translation is more gorgeously and elegantly written than most books by native speakers. There were so many passages I wanted to copy out. I am definitely not a displaced person in any sense of the term: I can pass with only minor, unimportant schisms among the downwardly-mobile, college-educated, West Coast American socially-liberal older-Millennial nerd demographic to which I for better or worse belong. Still (how should I say this politely?) I have read too much anthropology and social history not to be deeply irritated by assumptions of the nonarbitrariness of it all. In Hoffman’s book I recognize the echoes of conversations I’ve had – different in context, but still familiar enough to make me nod grimly:

“I think your philosophy is pinko!” Lizzy hurls at me, looking hurt, and runs out of the room, slamming the door behind her. I’m left badly jangled by the exchange, and Lizzy, it turns out, runs up to the dormitory roof, where she cries tears of frustration and rage. But the next day, we start up again, talking about how we want to experience everything, and what kinds of adults we want to become. On this subject too it turns out that our mental pictures are quite at odds. Lizzy thinks maturity is a condition to be avoided at all costs. “Everyone keeps saying you should be well adjusted,” she says. “But well adjusted to what?” The condition of adulthood, in her mind, stands for her mother’s repetitious days, rows of suburban houses in which nothing new or exciting ever happens, and a conventionality that keeps you from being curious and alive. Maturity, in this system of associations, is the opposite of experience: it is a kind of shrinking of the soul. Her mother, Lizzy tells me, does not understand what it’s like to be very happy or very unhappy, or to want to have adventures; it’s as though she belonged to an entirely other, not fully human species, and Lizzy is genuinely afraid of turning into somebody like her, or other grown-ups she has has known. Since I yearn for maturity with every fiber of my soul, I try to convey to Lizzy the mastery, and the self-possession, and wherewithal to express myself fully that I keep hoping for. I try to paint the image, so potent in my mind, of Pani Witeszczak playing the piano with tenderness and control. I tell her that my mother is not some straw woman whom I’ve never seen suffer, or storm, 0r cry. “We’re all human,” I say, echoing my mother’s line. I want to explain how maturity means entering into the great stream of experience, coming to know what people have always known. Lizzy looks at me thoughtfully, but she, literally, doesn’t see it; her mind has been stocked with different images, and just as I can’t see the pictures of her childhood, she can’t leap outside them, can’t imagine what’s not in her head. Growing up will prove painfully difficult for her, as difficult as for most of her, and my, generation.

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