Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 13. Nr. Mai 2002

Lost In Translation

Complications of Bilingualism In the Memoirs of Eva Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez

Matthias Schubnell (San Antonio, Tx)


The topic of this presentation is of both personal and scholarly interest to me because by the end of this year, my life in English will be equal in length to that of my former existence in German: twenty-four years each. Multilingualism, or perhaps more precisely the change of one's primary language, is a complicated matter when it is combined with immigration or the move from life in an ethnic community into the mainstream of society. The first shift describes Eva Hoffman's experience, as well as my own, the second that of Richard Rodriguez. While an existence in a new language opens exciting avenues and opportunities, it also can result in loss, isolation and alienation as the individual concerned travels across linguistic, geographic and cultural lines. This journey involves the relinquishing of one's identity in the native language and its reconstruction in the new, and such rebirth usually does not come without labor pains. With English firmly established as the language of globalization, more and more people around the world are embarking on journeys from their respective native languages into English, and it is important to note that this development often comes at a high personal price, as the titles of the two contemporary bicultural memoirs indicate: Eva Hoffman's Lost In Translation: A Life In a New Language and Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez convey the psychological complications, particularly the feelings of alienation and exile, resulting from the abandonment of one language for another.

Eva Hoffman recalls her immigration from Poland to Canada in terms of a linguistic limbo in which her first language was no longer relevant and her English not yet developed enough to let her function in her new environment.

[...] I understood that to be without language is to live in...a very dim external world and a very dim interior world. Language is not something that we use instrumentally, but it is something that truly shapes us, and that truly shapes our perceptions of the world...that sense of losing language was a very, very powerful and potent lesson in the importance of language. And so, indeed from then on, my struggle was for English to inhabit me and to acquire enough command of it so that it would articulate the world and so that it could express the world-both interior and exterior. (Kreisler, 2)

The letting go of Polish was a painful process because it had informed all thirteen years of her life prior to her arrival in the New World. In the first part of her memoir, entitled "Paradise," she explains: "The country of my childhood lives within me with a primacy that is a form of love...It has fed me language, perceptions, sounds, the human kind. It has given me the colors and furrow of reality, my first loves" (Hoffman, 73). As a child, she embraced the world through language and literature as a way of knowing, even as she later sought to embrace America through its literature as an adult. "I love words," she asserts," insofar as they correspond to the world, insofar as they give it to me in heightened form" (Hoffman, 28). She savors language because it is the key to becoming fully human: "Sometimes, when I find a new expression, I roll it on the tongue as if shaping it in my mouth gave birth to a new shape in the world. Nothing fully exists until it is articulated" (Hoffman, 29). Throughout the memoir, Hoffman comments on the nuances and shadings she associated with Polish words. It is these nuances that get lost in translation, much to her frustration. For example, Tesknota is "a word that adds to nostalgia the tonalities of sadness and longing" (Hoffman, 4), recepta, "a word whose musty crispness makes [her] think of yellowing old paper" (Hoffman, 50), and polot, "a word that combines the meaning of dash, inspiration and flying" (Hoffman, 71). These connotations are lost as she rewrites herself in English.

The key moment that brings into sharp focus the impact of language change on her identity comes when her teacher in Canada bestows new names on her and her sister, an act referred to by Hoffman as a "careless baptism" (Hoffman, 105). Alina turns into Elaine, and Ewa becomes Eva. Names as signifiers of individual identity and their destruction or corruption by representatives of the dominant culture are recurrent motifs in multi-cultural literatures. Richard Rodriguez, too, remembers his teacher's Anglicized pronunciation of his name as the first manifestation of his public identity. For Hoffman, the renaming is an act of forced redefinition resulting in a sense of estrangement:

Our Polish names didn't refer to us; they were as surely us as our eyes and hands. The new appellations, which we ourselves can't yet pronounce, are not us. They are identification tags, disembodied signs pointing to objects that happen to be my sister and myself. We walk to our seats, into a roomful of unknown faces, with names that make us strangers to ourselves (Hoffman, 105).

This is only the first step leading toward an increasing sense of alienation in a new environment.

Hoffman's experience of life between two languages reflects the larger sense of being lost between two phases of her life, between two countries and two cultures, between two self-identities. At this early stage of her journey, as a young adolescent, her experience of exile is marked by loss and alienation, not only from the new setting, but also from her past in Poland.

As I lie down in a strange bed in a strange house...I wait for that spontaneous flow of inner language which used to be my nighttime talk with myself, my way of informing the ego where the id had been. Nothing comes (Hoffman, 107)

Similarly, in Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez bemoans the loss of Spanish as the loss of intimacy. Hoffman's slipping grasp on her native language leads to a sense of erasure: "I'm not filled with language anymore, and I have only a memory of fullness to anguish me with knowledge that in the dark and empty state, I don't really exist" (108). This is the moment when she finds herself lost in translation. Yet it is also the point of departure for the long process of reconstructing her life and sense of self in a new language.

Initially, Polish is "a dead language, the language of the untranslatable past," while writing in English is like "performing in front of yourself, a slightly perverse act of self-voyeurism" (Hoffman, 121). Nevertheless, the way out of the limbo between two languages is to embrace English. Shortly after her arrival in Canada, Eva Hoffman begins a diary in English, a conscious act of replacing her interior language of Polish with her new language. It becomes an exercise in finding not only a voice, but also a new identity in English (Kreisler, 2). She says: "I know that language will be a crucial instrument, that I can overcome the stigma of my marginality, the weight of presumption against me, only if the reassuringly right sounds come out of my mouth" (Hoffman, 123). Anyone who has lived in another language, if only temporarily, knows how crucial linguistic competence is to functioning fully in personal, social and professional contexts. For anyone who has made a commitment to an adopted country, the mastering of the new language is the prerequisite to becoming fully accepted in the new society. Thus, Hoffman's memoir is both the account of the process of assimilation and its end product. The dazzling display of writing in her work is impressive evidence that she has successfully recreated herself in a new language. She is this text; author and text are inseparable, as she points out at the end of her journey/composition:

Because I have learned the relativity of cultural meaning on my skin, I can never take any one set of meanings as final. I doubt that I'll ever become an ideologue of any stripe; I doubt that I'll become an avid acolyte of any school of thought. I know that I've been written in a variety of languages; I know to what extent I'm a script. (Hoffman, 275)

The idea that we are all made of words, that we are constantly meta-morphosing our selves as we write and rewrite, draft and revise the text that delineates who we are, is at the very heart of Hoffman's work. We are the writers of our lives, even as this continual act of creating our identity distances us from our immediate experience and renders us, in a sense, all exiles in a world of constantly shifting meanings and circumstances. When this process takes place in the transition between one language and another, it becomes highly self-conscious, drawing attention to the fragility and isolation of the individual self as it is located in the tension between different linguistic and cultural spheres.

Hoffman's progress toward personal wholeness and adaptation to the New World can be measured by her increasing competence in English and her growing comfort with it. Words are the remedy for dislocation and estrangement.

I gather them [words], put them away like a squirrel saving nuts for winter, swallow them and hunger for more. If I take in enough, then maybe I can incorporate the language, make it part of my psyche and my body. I will not leave an image unworded, will not let anything cross my mind till I find the right phrase to pin the shadow down. (Hoffman, 216)

There are several examples late in the book that show that she has successfully recreated herself in English, that she has accommodated herself to the new language and found balance and equilibrium within it. For instance, she achieves intimacy in the new language where before there was distance:

By now the language has entered my body, has incorporated itself in the softest tissues of my being. `Darling,' I say to my lover, `my dear,' and the words are filled and brimming with the motions of my desire; they curve themselves within my mouth to the complex music of tenderness (Hoffman, 245)

The successful completion of the project to recreate her identity in English requires one final step: the revisiting of her childhood in English, to bridge the gap between the old and new self. While acknowledging that "the gap cannot be fully closed," she now trusts her new language "to speak [her] childhood self as well, to say what has so long been hidden, to touch the tenderest spot" (Hoffman, 274). The return to the past leads to an acknowledgement of the loss of childhood, homeland, native tongue, but also to the acceptance that such awareness of loss, change and transformation make us fully human.

[...] in English, I wind myself back to my old, Polish melancholy.

When I meet it, I reenter myself, fold myself again in my old skin. I'm cured of the space sickness of transcendence. It is possible that when we travel deep enough, we always encounter an element of sadness, for full awareness of ourselves always includes the knowledge of our own ephemerality and the passage of time. But it is always in this knowledge-not its denial-that things gain their true dimensions, and we begin to feel the simplicity of being alive. (Hoffman, 274)

In the end, she also reconnects the signified with the signifier in English:

"Azalea, hyacinth, forsythia, delphinium."...I look at the flowers; some of them I've never seen before; some names I've read but haven't put together with the flowers themselves. This is the kind of thing that comes latest in my strange building of the language from the roof down. "Azalea," I repeat. "Forsythia, delphinium." The names are beautiful, and they fit the flowers perfectly. They are the flowers, these particular flowers in this Cambridge garden. For now, there are no Platonic azaleas, no Polish hyacinths against which these are compared. (Hoffman, 280)

At last, she has connected herself again to the world around her, has given birth to her new self and thus embodies the script she has so laboriously written in her new language.

While Hoffman's journey across geographical, cultural and linguistic lines reflects the conventional immigrant experience, Richard Rodriguez's memoir illustrates that his assimilation as a Mexican American into the mainstream of American society exacted much the same price as Hoffman's geographical and linguistic dislocation and relocation: the loss of intimacy associated with his first language, Spanish; the need to reconstruct his personal and public identity in English; and a sense of distance from both his old and new cultural setting.

Rodriguez paints himself as "a comic victim of two cultures" (Rodriguez, 5), the victim of a society that demands the abandonment of his mother tongue and ethnic origins as the price for success in America. The creation of a public identity, so crucial to accomplishing the American Dream, also comes at the expense of a close relationship to his parents and his Spanish-speaking relatives. While Rodriguez frequently expresses his gratitude to his parents, he also confesses that he feels embarrassed by them, because his new, educated self cannot face the reminders of his origins, specifically the heavy accent with which his father speaks English. This assimilationist position is, of course, open to challenge, and many of my bilingual, Mexican American students disagree with Rodriguez's contention that one cannot inhabit two cultural and ethnic worlds at the same time.

Two symbolic scenes reflect his willful severance of himself from his parents as he embraces English as the new language of self. In a crucial scene early in the book, Rodriguez remember witnessing as a boy his father's inability to communicate effectively in English with the attendant at a gas station. The ensuing embarrassment results in a literal and symbolic departure from his father. "I looked away to the lights of passing automobiles. I tried not to hear anymore...Shortly afterward, walking toward home with my father, I shivered when he put his hand on my shoulder. The very first chance that I got, I evaded his grasp and ran on ahead into the dark, skipping with feigned boyish exuberance" (Rodriguez, 15). Clearly, this scene describes Rodriguez's escape from his familial and ethnic background and his flight into the open arms of an assimilationist America. Young Richard feigns boyish exuberance because he is, at some level, aware that he is no longer a boy; that he must leave his father behind, sever his association with him, in order to get ahead. Rodriguez explains his rejection of his parents thus: "Hearing them [speak English in public], I'd grow nervous, my clutching trust in their protection and power weakened" (Rodriguez, 15). Turning his back on them thus becomes an act of self-preservation, but also the source of much guilt and inner turmoil.

The equivalent scene illustrating his disconnection from his mother occurs when the nun in his elementary school pronounces his name Rich-heard Road-re-guess. Here, he is re-named in English, and his name entered into the nun's black leather book. This double act of naming, orally and in writing, gives birth to a new identity, even though the boy does not know it yet. In Rodriguez's memory, this transforming moment is fused with his separation from his mother: "Quickly I turned to see my mother's face dissolve in a watery blur behind the pebbled glass door" (Rodriguez, 11). This image of effacing the birth mother stands as a troubling omen as Rodriguez sets out to recreate himself in a new language.

Despite his nostalgia for his Spanish childhood separate from the sounds of los gringos, Rodriguez makes it unequivocally clear that growing up in America in any language other than English can only be an impediment to full assimilation. Viewing private and public language, Spanish and English, as discrete and separate spheres, Rodriguez believes that it is "unhealthy" to remain too long in the comfort of one's native language (Rodriguez, 17). For the same reason he argues that bilingual education for minority students in the United States is counterproductive because it only delays the formation of these students' public identity. While he deplores the loss of closeness to his parents, who agreed to speak only English to their children after the nuns at school encouraged this change, he accepts it as the price of "full public individuality". "The social and economic advantages I enjoy as a man result from the day that I came to believe that my name, indeed, is Rich-heard Road-ree-guess"( Rodriguez, 27), rather than Ricardo Rodriguez. "I celebrate the day I acquired my new name," he exclaims, showing none of Eva Hoffman's reservations about the "careless baptism" (Hoffman, 105) that marked the establishment of her public identity.

His bravado does not conceal the darker side of assimilation. His family calls him "pocho," a term that means colorless or bland and refers to an assimilated Mexican American who denies his cultural origins. To recapture the loss of closeness to his family that was always associated with his native language, he now struggles to locate intimacy in English words (Rodriguez, 31). "...I sensed the deepest truth about language and intimacy: Intimacy is not created by a particular language; intimacy is created by intimates" (Rodriguez, 32). One cannot help but feel that this assertion is, above all, a rationalization of the loss of language by an alienated, isolated individual who seizes his opportunity in American society by immersing himself in literature, refining his English vocabulary and erasing his Spanish accent.

His alienation from his family, initially the result of a growing language gap, deepens further because of his increasing level of education. While at first blaming his parents for the loss of his past, he replaces anger with guilt as he models his new identity on that of his English-speaking teachers, who become his surrogate parents. Rodriguez's transformation of himself takes place in the pages of the books he reads, in the company of ideas that replace the presence of family and relatives. His new competence in English and his embrace of education facilitate Rodriguez's public identity, but we meet him as a man whose hunger of memory cannot be sated

Eva Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez's bicultural memoirs illustrate the perilous journey from one language into another. As more individuals around the world choose English as the primary language of globalization and settle in the English-speaking world, one can expect not only language loss, but also the kind of alienation and sense of exile described in the two works discussed. However, while language change can be divisive in a variety of ways, personal, cultural and linguistic, language itself also holds the possibility of healing this rift, as Hoffman and Rodriguez's writings illustrate.

My own journey from Germany to England to the United States was far less dramatic, but marked by the same compulsive absorption of English as the means to fit in that Hoffman and Rodriguez so eloquently describe. Voraciously, I gobbled up idiomatic expressions and colloquial phrases, absorbed like a giant sponge new words, both learned and slangy, and engaged in a protracted war on the slightest German accent that remained. It was years before I realized that keeping a residual accent was perfectly acceptable, indeed desirable, and I lay down my arms.

As I made my way into the profession as a German native teaching English language and American literature in the United States, I suffered a good deal of Angst as the integrity of my personal and professional self rested in large measure on my linguistic competency. The fragility of this new self became dramatically clear during the teaching presentation for my first job at Bucknell University. I was coming close to the end of the session when I mispronounced the word "catastrophe," appropriately symbolic in my situation. I said "catastroph," a corruption of both the English and German pronunciation, and no sooner was the sound out of my mouth that I knew I had ruined my chances. I felt exposed, erased, as if I the ground between the two languages had opened up and I had fallen into the cleft. Even though I did get the job after all, the experience remained with me as a reminder of the risk one takes in venturing out into a new language.

On the whole, however, my life in English has been, almost from the outset, a great comfort to me. I have often thought of the pronouncement by Joseph Conrad who, when he first heard English spoken by the engineers building the Gotthard tunnel, exclaimed: "the English language adopted me." I feel much the same way, which precludes the tension between old and new language described by Hoffman and Rodriguez. English has become like a well-worn sweater to me, or a pair of comfortable shoes. It has changed my personality-a fact a trusted professor at the University of Heidelberg, Ronald Hindmarsh, remarked upon twenty-five years ago. In my English manifestation, I am more relaxed, more at ease and more excitable than in German, perhaps a reflection of the cultural associations inherent in English. Over the years, German has become alien in some ways, particularly in its harsh sound and its grammatical rigidity. When I visit my hometown of Freiburg, listening to the once familiar sounds and phrases, I feel removed, listening from a distance to a language that was once the fabric of my self. But unlike Rodriguez, I do not deplore this distance; rather, I accept it as a way to measure the richness of my life in a new language.

© Matthias Schubnell (San Antonio, Tx)

TRANSINST       table of contents: No.13


Hoffman, Eva. Lost In Translation: A Life In a New Language. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Kreisler, Harry. "Between Memory and History: A Writer's Voice--Conversation With Eva Hoffman, Author." (2000, Regents of the University of California). Last visited on 28 February 2002.

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez-An Autobiography. 1982.New York: Bantam, 1988.

For quotation purposes:
Matthias Schubnell: Lost In Translation: Complications of Bilingualism In the Memoirs of Eva Hoffman and Richard Rodriguez. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 13/2002.

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