Lost in Translation

Illustration by Saul Steinberg

“Shut up, shuddup,” the children around us are shouting, and it’s the first word in English that I understand from its dramatic context. My sister and I stand in the schoolyard clutching each other, while kids all around us are running about, pummeling each other and screaming like whirling dervishes. Both the boys and the girls look sharp and aggressive to me – the girls all have bright lipstick on, their hair sticks up and out like witches’ fury, and their skirts are held up and out by stiff, wiry crinolines. I can’t imagine wanting to talk their harsh-sounding language.

We’ve been brought to this school by Mr. Rosenberg, who, two days after our arrival from Poland, tells us he’ll take us to classes that are provided by the government to teach English to newcomers. This morning, in the rinky-dink wooden barracks where the classes are held, we’ve acquired new names. All it takes is a brief conference between Mr. Rosenberg and the teacher, a kindly looking woman who tries to give reassuring glances, but who has seen too many people come and go to get sentimental about a name. Mine – “Ewa” is easy to change into its near equivalent in English, “Eva.” My sister’s name – “Alina” – poses more of a problem but after a moment’s thought, Mr. Rosenberg and the teacher decide that “Elaine” is close enough. My sister and I hang our heads wordlessly under this careless baptism. The teacher then introduces us to the class, mispronouncing our last name – “Wydra” – in a way we’ve never heard before. We make our way to a bench at the back of the room; nothing much has happened, except a small, seismic mental shift. The twist in our names takes them a tiny distance from us – but it’s a gap into which the infinite hobgoblin of abstraction enters. Our Polish names didn’t refer to us; they were as surely us as our eyes or hands. These 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.

When the school day is over, the teacher hands us a file card on which she has written, “I’m a newcomer. I’m lost. I live at 1785 Granville Street. Will you kindly show me how to get there? Thank you.” We wander the streets for several hours, zigzagging back and forth through seemingly identical suburban avenues, showing this deaf-mute sign to the few people we see, until we eventually recognize the Rosenbergs’ house. We’re greeted by our quietly hysterical mother and Mrs. Rosenberg, who, in a ritual she has probably learned from television, puts out two glasses of milk on her red, Formica counter. The milk, homogenized, and too cold from the fridge, bears little resemblance to the liquid we used to drink called by the same name.

Every day I learn new words, new expressions. I pick them up from school exercises, from conversations, from the books I take out of Vancouver’s well-lit, cheerful public library. There are some turns of phrase to which I develop strange allergies. “You’re welcome,” for example, strikes me as a gaucherie, and I can hardly bring myself to say it – I suppose because it implies that there’s something to be thanked for, which in Polish would be impolite. The very places where language is at its most conventional, where it should be most taken for granted, are the places where I feel the prick of artifice.

Then there are words to which I take as equally irrational liking: for their sound, or just because I’m pleased to have deduced their meaning. Mainly they’re words I learn from books, like “enigmatic” or “insolent” – words that have only a literary value, that exist only as signs on the page.

But mostly, 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 accommodated 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.

When my friend Penny tells me that she’s curious, or happy, or disappointed, I try laboriously to translate not from English to Polish but from the word back to its source, to the feeling from which it springs. Already, in that moment of strain, spontaneity of response is lost. And anyway, the translation doesn’t work. I don’t know how Penny feels when she talks about envy. The word hangs in a Platonic stratosphere, a vague prototype of all envy, so large, so all-encompassing that it might crush me – as might disappointment or happiness.

I am becoming a living avatar of structuralist wisdom; I cannot help knowing that words are just themselves. But it’s a terrible knowledge, without any of the consolations that wisdom usually brings. It does not mean that I’m free to play with words at my wont; anyway, words in their naked state are surely among the least satisfactory play objects. No, the radical disjointing 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.

The worst losses come at night. As I lie down in a strange bed in a strange house – my mother is a sort of housekeeper here to the aging Jewish man who has taken us in in return for her services – 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. Polish, in a short time, has atrophied, shriveled from sheer uselessness. Its words don’t apply to my new experiences; they’re not coeval with any of the objects, or faces, or the very air I breathe in the daytime. In English, words have not penetrated to those layers of my psyche from which a private conversation could proceed. This interval before sleep used to be the time when my mind became both receptive and alert – when images and words rose up to consciousness, reiterating what had happened during the day, adding the day’s experiences to those already stored there, spinning out the thread of my personal story.

Now, this picture-and-word show is gone; the thread has been snapped. I have no interior language, and without it, interior images – those images through which we assimilate the external world, through which we take it in, love it, make it our own – become blurred too. My mother and I met a Canadian family who live down the block today. They were working in their garden and engaged us in a conversation of the “Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” variety, which culminated in their inviting us into their house. They sat stiffly on their couch, smiled in the long pauses between the conversation, and seemed at a loss for what to ask. Now my mind gropes for some description of them, but nothing fits. They’re a different species from anyone I’ve met in Poland, and Polish words slip off of them without sticking. English words don’t hook on to anything. I try, deliberately, to come up with a few. Are these people pleasant or dull? Kindly or silly? The words float in an uncertain space. They come up from a part of my brain in which labels may be manufactured but which has no connection to my instincts, quick reactions, knowledge. Even the simplest adjectives sow confusion in my mind; English kindliness has a whole system of morality behind it, a system that makes “kindness” an entirely positive virtue. Polish kindness has the tiniest element of irony. Besides, I’m beginning to feel the tug of prohibition, in English, against uncharitable words. In Polish, you can call someone an idiot without particularly harsh feelings and with the zest of a strong judgment. Yes, in Polish these people might tend toward “silly” and “dull” – but I force myself toward “kindly” and “pleasant.” The cultural unconscious is beginning to exercise its subliminal influence.

The verbal blur covers these people’s faces, their gestures with a sort of fog. I can’t translate them into my mind’s eye. The small event, instead of being added to the mosaic of consciousness and memory, falls through some black hole, and I fall with it. What has happened to me in this new world? I don’t know. I don’t see what I’ve seen, don’t comprehend what’s in front of me. I’m not filled with language anymore, and I have only a memory of fullness to anguish me with the knowledge that, in this dark and empty state, I don’t really exist.

Eva Hoffman
Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989)

Illustration by Saul Steinberg

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