Blasts from the Past: Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman (1989)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Lost in Translation is my first non-fiction blast from the past. It was published in the UK shortly after I became a bookseller and was one of the first books in huge demand that I felt I must read. It’s about many things one of which is the nuance of language, a subject dear to many readers’ – and of course writers’ – hearts.

At the age of thirteen, when most of us are beginning to forge an identity for ourselves, Eva Hoffman was uprooted from her beloved Poland to emigrate with her family to Canada. Born in 1945, her early years had been spent in Kraków, surrounded by friends, thoroughly immersed in a way of life she knew and loved. When she arrived in Vancouver, she had not only to learn a new language, but also a very different set of cultural references, a long, slow process which set her at a distance from other young people. When she won a scholarship to a university in the United States, she began to find ways of belonging in her new world without rejecting the old. Lost in Translation is an eloquent account of Hoffman’s experience of being caught between two cultures.

I’ve tried reading several of Hoffman’s novels over the years but none have made the impression on me that her memoir left. It’s come to mind often in the last few years when thinking about the refugee crisis and the cultural dislocation so many have had to face on top of their trauma.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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14 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman (1989)”

  1. This sounds really interesting, I’d like to read it. I live and work surrounded by people who are speaking English not as their first language and I’m ashamed to say I really should give more thought to this.

    1. I think you’d appreciate this one. What’s striking, particularly if you’re a monolingual like me, is the way she makes you realise that some things simply can not be translated into another language. Such words often seem to communicate deeply held emotions which makes the lack of a translation doubly hard. I suppose the only way to describe it is a linguistic homesickness.

  2. This sounds great Susan – I’ve been reading Zaffar Kunial’s poetry this week and he talks about a feeling of “in between-ness’ when you are a migrant. Fascinating stuff.

    1. I’ve never lived anywhere but my own country which may be why I’m so fascinated by that ‘inbetween-ness’ idea. Hoffman’s book is well worth seeking out if you are, too, Cathy.

  3. This is such a great read! Like you, I’ve tried her fiction (and I think I liked it well enough) but this is the book that I think of when I think of her!

      1. Then you’ll be doubly impressed to hear that my original reading of it required an interlibraryloan (in a small city of about 300,000 people, where I went to university), a long wait for it to come from another city and a short period to read, but I loved it so much that I actually ended up buying a copy (on a student’s budget) and it sits here still. Weren’t you saying that you wanted to reread more books next year anyway? Let me know if you choose this to be one of them!

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