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Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language Paperback – March 1, 1990

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The condition of exile is an exaggeration of the process of change and loss that many people experience as they grow and mature, leaving behind the innocence of childhood. Eva Hoffman spent her early years in Cracow, among family friends who, like her parents, had escaped the Holocaust and were skeptical of the newly imposed Communist state. Hoffman's parents managed to immigrate to Canada in the 1950s, where Eva was old enough to feel like a stranger--bland food, a quieter life, and schoolmates who hardly knew where Poland was. Still, there were neighbors who knew something of Old World ways, and a piano teacher who was classically Middle European in his neurotic enthusiasm for music. Her true exile came in college in Texas, where she found herself among people who were frightened by and hostile to her foreignness. Later, at Harvard, Hoffman found herself initially alienated by her burgeoning intellectualism; her parents found it difficult to comprehend. Her sense of perpetual otherness was extended by encounters with childhood friends who had escaped Cracow to grow up in Israel, rather than Canada or the United States, and were preoccupied with soldiers, not scholars. Lost in Translation is a moving memoir that takes the specific experience of the exile and humanizes it to such a degree that it becomes relevant to the lives of a wider group of readers.

From Publishers Weekly

Daughter of Holocaust survivors, the author, a New York Times Book Review editor, lost her sense of place and belonging when she emigrated with her family from Poland to Vancouver in 1959 at the age of 13. Although she works within a familiar genre here, Hoffman's is a penetrating, lyrical memoir that casts a wide net as it joins vivid anecdotes and vigorous philosophical insights on Old World Cracow and Ivy League America; Polish anti-Semitism; the degradations suffered by immigrants; Hoffman's cultural nostalgia, self-analysis and intellectual passion; and the atrophy of her Polish from disuse and her own disabling inarticulateness in English as a newcomer. Linguistic dispossession, she explains, "is close to the dispossession of one's self." As Hoffman savors the cadences and nuances of her adopted language, she remains ever conscious of assimilation's perils: "But how does one bend toward another culture without falling over, how does one strike an elastic balance between rigidity and self-effacement?"
Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (March 1, 1990)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140127739
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140127737
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.5 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #64,027 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By JOhn Webb on July 26, 2000
Format: Paperback
For many years, I have been involved in the preparation of teachers, both graduate and undergraduate, to work in the multicultural, multilingual climate of our nation's schools. Teachers can be successful ONLY if they have a real sense of what is going on in the minds of the children they teach. All too often, they make assumptions about what a child knows and is able to do or what a child is actually feeling and why. Such assumptions can wreak havoc in the lives of the thousands of immigrant children who come to our classrooms from their home cultures each day speaking a language other than English. Eva Hoffman's book, more than any other work I know, allows a teacher to learn and FEEL what it is really like to make that ultimate journey from the culture and language of one's birth, of one's heart, into the English-speaking world. This is one of the most brilliant books that I have ever read, and it is a MUST for every teacher!
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By luciaan@tin.it (Alessandra Pauncz) on May 25, 1999
Format: Paperback
I am a woman born from a multi-cultural marriage (an American mother and a Jewish Hungarian father who met in Florence, Italy) a neutral third ground. I deeply appriaciated Eva Hoffmann's description of her life in two places. For me who has always lived in one, I feel divisions in identity at a different leve. But as a daughter of parents from different cultural backrounds, I recognize the constant sense of loss and tension between and among memories and experiences originating in different places under different sets of values. I am deeply interested in this topic and have found few books that I appreciated more than Ms. Hoffmann's. I would like to suggest to people with similar interest a book that seems to me to take up where "Lost in traslation ends". It is called "Mother Tongue, An American life in Italy". The author, Wallis Wilde- Menozzi, lives in Italy and describes the divisions and syntheses in her experience of bi-culturalism in a complex and lyrical way that touches finally the minute core of being. Alessandra Pauncz
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Waisberg on December 16, 2006
Format: Paperback
I started reading this wonderful book 6 months before I left Brazil towards Israel. After finishing the first Part (Paradise) I just could not keep on reading, and I abandoned the book for a while. After I landed in Israel I re-took the book and was delighted again with the realness of it. A thought occurred to me that the reading was so descriptive of the immigration sentiment that I just could not understand it before immigrating myself.

The book helped me to understand and to organize the infinite sensations that come with the leaving/arriving to another country. How the language affects the way we think and act, how sadness and happiness are mingled into one strange feeling, how we cope and forget without noticing, and how we urge to succeed and prove that we can be part of the new country.

In addition, the book also brought to me new feelings and curiosities about my grandparents, whom also escaped from Poland and Russia in the late 40's. Hoffman describes so well how the old traditions and languages influenced the new live of those who left their country because of prejudice and persecution!

One passage that I am specially fond of: "No, I'm no patriot, nor was I ever allowed to be. And yet, 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 colors 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." It reminds me of Wordsworth when he writes about Tintern Abbey.

A wonderful life-changing book.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Joanna Kwiatowska on January 31, 2013
Format: Library Binding
This is a biased review, since my own experiences mirror Eva's. As much as I love and identify with the book, it leaves the reader hanging, an effect that was perhaps intended, or the byproduct of what I describe below.

The experience of reading this book 14 years ago was an eye-opener. To those that gave the book 1 star, I can say this:

1) Boring book with no plot and no point -
This is not an adventure book. It is a true life-story, taking place in North American suburbia (a little sarcasm here; life in Poland at that time was a lot more crazy and unpredictable in comparison). If you write your own biography at mid-life, you will not have a sense of closure or have your life all figured out (if that's ever possible). To me, it is obvious that the book ends, but Eva's life story continues. I also would have liked something more conclusive (which is why I give it 4 stars), but I fully understand that one cannot draw any definite conclusions, not when writing about one's own life. ;-) Had she waited longer, perhaps the book would have never come about.

2) It is not like Shtetl.
That's right. Shtetl was a well-researched historical work with a bit of personal narrative, providing us with a (balanced, in my opinion) view of Jewish history in Central/Eastern Europe. *This* is an introspective emotional description of one's own life-experience. In great part it consists of the author's recollections of "critical incidents" - interactions between people from differing cultures, when the chance of a misunderstanding is great - and reflections following these incidents.

3) Whining, complaining -
are actually standard elements of social interaction in Poland.
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