Writers & Company

Eva Hoffman on getting lost — and found — in time, language and memory

In this 2010 interview, the Polish-American author of Time and Lost in Translation spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about our ever-changing perception of time and place.
Eva Hoffman is a Polish-American writer and academic. (Charlie Hopkinson)

An internationally-acclaimed writer and cultural commentator, Eva Hoffman is known for engaging with difficult psychological and moral questions, both in her nonfiction and in her novels. 

Hoffman's debut book, Lost in Translation, is an insightful and moving memoir chronicling her experience of growing up in post-war Krakow, Poland, and then emigrating — first to Vancouver with her family when she was 13, and then to the U.S. for university. It explores how the painful loss of language and culture ultimately led Hoffman to a successful literary career in Manhattan, where she was an editor at The New York Times for more than 10 years. 

Hoffman returned to her family's story in After Such Knowledge, a book about the impact of the Holocaust on the children of survivors. A mix of memoir and social history, it's been described by the New York Times Book Review as "an extraordinarily clear-eyed and unsentimental meditation."

After living in the U.S. for two decades, Eva Hoffman moved to London, which is now her home. She spoke with Eleanor Wachtel in 2010, shortly after the publication of Time, an examination of the ever-changing nature of time in modern life.

In the interest of time

"I have always had an exacerbated consciousness of time. I can sympathize with Vladimir Nabokov when he describes himself as a chronophobiac. He had an exacerbated awe and dread of time as a kind of metaphysical element.

"I did have this very intense awareness of time, from very early on. Where that comes from is hard to tell — whether it's simply temperamental or whether it comes partly from having grown up in Poland right after the Second World War and the Holocaust. 

"There was this sense of a vast death around us — which, even as children, we were aware of. The sense of the finitude of time, the finitude of human life, was very vivid and palpable.

Time and memory

"When I emigrated to North America, I became very cognizant of how time can move very differently in different cultures. Time in the Poland of my childhood moved differently from time in Canada and then America. 

"I've talked to other Eastern Europeans who also have this impression and have had this experience, that time [in Eastern Europe after the war] moved more slowly and in less forced, strenuous and pressured ways. This was partly for a very bad reason: these societies were in a state of stasis and in a state of economic arrest. 

When I emigrated to North America, I became very cognizant of how time can move very differently in different cultures.

"There were no great careers to be made. There were no great fortunes to be made. There were no incentives to rush. But I think that there was also a kind of older cultural sense: states of relishing, states of 'going with the flow,' to use an American expression, were valued.

"A long conversation around the kitchen table into the middle of the night with your friends was something that was worthwhile in itself. That one could have a kind of fortuitous, spontaneous encounter and take it up.  

"Perhaps it had something to do with a present sense of fate in those cultures, that one had to accept one's fate, one's lack, one's destiny in life. That meant that one wasn't always thinking about the future."

Culture shock in Canada

"I didn't want to leave Poland. I was 13 and I was living a life that I loved in many ways. I left under a kind of protest. 

Vancouver was the first place of cultural shock and the first shock of losing language and losing my first world.

At that time one could not have imagined more antipodal places than Vancouver and Krakow — Krakow being this old historical town that was very much haunted by many layers of its recent past, and Vancouver being then a kind of boomtown and very much oriented toward the future. 

"Vancouver was the first place of cultural shock and the first shock of losing language and losing my first world.

"It was a very isolated emigration. It wasn't part of a larger migration to Canada at that time. So there wasn't anybody with whom I could share my experiences and my parents were extremely preoccupied with trying to start up their lives. 

Language and voice 

"It took me a while to learn English to any extent — and I was a very linguistic child. I relished language. I relished books. It was difficult to be without language. So all of that made for a considerable sense of disorientation and isolation.

"It isn't a question of comparative languages. It's a question of the first language as opposed to subsequent languages. I was deeply at home with the Polish language, a language that inhabited me fully.

"I could articulate my experience in it. I could describe my perceptions. All of which I lost when I came into a language that I didn't know. 

"So that was a great kind of internal dislocation. There was a kind of brief but actually very informative period when I felt I didn't have a language at all, because Polish was clearly irrelevant and useless. There was nobody to speak Polish to and I didn't yet have English.

Language isn't just something that we use. It isn't only an instrument. It is something that articulates and shapes ourselves — and articulates our relationship to the world.

"What it taught me is how very deeply we are shaped by a language. Language isn't just something that we use. It isn't only an instrument. It is something that articulates and shapes ourselves — and articulates our relationship to the world. We are very deeply constructed by language — and indeed by culture. 

"This was actually deeply revealing and informative for me. The experience eventually led me to write my first book."

Eva Hoffman's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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