Recently I’ve been reading Eva Hoffman’s memoir Lost in Translation, and I got to thinking about what is lost, and, like the name of this blog, what is found as names and selves are translated between countries and cultures. And specifically, what’s the relationship between transliteration and translation?
I notice in the book that Hoffman starts out as Ewa in Poland, where the “w” in her name is pronounced in Polish as “v”. But after she emigrated to Canada as a 13-year old child, and later as she pursued writing in the United States, the spelling, or visual identity, of her name succumbed to the need to pronounce it ‘correctly’, and she became “Eva”. Or at least she started using those letters to identify herself to the English speaking world that she found herself in. What was at stake for her in the two pen strokes’ difference between a v and a w?
Studying Spanish in high school, then Japanese, and then Korean in college and at work, and in years after as an English teacher, I saw examples of this around me all the time—of names transliterated into sound systems that weren’t quite ready for them, and of people who chose to rename themselves entirely as often as they relented to being redefined between two other sounds in another language. But I didn’t think about it too much with regard to my own name until I traveled two years ago to Montreal for a conference, and with French and English buzzing in my ears, found myself written onto a jar of jam in a small Polish grocery store.
I had memorized growing up that my family name, Malinowski, with the “now” pronounced like the word it spells in English, meant something like “dweller at or by the raspberry patch.” I had laughed at this notion with my brother. I guess we weren’t royalty, we said without giving it much more thought. Our grandfather had told us that our name, like many other immigrants to the U.S. at the time, had almost been changed at Ellis Island to “Malone,” so it would be easier to pronounce. We were glad it hadn’t been, happy that we kept this ‘real’ link to a past life in a country we had never visited, but felt in the sounds of our great grandmother’s speech, the smells of cooking cabbage and caraway seeds in the kitchen, and in truisms that we heard passed down from generation to generation, like the one we were told when we asked why stubbornness seemed to run in the family: “For Polish people, it’s easier to do things the hard way.”
(to be continued)