Biography 26.2 (2003) 337-340
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In her engaging study Translating One's Self: Language and Selfhood in Cross-Cultural Autobiography, Mary Besemeres introduces seven contemporary authors for whom English, the medium of their artistic expression, is a second language, acquired either in childhood or later on in life. Eva Hoffman, Czeslaw Milosz, Vladimir Nabokov, Maxine Hong Kingston, Richard Rodriguez, Andrew Riemer, and Kazuo Ishiguro have all had to "translate themselves" from their natural languages. Although most of them write only in English, and several are no longer fluent in their native tongues, Mary Besemeres argues quite convincingly that natural languages have been central "to the growth and substance" of their individual selves. Besemeres insists that the self is "deeply bound up" with natural language, as well as with first culture, since language and culture are inseparable. Linguistic migration and the ensuing "self-translation" inescapably involve a certain degree of "loss" of the native language and culture in the course of acquiring the second language, which results in the emergence of "possible cross-cultural and translingual selves." According to Besemeres, the natural language and the natural culture play a formative role in the process.
Mary Besemeres has chosen seven authors, all of whom have made self-translation their dominant literary subject, but whose experiences and circumstances of "self-translation" were very different. For the Jewish families of Eva Hoffman and Andrew Riemer, the decision to leave Eastern Europe in the 1950s and part with their countries of origin was intended to be irreversible; Kazuo Ishiguro's parents for a long time thought of their stay in Great Britain as only temporary. "Self-translation" into English provided Maxine Hong Kingston and Richard Rodriguez with "passes" into an American mainstream offering economic and social advantages, but also with uneasy ambivalent attitudes towards the marginalized ethnic minorities they [End Page 337] both chose to abandon and took upon themselves to represent. Finally, for Czeslaw Milosz and Vladimir Nabokov, whose translation into the new language was never as comprehensive as it was for the younger writers mentioned earlier, knowledge of English made it possible to continue successfully their literary careers once they left their native countries as a result of political developments in Europe after the Russian Revolution and World War II.
Besemeres herself locates the source of interest in contemporary cross-cultural autobiography in the twentieth century's fascination with language, and the consequences thereof in literature, literary theory, psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and other fields. She notices that although for the past hundred years language has been scrutinized by various disciplines, relatively little has been said about the role of natural language in self-formation of bilingual individuals, whereas the condition of bilingualism is quickly becoming ubiquitous, not only as a result of massive migrations of people, which characterized the turbulent twentieth century, but also as an aspect of globalization, inseparable from the English language. Cross-cultural autobiographies are private illustrations of ongoing global processes over which individuals have no control. As Mary Besemeres points out, all of the self-translations she examines were forced upon the authors; none of them chose to translate themselves, to abandon their native cultures and natural identities and embark on the painful process of searching for new ones.
While providing a new and illuminating perspective on the condition of bilingualism and the role of natural language in the formation of bilingual selves, Translating One's Selfbrings home some basic truths, all the more disturbing for being so obvious. One is that writers are products of political, social, intellectual, and economic circumstances. Of the seven authors Besemeres presents, the lives of at least four were conditioned by communism, fascism, and World War II. The aftermath of the Second World War and totalitarianism is still very much present in the texts of Nabokov, Milosz, Hoffman, and Riemer. Another is that although most of the texts discussed by Mary Besemeres were published...