“Did he just call you ‘Eve’?!” the porter at my Oxford college asks, incredulous. “Yeah, it’s the English equivalent of my name…” “Well, I always make an effort to use people’s real names. There’s a reason your parents gave you such a unique name, Ee-wa.”
Where I was born, “Ewa” isn’t unique at all. In fact, my parents chose “Ewa” largely because it’s an entirely ordinary Polish name. And when I turned eight and we temporarily moved to the strange far-off town of Kent, Ohio, it was my parents who introduced me as “Eve” in my strange new school. Until college, the problem of my name had a simple solution: you called me “Ewa” if we talked primarily in Polish, “Eve” if we spoke mostly in English. My own brother, who falls into the latter category, always (that is, on the rare occasions when he doesn’t use nicknames) calls me “Eve.”
And then in college I found out that only one of my two names was real.
The impulse behind the Oxford porter’s speech — the impulse behind calling people by their real names — is an admirable one. After all, you don’t want to be the Ellis Island official who forces a strange new name onto the immigrant, stripping her of the last shred of her identity. You want your foreign guest to feel at home, and you’re willing to twist your tongue into uncomfortable positions to accomplish this.
Hospitality is a wonderful thing — but no one wants to hear “Make yourself at home” in the place where they spend every night. I thought I’ve been home for years; your hospitality reveals that I’m no more than a welcome guest.
I spend some of my evenings translating Polish poetry. One thing this has taught me is that finding the right equivalent for any given word is no easy matter. Any one of a word’s innumerable properties — including its “literal” meaning, but also the number of syllables, the words it rhymes with, its emotional register, commonness, the fact that it had been used in an earlier poem, etc. — may turn out to be an essential feature that absolutely must survive in translation, an entirely optional extra, or a painful sacrifice. It all depends on the context. Translating names is a case in point: some quintessentially Polish works demand that you leave names untranslated; in others finding English equivalents is called for by, for instance, allusions to a name’s biblical etymology.
“Ewa” is Polish, has an obviously biblical source, smoothly fits inside any sentence, is reassuringly ordinary and easily pronounceable. Any translation will involve preserving some of these properties at the cost of others. In English, the (near-)homophonic translation, “Ewa,” might seem like a perfect match, but in fact it has none of the properties from the list except the first. It’s a hollow shell of a sound, emptied of the rich cultural and experiential context my Polish name carries.
The interlocutors who try to make me feel at home by using this “real” name have the wrong context. They make me feel essentialized, like a poem forced to be patriotic. The parts of my childhood I spent in the States feel erased.
By calling me “Ewa,” these well-meaning people are trying to help me preserve the sense of unequivocal Polish identity I had before I turned eight. But this is a bit like a stranger trying to preserve the comfort of my childhood by using the diminutive “Ewcia.” That’s infantilization, not comfort. That context is gone. Keeping your name in a new country is not an option; any translation, even the homophonic one, involves sacrifices. You can have the old sound (sort of — and that’s a hugely important qualification), or you can have the belonging — but not both.
The problem with the Ellis Island official isn’t that the name he gives the foreigner is English. The problem is that he’s the one doing the giving. Your identity is irrevocably transformed by a move to a new country; even your name is no longer quite what it was. The least the porters of your new home can do is let you decide how to respond to this transformation. The least they can do is respect your right to be your own translator.
That’s that, then — in English conversations, I prefer “Eve.” That’s that — except… I still let many of my English-speaking friends and acquaintances call me “Ewa.” The reasons are multiform — and various degrees of irrational.
1. I’m allergic to voicing my preferences. There are so many good intentions behind using “Ewa” — wanting to make me feel at home, respecting my Polish identity, working hard on a difficult pronunciation — and I don’t know how to acknowledge those intentions while asking to be called “Eve.” It feels like rejecting a gift.
2. To me, “Ewa” sounds like “you don’t belong here” — but of course I know that no one is saying this. It’s remarkably hard to get this distinction across, and I hate hurting people’s feelings.
3. Sometimes the context of my interactions with a particular person is sufficiently similar to the Polish one for “Ewa” to feel more natural than “Eve”. For instance, “Ewa-as-spoken-by-someone-who-also-speaks-Spanish,” even in the context of an English conversation, has the property of being easily pronounceable, which makes me much more likely to accept it as a good translation. (I worry, though, that when I differentiate between my interlocutors in this way, I’m essentializing them in just the way which I find objectionable when people assume I’ll prefer “Ewa.”)
There’s one more reason for my reluctance to voice my preference, one which sheds a new, complicated light on everything I’ve said so far.
The truth is: I’m ashamed of what preferring “Eve” reveals about me. At the core of my preference lies an embarrassingly simple desire: to belong. And to belong not just anywhere, but into the class of privilege. The thing is — I’m already privileged with a multitude of attributes, from white skin down to an American accent. Only my name — the last shred of my Polish identity — distinguishes me from the luckiest of the lucky, the blandest of the bland. I have exactly one toe out of the stiflingly narrow bounds of privilege. And my instinct isn’t to try to expand the bounds — it’s to try to fit that toe in. My instinct is to erase the years I spent in Poland, and to brandish the years I spent here.
I don’t know what to do about this, except to own my ambivalence.
Embarrassedly, apologetically, ambivalently — I still prefer “Eve.”