Jennifer Croft feeds the literary ecosystem


It’s common practice among many publishers to leave translators’ bylines off book covers—an act of erasure that reinforces the widely held belief that original texts are sacred and thus superior to any translation. Jennifer Croft, who is best known for her translations of Nobel Prize-winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s books, is challenging readers and critics to rethink this flawed paradigm.

“Our contemporary notion of authority depends upon the existence—still—of a single trustworthy individual. In literature, this figure is the author, the inimitable person who chooses and disposes words,” Croft writes in “Superlichen,” an essay published in Orion Magazine in 2023. “In this mystical-commercial understanding of literature, translators are necessarily suspect. They adulterate the truth, making it impossible to trust. When translators are truly necessary, they’re ideally neither seen nor heard. That way we can tell ourselves that the Original has remained mostly unscathed on its journey into English.”

But books thrive in translation. They reach new readership, and in some cases, the quality of the original text can even improve. Croft, who won the International Booker Prize in 2018 for her translation of Tokarczuk’s Flights, urges readers to consider translation to be co-creation, a labor of interdependent individuals who are building a completely new work of art.

“The translator is the one who writes every single word of the book that you end up reading,” Croft says, speaking from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on a late December morning—the kind of gray day that’s well suited to a discussion about her puckish, unnerving debut novel. “The writer is obviously the person who’s behind everything, which in a way, of course, is true. But I feel like people aren’t fully grasping the essentially, fundamentally collaborative nature, that [a translated work] is a co-authored book. So I really wanted to show that playing out in an exaggerated, humorous way.”

“What is a faithful translation? What is your duty to a text and a person and a vision and also a readership?”

The Extinction of Irena Rey, which earned Croft a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2022, is the story of eight translators who are initially introduced not by name but by their languages of translation (English, Spanish, Serbian, etc.). It’s 2017, and they have convened at the idyllic home of (fictional) world-renowned Polish author Irena Rey. Her house resides at the edge of the Bialowieza Forest, a primeval wood spanning the border of Poland and Belarus. Over the course of the next several weeks, they will translate her presumed magnum opus, Grey Eminence.

Translators aren’t always in contact with an author while translating, but Irena prefers to be highly involved in the process. The translators are forbidden from translating other authors—except two Polish poets widely considered untranslatable—and they must follow Irena’s many house rules, which include no drinking, no eating meat and so on. It is full isolation, full adoration, full commitment to Irena’s genius. But suddenly, Irena vanishes, and the translators are left reeling.

Having lost their moral center, the translators move en masse from room to room, from forest to pub and back to Irena’s house, wondering if Irena’s dead and completely freaking out. It’s such an ominous, claustrophobic setup that the reader would be forgiven for not realizing at first just how funny it all is. There’s a lot of shrieking and kissing and running around with a frantic narrative pace that resembles an old episode of “Scooby-Doo.”

During the gang’s search for clues, they come across some postcards, which only serve to further confuse them. “Postcards are like translation,” Croft says. “There’s the inherent hybrid and potential for clashes between the one side that has the picture and the other side that has the message.” There’s also the potentially troubling political significance of the type of imagery that is selected to represent a place, which can be stereotypical or limiting, “and then it may end up forcing the place to become more like the postcard.”

Croft explains that when postcards were first introduced in the 1860s, they were a revolutionary innovation that allowed more people to send mail, which previously had been a luxury exclusive to the upper classes. “[But the elite] were horrified by the idea that the hired help would be able to read their words,” she says. “I love looking at old postcards, because sometimes you can sense there’s a code happening or a private reference that you just cannot possibly understand.”

The implications of obscured, divided or layered interpretations run rampant in Croft’s novel, which opens with a preface titled “Warning: A Note from the Translator.” We learn that the book is a work of autofiction by Spanish (whose real name is Emi), subsequently translated by English (real name Alexis). Alexis’ translator’s note is dismissive, even derisive, and her footnotes are deliciously scathing. As a translator, she’s doing the unthinkable: sharing her true feelings about the book and even illuminating choices made in the translation process. (For example, when Emi refers to her own “pubis,” Alexis adds the footnote, “Here I have preserved her ridiculous word.”) Their feud renders the story’s perspective so canted, so untrustworthy, that we have no idea which version of events to believe.

“What we do enriches the cultural ecosystem, the linguistic ecosystem. The original text doesn’t even really matter that much.”

Even without quarreling co-authors, autofiction as a genre is a thorny bramble between memoir and fiction, memory and embellishment. The genre is particularly popular with French- and Spanish-language readers. Croft’s first book, Homesick, is a work of autofiction that she wrote in Argentine Spanish while living in Argentina, and it was only sold to an English-language publisher under the condition that it be published as a memoir, presumably because American readers aren’t as comfortable with the gray areas between truth and fiction.

“[Homesick] was kind of inspired by my childhood but [is] definitely not a factual account,” Croft says. “I think that frustration of always talking about what is true and what is not probably fed into the writing of [Irena Rey]. I think also I may have rebelled and made it even more outlandish. Obviously I’ve never fought a duel in a forest.”

The duel is only one of the many ludicrous outcomes of the translators’ search for Irena. It’s also, importantly, between two women: Emi and Alexis. “I actually wrote my PhD dissertation about duels in 20th-century fiction. I was so frustrated that I couldn’t find a single example of a women’s duel, or even a duel between a man and a woman,” Croft says. “A classic dueling premise is to fight over an ethical question. In this case, English and Spanish are fighting—well, at least Spanish believes that they’re fighting over the nature of truth, essentially. What is a faithful translation? What is your duty to a text and a person and a vision and also a readership? How do you truthfully or faithfully convey a sacred message to the world?”

The duel occurs in the Bialowieza Forest, which serves as a classic source of menace and myth. Forests exist in fiction to haunt us, and this one feeds off a history of violence, with corpses from World War II providing nutrients for a fungal network that subsequently feeds the trees and understory, which then feed the deer that feed the Polish villagers, and so on. In fact, the original title for the novel was Amadou, the name of a fungus that parasitically infects trees, serving as an essential decomposer in the forest, and which can also be used as both tinder and fabric.

“Obviously I’m an advocate for translation, and I love translators,” Croft says. “But I also wanted to think about the potentially darker side of translation in a lot of different ways, which goes hand-in-hand with thinking about the power of the translator.” However translation alters the original, or even betrays it, “what we do [as translators] enriches the cultural ecosystem, the linguistic ecosystem. The original text doesn’t even really matter that much. What matters is this potentially really lovely afterlife that [a work] can have, and all of the echoes and reverberations that it can have throughout that ecosystem.”

The concept of a literary afterlife opens us to seeing books as living, changeable works of art, in which language can die and be reborn in translation. Certainly by the end of The Extinction of Irena Rey, the structures that uphold notions like artistic celebrity and all-powerful genius have rotted through and collapsed, and from the remains, something new grows.

Read our starred review of The Extinction of Irena Rey.

Jennifer Croft author photo © Nathan Jeffers.

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