In honor of Women in Translation Month, Jennifer Croft discusses why translation is like swimming, how every language holds its own mystery, and what it was like to translate Olga Tokarczuk.
I first encountered the work of writer and translator Jennifer Croft through her translation of the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights, which would go on to win the 2018 Man Booker International Prize (Tokarczuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature that same year). The book was like nothing I had read before, a fragmentary novel that bridged history, fiction, and essay in writing that was at once wry, meditative, and somehow elusive. I had to know more, both about the writer and about the translator who had introduced her work to the English-speaking world.
Croft grew up monolingual in Oklahoma, a place that, she notes, “didn’t really feel my own.” Studying Russian—and later Spanish, Polish, Ukrainian, and other languages—brought her to the University of Iowa’s M.F.A. program in translation and, later, led her to win a Fulbright and grants and fellowships from PEN, the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She recently finished translating Tokarczuk’s epic The Books of Jacob, as well as several works by Argentine writers. Croft is also a writer; she has published the autobiographical Spanish-language novel Serpientes y escaleras and the memoir Homesick in English. In Homesick, one can see how the slippage between languages produces creative ferment: “Every word is untranslatable,” she writes, “if what translation is is making something new that stays the same.”
This interview originally took place as an Instagram Live conversation held on the Paris Review Instagram in honor of Women in Translation Month.
You’ve translated numerous works across languages and genres. You’re also a writer of fiction and memoir. Could you tell us a little bit about your journey into translation?
I grew up totally monolingual in Oklahoma, as I kind of describe in Homesick. I got the idea that learning languages might open doors for me. So, I started with Russian, studying intensively on my own for quite a while. Then I ended up majoring in English and Russian and minoring in creative writing in college. As I was approaching graduation, it occurred to me that the only real logical way of combining my areas of expertise might be translation.
I applied to the University of Iowa’s fantastic M.F.A. program in translation. It’s much better now than it was when I was in there, in fact. I just taught there last fall and the students were all geniuses. I had a really good experience there with Polish, so I ended up adding Polish to my languages, and then eventually phasing out Russian. I moved to Poland and that was what really opened up everything for me. I started translating Olga around the time that I first moved to Warsaw in 2003.
How did you first come across Olga’s work?
At the University of Iowa library I found a short story collection that she had published in 2001 called Playing Many Drums. Speaking of women in translation, in college I had been almost exclusively drawn to women writers. And I really thought that that was kind of my mission, to support women’s writing and really champion it. I don’t think that that’s not my mission now— although my tastes and interests have expanded, and my senses of gender and genre have shifted, as well. Back then, I was looking specifically for contemporary writing—I still only translate contemporary writing, though who knows, that may change in the future. When I came across Olga’s book, I immediately fell in love with it, as I have with all of the books that I have really wanted to translate, and I really wanted to work with her.
When you are translating, do you find that it affects your writing in any way? Or does your writing affect your translation? Read More