Jennifer Croft’s 2017 translation of Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s book Flights, originally published in 2007, received the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Awards’ inaugural honor for translated literature last year. The novel, which is told in 116 episodic fragments that critics often liken to a “cabinet of curiosities,” is a rumination on many subjects, including Wikipedia, mobility and the human body. Croft ’13 PhD, who studied comparative literature at Northwestern, says that she felt a deep kinship to Tokarczuk and the novel’s themes and began the work of translating after meeting Tokarczuk in Krakow. In addition to translating Tokarczuk’s newest novel, The Books of Jacob, Croft will publish her own debut memoir, Homesick, in September. Croft is currently a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library, where she is also translating A Perfect Cemetery, a collection of short stories by Argentine author Federico Falco, and working on an original novel titled Fidelity.
Croft shares her path to translation, her thoughts on invisibility and her love for Buenos Aires in the Q&A below.
How did you start working as a translator?
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Tulsa, I double majored in English and Russian, and I minored in creative writing. As I was preparing to graduate, I tried to think about how I could combine those three interests, and I found out that the University of Iowa had a master of fine arts in literary translation, so I decided to try that and I ended up really liking it.
I thought of translation as an apprenticeship in writing, so I would find contemporary women writers whose work I admired and try my hand at making it work in English. I started with Russian and then quickly moved into Polish. I got a Fulbright to go to Warsaw to do translation — and the rest is kind of history.
What made translation appealing to you? Had you done translation work as an undergraduate, or were you venturing out into new waters when you went to Iowa?
I was mostly venturing into new waters. I had done a little translation — there was a Russian poet at Tulsa named Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and I was really interested in his work. My Russian professor at the University of Tulsa arranged a prose translation that I did, but I was really thinking of it as a way to expand my own writing and to travel, which is something I had always wanted to do, be it literally as it ended up being, or by getting to know the works of another country.
It’s interesting that the idea of mobility was important to you then. In some respects, it must feel like coming full circle to work on a book like Flights, which is so deeply concerned with movement and travel.
Yeah. I had found Olga Tokarczuk when I was still at the University of Iowa reading contemporary Polish women writers, and I really loved her style, which was both lyrical and accessible. I was already working on her writing when Flights came out, and there was another translator of her work (Antonia Lloyd-Jones) with whom I became friends. And we just agreed that Flights was perfect for me to do — it really just spoke to my interests and preoccupations and experience.
What drew you to Northwestern? What were you exploring while you were a graduate student?
I went to Northwestern because I had heard Clare Cavanagh [Frances Hooper Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern] give a talk at the University of Iowa about translation, and she was really inspiring. She had done a beautiful translation of a poem by the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, and [Cavanagh] had such interesting things to say about her process, and I really wanted to work with her.
With time, I became very interested in some of the other areas of expertise of the comparative literary studies program, like critical theory. And I took some German and French, and I ended up going on the Paris program for critical theory with Samuel Weber [the Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities at Northwestern and co-director of its Paris Program in Critical Theory], which was a wonderful experience. I actually had nothing but great experiences with my professors in comparative literature, and I really pursued something comparative for my dissertation, which was about duels in 20th century literature in basically all of the Western world. So, I did some Russian stuff and some German stuff and some French stuff and some Argentine stuff and Polish. It was a fun dissertation to write, and it got me to Argentina to do some research.
How did you wind up focusing on Argentine Spanish?
One of the people I ended up focusing my dissertation on was a Polish writer named Witold Gombrowicz. He wrote his first two books in Warsaw, but in 1939 he took a ship to Buenos Aires. Shortly after — I mean just days after he arrived — World War II broke out. So he ended up staying in Argentina for 23 years, and he wrote his best novel, in my opinion, in Argentina. He was gay, and he was able to explore his sexuality in Buenos Aires in a way that he would have never been able to in Poland or the Soviet Union. It just sounded, from everything that he wrote, like a very interesting and open place compared to Poland. I wanted to do research on him specifically, but I was curious if I would agree with what he said and if it was still that way. I ended up really falling in love with the city of Buenos Aires and quickly making a lot of friends, and I also just felt very accepted there, very able to experiment creatively.
What do you think is the role and responsibility of a translator?
When I started out, I had the idea that the right way to translate would be word-for-word fidelity. But the structures of languages are different, and there’s no such thing as word-for-word translation, because it would just make no sense. Some words in Polish are three words in English and vice versa. So, I want to flag the fact that I am intervening in the text. Many translators feel this way, too, but a lot of critics think that the highest compliment they can pay to a translator is to say, “This doesn’t feel like a translation,” and I actually feel like my role is sizable enough that I need to acknowledge that I’m there. I take a lot of liberties in order to make the text sound, overall, as I understand the text to sound in the original, whether it’s in Polish or Spanish or Ukrainian.
I also do things that preserve the original language’s structure. So, for example, the word order in Polish is really different from how it is in English, and sometimes I like to keep the word order a little bit strange, so that if the reader is happily going along, they might suddenly come upon a part that’s a little bit foreign to them and that’s wonderful. I want them to remember that they are reading Olga Tokarczuk mediated by Jennifer Croft.
It seems that the work of translators is often invisible. Does that lack of visibility bother you?
It's complicated. Because, on the one hand, just from a practical standpoint it totally makes sense that when magazines mention Flights, for example, they just have one line they dedicate and they say by Olga Tokarczuk — without including my name. And that doesn’t really bother me because of course it’s her work. In more nuanced conversation, I would go back to what I was just telling you about the importance about just being mindful that it’s not only her work in the sense that sometimes people might not like something that they read and I want to take responsibility for that. But I think I want translators to visible as possible.
How has the Man Booker changed things?
It has definitely changed my trajectory in many ways. The prize has allowed me to meet a lot of new people because as soon as we won I started doing interviews and speaking engagements. I hadn't done much of that public outreach work before, and I've continued to do that since I've been in New York. It's been really rewarding to interact with readers and scholars and writers and translators and editors.
What’s on the horizon for you?
So, I'm currently translating Olga's new book, The Books of Jacob, just finishing up the final edits of my memoir, Homesick, which is coming out with Unnamed Press in September. It’s about how I came to translation, and that's part of my effort, in a way, to bring attention to the act of translation, the craft of translation and the art of translation. I’m also starting a new novel of my own, which is called Fidelity, and I’m doing some translations in Spanish, a set of short stories by Federico Falco called A Perfect Cemetery. As usual, I like to multitask.
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