Even the Simplest Words Have Secrets: An Interview With Jennifer Croft

By Rhian Sasseen August 31, 2020

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. 

INTERVIEWER

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?

CROFT

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.

INTERVIEWER

How did you first come across Olga’s work?

CROFT

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.

INTERVIEWER

When you are translating, do you find that it affects your writing in any way? Or does your writing affect your translation?

CROFT

I have always thought of translation as a kind of apprenticeship under writers that I really admire. Each writer I’ve translated has taught me different things. And that doesn’t depend on the language, it’s just about their personality and their vision and their style. Everyone I’ve translated has somehow influenced my work, whether more formally or through ideas.

I think I’ve gotten a lot of ideas from translating Olga’s work. As I translate, I of course am also thinking, Oh, how would I have done this differently had I been writing it? And that sort of leads to side projects of my own. It’s great to be able to combine them. I never have anything like writer’s block, because if I get stuck in something I’m working on, then I just turn to translation.

INTERVIEWER

In Homesick, you have a really great line: “Even the simplest words have secrets.” Do you find that when you’re translating you’re working to translate those secrets? Or do you think there’s still this sense of mystery inherent in whatever language you’re translating from?

CROFT

I think you phrased the question really interestingly. There is inevitably a mystery in every word in every language, and that kind of frees me up to translate the mystery as I understand it in my own mysterious way. I never translate word for word. But sometimes I just kind of get swept up in the prose, especially with someone I’ve been working with for longer, and I really feel like I get them and I know what their project is. Then I could just kind of reimagine a sentence, thinking that I know how that fits into the rest of the book.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find that you develop a close relationship with the writers you’re translating?

CROFT

I have always had a really good relationship with each writer I’ve translated. I remember in college when I was first starting to translate I got really nervous about contacting the authors, because what if they turned out to be assholes? But I have never had that happen, fortunately. People want different levels of involvement in the translation process. Some people want to actually read everything. Olga for example, does not, because she just doesn’t have time. She finishes one book and the next day she’s on to the next one. But she’s very supportive of her translators. Also, she has like thirty different translators, so she can’t.

INTERVIEWER

Are you all in communication? Have you met many of your fellow Tokarczuk translators?

CROFT

I met a number of them—I would say a dozen of her translators—five or six years ago. There was a translation festival in the northern part of Poland with a panel dedicated to Olga and her translators. She has this entourage of translators, some of whom have been with her for twenty years. And it’s really powerful to be in their company. We’re so supportive of each other and we have a little Facebook group and we exchange emails about specific books that we’re translating, if there are any little tricks that we need to be aware of. It’s a really interesting, weird, nice community to be a part of.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have an image in mind that you work toward when you’re translating?

CROFT

Each translator does it differently. I read the entire work before I begin to translate it, which a lot of people actually don’t. Some translators feel like it’s really important to preserve the sense of suspense that a reader will have. So, they do their rough draft of the translation without having read it. That would pose a challenge to my philosophy of immersing myself in the whole of the work along with some other knowledge of the writer, whether that’s personal knowledge from having interacted with them in real life or knowledge of their other books or anything else that is informing my overall vision. I just pretend like I’m swimming in the work.

And I am often the person who also sells those books, acting as a kind of agent for the authors I’m translating. That’s an aspect of translation that I think most people who are not translators are not aware of. A lot of my authors don’t have agents or didn’t have agents until I found them an agent because I got sick of doing all of the agent work unpaid. Like Olga for instance—I had to shop around Flights for a decade. And I was doing all kinds of things during that time, like trying to publish excerpts and sending out pitches to everyone I could possibly track down and getting an NEA grant, which was extremely helpful.

INTERVIEWER

It’s interesting that you’re saying that you’re shopping writers around. Are agents more of an anglophone publishing phenomenon, and are there other surprising differences between publishing in the U.S. and elsewhere?

 CROFT

In my experience, they barely exist in other publishing industries. And my sense is that that is changing, and it is going the way of all things—everything is becoming increasingly American and commercial. I love my agent and this is not anything about agents being bad. But there is a traditional way of doing things in the places that I’m familiar with. Editing is also really different. Olga’s most recent novel, The Books of Jacob, which I finished translating in January, is 1,127 pages long, historical fiction, very complicated. It deals with a lot of different cultures and languages. And she sent me her final draft before it went through any kind of edits. There are only like four words that are different between her draft and the final published version, which is astonishing coming from an American perspective. That’s impossible, obviously, in our context. But it seems like things are a bit more direct in Poland and a bit simpler overall.

That kind of has its advantages, too. Because it keeps writing a little bit fresher, a little bit less standardized. And that’s something I really like. In my experience, it’s harder to find a kind of formulaic literary novel in Argentina or in Poland, everything is a little bit wilder and has more personality.

INTERVIEWER

This interview is ostensibly about women in translation, and so I was curious, do you find that interests are shifting? Is the anglophone world slowly becoming more interested in women writers from around the world, in your experience?

CROFT

In my experience, it’s shifted enormously. When I started my M.F.A. in 2001 and I told people back in my home state of Oklahoma what I was doing, for instance, I literally had to explain to them what translation was. And these were educated people. I think in the rest of the world, translation is a part of daily life. Here, we’re just not as aware of it because English has such a hegemonic role in commerce and in culture and in everything. I have definitely found that people are much more open and aware, thanks to the efforts of so many translators and so many wonderful editors, people like Chad Post, who started Open Letter specifically to publish only translations. There are a lot of great translation-focused presses in the U.S. now, the Center for the Art of Translation, Transit, Deep Vellum, all kinds of great places, alongside Archipelago and New Directions, which, of course, have always prioritized translations. These new independent presses are also decentralizing publishing from New York City, and spreading everything around the country, which is a significant aspect of the shift as well. So yeah, it’s an extremely hopeful time to be promoting international literature.

INTERVIEWER

I’m so happy to hear that. We had an event a couple weeks ago for our new issue, and our poetry editor essentially echoed the same thing, that he’s found that in the past ten years or so it seems like there’s this explosion of interest in translation.

CROFT

I think it speaks really well of people’s more general desire to interact with the world, which would be a really good thing to be considering right about now.

INTERVIEWER

Definitely. I don’t know if you can talk a little bit about any of the books that you’ve just finished translating, but I know that you’ve recently finished translating a couple of Argentine writers.

CROFT

Yeah. This is another great example of a new, small, independent press that’s dedicated specifically to translation. Charco Press, which is out of Edinburgh, Scotland, and only does Latin American work, has in the past couple of years just come out so strong and published such amazing books. They’ve really kind of overtaken the UK translation market in some ways. So, I just did my first book with them, A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco, who is just an absolutely meticulous and sensitive writer. I was so excited to work on this. And this was another instance of me shopping the book around, translating some of the stories. I translated the whole thing before I had a contract, which I had never done before.

I was just absolutely certain that this was going to find a good home. And eventually it did. They’re kind of slower, meditative stories that are also very funny, but they have this cumulative effect of completely devastating the reader, or at least they devastated me. I cried at the end of the three longer stories (which I never do when I’m reading), but in a really good way. It felt really cathartic and lovely. So, I can’t wait for that book to come out in April.

My current project is called The Woman from Uruguay by Pedro Mairal, which is for Bloomsbury U.S. and UK. And that is more of a sexy page-turner with some of the traditional Argentine melancholy and obsession people might recognize from tango. The book is about a man having a little bit of a midlife crisis and going to Uruguay for the day because of this extremely complicated Argentine system of exchange. A few years ago, there emerged all these different markets for the dollar. There’s the black market for the dollar, and then there’s the blue dollar, which is another unofficial dollar. There’s also the official dollar, for which your pesos are worth half as much as they would be on the black market. So you basically have to go to Uruguay in order to get dollars out of the bank. And this is awful if you’re living there, but fantastic if you’re writing a novel, because it adds all of these great constraints that make everything really suspenseful and give a whole reason for a plot. So, that is that book, which will be coming out next year.

I’m also working on a book-length essay about postcards and a novel called Amadou that tells the story of eight translators who gather with their author in a primeval forest on the border between Poland and Belarus only to have their author immediately vanish, leaving them alone to deal with her big climate change novel and a thousand other terrifying problems. And I just handed in my Buenos Aires novel, Fidelity, which also has to do with an abandoned translator and the revenge she eventually gets through her translation.

INTERVIEWER

And finally, one question from our audience: How does someone inspired by your work begin a career as a translator? What advice do you have to give?

CROFT

For me, the most important thing was first to go to the country. Right this second that may not be possible. But hopefully the vaccine will be here soon … I found that when I moved to Poland, there were so many things that were part of language, but also not part of language. The daily rhythms of life that you really can’t get in any other way. I lived in Argentina for seven years and I don’t really translate from any other kind of Spanish. I think that’s the most important thing. If it’s not your native language, then you’ll be in need of informants that you can talk things over with. And you’ll need contacts who can help you as you move along in your career and make you aware of certain grant opportunities. I think finding funding is maybe then the next hardest part of the translation career. I have not been able to support myself exclusively through translation. It tends not to pay that well. The PEN/Heim Grant is a really wonderful way to get started. It’s very competitive, but it’s a really good idea, I think, to prepare the application. Because it also sort of forces you to articulate even just to yourself why you’re doing this project. Why it’s important. Why people are going to care about it. And that will serve you as you are trying to approach editors, et cetera. My main advice is just to not try to do anything by yourself. It’s impossible to work in a vacuum. Try to be in the world of the original, and then also try to garner support for the book from the earliest possible stage in the target language and culture.

Rhian Sasseen is the engagement editor at The Paris Review


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