Translations and what they can do: an interview with Jennifer Croft
Jennifer Croft is among the world’s most influential translators. She won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize with Olga Tokarczuk; her translation would be key to Tokarczuk winning the Nobel Prize in Literature just one year later. Working with Polish, Ukrainian, and Argentinian Spanish, her work has been published in world’s leading literary magazines, from The New York Times to The Paris Review. Her debut novel, Homesick, won the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. She spoke with our editor, James Appleby.
Your new novel, Homesick, has at its heart two sisters: Zoe and Amy. What’s the importance of foreign languages to these characters, and by extension, to you?
One of the things that sets them apart is that Zoe really wants to live life. She’s not interested in sublimating anything, so she’s not interested in symbols. She’s not even interested in the secret languages that Amy tries to create for them. She quickly gives up the study of Ukrainian because it becomes so dead on the page – the girls are living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where there weren’t many Ukrainians at the time.
Amy is a very different personality: much more contained, much more comfortable being by herself and imagining things. And for her, figuring out that there are real foreign languages to study – instead of creating her own secret languages – it’s a real eye-opener. She begins to study Russian with great dedication, then moves around Europe and South America. Languages become very important to Amy and, ultimately, of much less significant to Zoe.
It’s interesting to read about the influence of Slavic syntax on your own style. Why did you choose to write in an English that reads, at times, like it could have been translated from another language?
I’m such a supporter of translations and what they can do – what they are in themselves, but also how they can reinvigorate a language and a literary tradition. And I was writing about the place where I grew up, which felt… not that exciting to me when I first conceived of this book. One way to reinvigorate it for myself was to imagine that place from the perspective of someone who had never experienced anything like it.
I was translating from Polish at the time I was writing Homesick, and I think, yes, Slavic languages helped me to structure how Amy expresses herself. Just playing a little with the word order. I didn’t want it to be so defamiliarising that people would put the book down – that’s not what I wanted at all. I wanted it to be appealing and inviting, but just a little – odd. So you’d see that Amy was set apart from the people who surround her.
I know that some translators aim for a text that sounds as if it were written originally in English, but at Interpret some of my favourite translations are those that sound so distinct that they could never have been written in their native language.
Ann Goldstein, who most famously translated the Elena Ferrante quartet, has a great way of keeping things a little bit in Italian. It sounds… yeah, just really fresh. Unusual. You pay attention. It’s kind of like a little gentle slap in the face when you read her prose. You know, in the best possible way.
Whether I translate that way myself depends on whom I’m translating and what piece. I sometimes choose to make it… not sound as though it were originally written in English, but to operate as its own English-language text. Other times, I want it to remain connected to the original. I want it to feel a little bit stranger.
One thing I noticed in Bulgaria was the centrality of translation in the literary scene. Is this something you’d like to see more of in the English-speaking world, for example, in your campaign to print the names of translators on book covers?
Yes, definitely. So, I translate from Polish. Poland’s not such a small country – it’s forty million people – but it’s a relatively unknown literary tradition in the rest of the world. And so translators are really important. There aren’t that many of us, and Polish authors really rely on English-language translators to give them access to the world and to literary prizes. That’s just not the case in the English-speaking world, because, you know, we produce massive amounts of our literature, and we weren’t as interested in literature from elsewhere. It was uncomfortable, or intimidating, or whatever.
I think that’s no longer the case among the English-language readers that I know. Translators are receiving the recognition that we deserve. I think it’s so important to highlight the identity of the translator – it’s so much more honest. It’s going to result in more opportunities for translators whose native language is not English, translators of colour, and translators from all different backgrounds. I think that’s essential in the progression of how we understand world literature.
I want to come to your translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. It’s a novel of such breadth and invention, and, when I was reading it, I couldn’t help but imagine how challenging it must be to translate. Behind the scenes, which were the most difficult aspects?
The most challenging aspects were definitely the sections of historical fiction. So I started translating it in 2008 in Berlin, and then finished it, section by section, jumping around a lot, all over the world. And that’s sort of how Olga wrote it too. It shouldn’t be seamless: it should be disjointed. So, yeah, I had the hardest time with the parts that were set in the eighteenth century – which is funny because the next book of hers that I translated, The Books of Jacob, is entirely set in the eighteenth century, and it’s a thousand pages long.
You’ve spoken of your work with Tokarczuk as a sort of apprenticeship. Could you tell me about the techniques that you took from her work, and maybe also those you left behind?
That’s a good question – I never thought about the ones I left behind. I mentioned that I didn’t want my slightly strange syntax in Homesick to be alienating. I wanted it to be inviting – and I think that’s something that I learnt from translating Olga’s work. Her writing is so accessible, while also being very ambitious and very… different. Every project she undertakes is quite different from the previous one. That’s something that I admire so much – she’s always aiming for something out of view. That’s certainly not the case for so many authors.
Despite that, she’s still achieved a kind of – forgive the commercial term – brand identity. Because she has this beautiful… kind of, lyrical… as I say, accessible style. And she works with all these different genres. So, obviously, Homesick is a chronological sequence. It’s written in short vignettes that I imagine as polaroid snapshots, because the main character is an obsessive photographer. And there are, of course, these short vignettes in Flights. I don’t know if I took that from there… I think I’ve always been interested in kind of… shorter forms, like prose poetry and things like that.
I think, basically, it’s Olga’s excitement about trying something new – something outside of the mainstream. I mean, Flights, as you’ve no doubt read, took ten years to find a commercial publisher, because it’s such a strange form. It’s what she calls a ‘constellation novel’, where it’s left to the reader to connect the dots between pieces. And so, in my own writing, rather than a continuous narrative I wanted these snapshots. But again, the ordering is very different and I hope there’s a different kind of momentum.
Would you tell me a little more about why you felt that it took so long for Flights to find a publisher?
The majority of US editors are monolingual and are just not… they haven’t read very much internationally. But, again, this is changing. Recently I’ve found that editors who are approximately forty or younger are so excited about translations and translators. On the other hand, when I was trying to have Flights published, I just found a lot of resistance to translation in general. If they were going to publish a translation, it had to be something that – and this is particularly true of US culture – took off in the first sentence and didn’t release a reader until the last. One of the problems that I almost always have with pitching translations is that they ‘move too slowly’ for the American reader.
And if I can sneak in one more question, what can you tell me about your latest in project in Amadou?
I ended up writing a novel about a group of translators who gather together in the primeval forest on the border between Poland and Belarus to translate the magnum opus of an author. But when they arrive, the author – who they’ve long revered – the author disappears. She sends them the book to translate, but she also tells them not to even open the file. And in the meantime, the Polish government is destroying the forest. So there. That’s what it’s about.
You can follow Jennifer Croft on Twitter @jenniferlcroft, on Instagram @jenniferlcroft, or at her website of www.jenniferlcroft.com
Homesick is published in Edinburgh by Charco Press.
Photo credits: Nora Pushkin