“Everything is Translatable”: An Interview With Jennifer Croft

by André Forget

André Forget is editor-in-chief of The Puritan.

Jennifer Croft is a 2018–’19 Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library. She is also the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell, and National Endowment for the Arts grants and fellowships, as well as the inaugural Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation and a Tin House Scholarship for her novel Homesick, originally written in Spanish. In 2018, her translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights won the Man Booker International Prize.

She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, n+1, BOMB, VICE, Guernica, Electric Literature, Lit Hub, The New Republic, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere.

This interview took place over email in August, 2018.

AF: Translation exists in a strange ontological category: a translated book is a work of literature in its own right (a collection of sentences the translator has composed in a particular way to deliver an artistic meaning and effect), but its identity relies on its relationship to another work of literature that consists of completely different sentences composed according to different rules and conventions. This is an idea so simple as to be banal, and yet it has serious implications for how we think of the world—perhaps especially for those of us who are monolingual. What are the limits of translation, and to what extent does a translation present a potentially dangerous illusion, one that offers readers the naïve belief that they have understood a text from a culture that is profoundly different from their own?

JC: To be honest I think the only danger is when publishers omit the translator’s name from the work. A translation is a co-creation, and of course the reader needs to know that, be as mindful of that as possible. (For instance, I think it’s great when the translator provides an introduction to the work, making it perfectly clear the extent to which they are shaping the reader’s experience.) Otherwise—and this comes up in a later question about the limits of languages, too—I don’t agree with the scholars who currently view translation as a pernicious act. I feel it’s just the age-old fear of infidelity repackaged as wariness of globalization. No one can learn all the languages in the world. There is no reason to restrict reading to original-language texts. And I do think it is extremely important to fight against English-language source texts being the only ones to reach readers (viewers, listeners, etc.) in other places. That does lead to a homogenization of culture that I would hate to see stick.

AF: Flights, your translation of Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Bieguni, won a number of awards, including the Man Booker. Can you tell us a little about why you chose to translate that novel in particular? Did you anticipate it receiving this kind of international attention?

JC: I was always committed to translating contemporary women writers. This was partly an ethical stance, and partly just what I felt I could do best, what resonated with me most. When I was working on my MFA at the University of Iowa, I switched from Russian writers to Polish and began to research the most exciting female voices available in publication at the time, particularly as I geared up to do a Fulbright year in Warsaw after my graduation. There were so many authors I found I admired, but none more than Olga Tokarczuk. A couple of years later, when Bieguni came out, it felt almost too good to be true. Its structure was light and dynamic, its concerns right up my alley. I started working on it right away, but it took a long time—ten years—to get the book out in English. I expected certain readers to fall in love with it as I had, but I must admit I’m totally blown away by its reception in the United States now, in particular. It is an unusual novel, to say the least. Then again, Olga has always had such a knack for combining ambition with accessibility in her work (one of the many reasons I love her!).

AF: I am interested in the role translation plays in maintaining the global status of different national literatures. For example, I have a sense that there is such a thing as “Italian literature” because I can walk into a bookstore and find dozens of books translated from Italian, and yet I find it exceedingly difficult to find more than a handful of authors who have been translated from, say, Turkish—which arguably has just as vibrant a literary tradition. From your perspective as a translator, what practical factors drive which languages get translated and which don’t?

In many ways the translated literatures that are canonized already, such as Italian, are harder to keep translating since Anglophone readers have set expectations of what they will encounter in their reading

JC: This is a great question that gets at something very disturbing about art: a lot of it happens by sheer accident. A lot of it happens in the way I just described above: one person happens to be interested in a thing, and it happens to work out for them to pursue that thing, open paths for it, etc. In addition, of course, to national and cultural histories, overlaps between languages, traditions. In many ways the translated literatures that are canonized already, such as Italian, are harder to keep translating since Anglophone readers have set expectations of what they will encounter in their reading, and anything that doesn’t conform to those expectations is very difficult to publish.

AF: Flights is translated from Polish, a language few readers outside of Poland or the diaspora are likely to know. In cases such as these, can the translation in a sense become more authoritative than the original text, insofar as it is able to reach a wider audience? What are the practical implications of this?

JC: This hasn’t happened to me yet, but I know, for instance, that both Deborah Smith and Jessica Cohen were approached by translators wanting to work from their English translations of Han Kang and David Grossman, respectively, after they won the Man Booker International Prize. I find this extremely problematic since it assumes we’re all just passing down key ideas when we translate. I think of my translation work as an intimate co-production between myself and the author that results in something unique and necessarily inimitable. No one should ever use my translation to form another translation. It can’t work—at least not the way I translate.

AF: You have published work in English and Spanish, and you have translated from Polish as well; how did you come to these languages, and are there other languages you work in?

JC: I taught myself Russian when I was a child because I was homeschooled and interested in travel. Gradually I started studying more languages: French as an undergraduate, then Italian and German, but my main focus remained the Slavic languages for a long time, well into my PhD program at Northwestern, where I went to study with the brilliant translator Clare Cavanagh, whose renditions of [Wisława] Szymborska in English were what led me to do a PhD in the first place. I was also very interested in Ukrainian and have translated Natalka Sniadanko, a writer I deeply admire, who herself translates from German and Polish. (My Ukrainian pursuits have stalled for the time being, but only out of a shortage of time. I hope I can rectify that in the not-too-distant future.)

So I stuck with Slavic until I discovered Buenos Aires. I first traveled there in 2007 (the year Bieguni was published in Polish!) to investigate some Polish connections, especially Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish writer who lived in Buenos Aires for twenty-three years. But I fell head over heels in love with the city and resolved to learn the language and ended up living there for seven years myself. I think I’m taking a break right now, living in the United States for some time, but I miss Buenos Aires very much all the time, so I hope I can return very soon.

I love language and languages and want to keep learning more, but from now on I will likely just do so for fun, since they are difficult to maintain at the level of fluency required for translation, and time is (as I mentioned) always limited.

AF: In addition to being a translator, you are also a prolific essayist and fiction writer, and indeed your novel Homesick started in Spanish and exists in its online form as a bilingual novel. Have you cultivated separate literary voices in the different languages you write in?

JC: I’m not sure I can separate myself from my translations—as in, that sounds like a contradiction in terms to me. I’ve written fiction since I was little, and I’ve always thought of translation as a form of prolonged apprenticeship; from each author I’ve translated I’ve learned something (or many things) about the craft of writing, and usually about the world, as well. But it’s always my writing. And I’ve had the great fortune of being able to choose the writers I work with based on affinity, so my writing will be in harmony with theirs even when it seems totally different on the surface.

I’ve enjoyed expanding Homesick online because I like the idea of embracing the fluidity of literature; now Homesick is being published as a memoir next fall, with a meditation on translation, which I’m extremely excited about.

AF: In your experience, how does the form of a language shape what can be expressed—are there ideas, for example, that you feel can be more naturally expressed in Polish rather than English, and vice versa? Does this shape how and what you choose to write in each language?

Everything is translatable. Which means that everything can be expressed in every language.

JC: Although many people do feel this way, I never have. I love Spanish, but I think that has more to do with feeling at home in Buenos Aires than anything else. My opinion is that everything is translatable. Which means that everything can be expressed in every language.

AF: In a piece in the Chicago Tribune, you say that your forthcoming novel, Serpientes y escaleras grew out of a series of photographs you took while a Fulbright Scholar in Poland. Is photography, for you, also a kind of translation?

JC: You know, I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about photography. In that novel photography and translation turn out to be somewhat opposed to each other, with photography as a kind of desperate attempt to stop time, to seize scenes and prevent them from changing, and in particular to keep people from going away. Whereas translation, in the novel, is more open, more collaborative and better for the mental health of the characters. But that’s a fictional take on photography, and I’m still exploring my real-life relationship to my camera. It is of course a form of translation. I just don’t quite understand it yet.


André Forget is editor-in-chief of The Puritan.