Interview / Translator

In Conversation with Novelist Jennifer Croft, Translator of Polish and Argentine Literature

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Jennifer Croft is an Oklahoma-born, LA-based translator of Argentine and Polish fiction, as well as a novelist in her own right and co-founder of The Buenos Aires Review, a bilingual repository of writing from the Americas.

Perhaps best known for winning the Man Booker International Prize alongside prolific Polish author Olga Tokarczuk back in 2018 for Flights, Croft has also translated A Perfect Cemetery (Charco Press, 2021) by Federico Falco, August (The Feminist Press, 2017) by Romina Paula, and The Woman from Uruguay (Bloomsbury, 2021) by Pedro Mairal. She’s also currently working on a novel called Amadou, because there are apparently no limits to her talents.

Here, we discuss creating a life for herself in Argentina, which translators she’d read without a second thought, and being on the other side of the translation equation with her book Homesick.


Lauren Cocking: What is translation to you, as a practise or as a concept?

Jennifer Croft: When I started out, I viewed it as a way of connecting with other people, advocating for writers I admired—especially contemporary women writers—and also as a way of doing an apprenticeship in writing under people who were extremely accomplished and brilliant.

I started out exclusively collaborating with women from Poland and that component of advocating for people has been extremely fulfilling. Really just being their voice in the English-speaking world, which—when you’re dealing with a so-called minor language like Polish—does present them with a whole new panoply of opportunities.

But my relationship with translation has been changing in the last few years. I do feel that I’ve learnt an enormous amount from the different writers that I’ve worked with and I am starting to feel like probably I will be focusing more on my own writing for a while. I did 20 years of mostly translation and I want to continue, of course, working with the writers I already work with, but I don’t think it’ll be the primary focus for me going forward.

LC: From reading about you—and also listening to you now—you seem to quite deeply immerse yourself in something and then hop to the next thing. Do you agree and, if so, what’s coming next, post-translation, post-writing?

JC: Yes, I have been thinking about that a lot and now we’re doing therapy, which I love.

I first immersed myself very deeply in Russian and then through a series of accidents, ended up doing Polish and immersed myself very intensively in Poland, essentially doing a Ph.D. in Polish literature. And there were other languages and other countries, but then I found Argentina and felt like, OK, I got it, I don’t need to do anything else anymore. In Buenos Aires, I created this beautiful life for myself from scratch.

But I thought it was gunna be difficult to launch my own writing career in English if I never returned to the US and I do feel that it’s helped me to be here. I also got married to a man who loves Los Angeles and is the editor of the L.A. Review of Books and would love not to have to leave Los Angeles. (Laughs.)

So now I’m torn between these two great loves and also thinking what could I do that would be more useful to the world than writing? There are so many things that one could do that would be more useful than writing and I’m just starting to think about [ways of taking] direct action in opposed to conjuring fictional worlds, although I think that that can be wonderfully productive for society as well.

LC: You mentioned that you started working mainly with women writers from Poland, although I notice you’ve mostly worked with male writers from Argentina. Has that happened by chance?

JC: Yeah, I think that’s such an interesting shift, and it happened very naturally. I spent my first 20 years in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I definitely felt that people did not respect me because of my gender. Obviously, I don’t want to make a sweeping generalisation but I felt talked down to most of the time.

Now I’ve managed to enter these other spaces where I don’t have to actively argue on behalf of women in the same way and I know that people feel really differently about gender roles in Argentina, but I felt very at ease there. I also felt that there was something very accessible to me about masculinity. I wrote my PhD dissertation on duels in 20th century literature, which is basically like an experiment in masculinity studies.

[I recently translated A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco], a queer writer and someone that I admire so much, and I feel like all of his characters are so vivid in my mind and I’m almost having conversations with them on a daily basis.

I’ve also translated The Woman from Uruguay by Pedro Mairal who is more traditional in his views on male-female relationships. It’s a classic male tale of a midlife crisis and a man trying to have an affair with a pretty girl so, on the surface, it doesn’t really seem like the sort of thing that I would choose, but there’s something so compelling about his narration.

I guess I’m just in an exploring space. It’s hard for me to imagine translating men from Central or Eastern Europe in the same way, but I’m sure an exception could be made.

LC: I read an interview in which you said you would want to leave Polish behind, but never Spanish. Why?

JC: It’s not that I want to leave Polish behind, it’s just that it’s happening and the only reason is that… I’m getting older, basically. When I was starting out, I was just doing so many things, but I think one thing that I really learnt in Argentina is that you have to commit to a life in order to have a full life, and that’s the reason why I switched to Spanish for writing my first book.

I grew up speaking only English—I have no family connection to Poland—and it’s really difficult for me to actually maintain the necessary immersion. But also, I’m a married lady now and kind of like being at home and don’t want to spend my whole life going back and forth. I just don’t think it’s possible for me to do justice to Polish literature in English, because I used to discover books to translate in bookstores in the country and I can’t do that anymore.

But it would break my heart to cut off Argentina, so it’s not emotionally possible. I can’t imagine doing that.

LC: How did winning the Man Booker International Prize change your career as a translator?

JC: Surprisingly, not very much. When I won, I’d already been working on A Perfect Cemetery. I just really, really loved and felt strongly about it, so I started translating before having a contract. Then I won the Booker and I thought, OK, great. I spent 10 years trying to convince editors to publish Flights and no one listened to me and now they’re all going to feel so silly that they’re definitely going to publish my next suggestion.

And then the exact same thing happened. Everyone said the same things about A Perfect Cemetery that they said about Flightsthe pace is too slow. This is the classic thing that American editors say about anything from anywhere else because they’re so infuriatingly obsessed with efficiency.

So, the fact that I won a Booker was absolutely irrelevant, but it was nice because I was able to pay my credit card bills.

LC: Well, that’s something! Can you tell me a bit more about how translations prepared you for writing?

JC: This short story that I just wrote is basically a Federico Falco story. For one thing, he taught me how to do dialogue— I learnt how to put people in motion and get them to talk to each other and that was a real breakthrough for me.

Then there are specific things that I learnt from Olga. She trained to be a psychiatrist and quit immediately, joking that she couldn’t prevent herself from telling stories to her patients whenever they said anything to her.

She has this incredible ability to penetrate into a character’s mind, in a non-judgmental, almost clinical, way. I’ve also tried to take this soothing, beautiful rhythm that she has in her prose.

Each author has taught me different things, but I also approach each project differently. Homesick specifically has this slightly strange word order in English because I wanted to generate this slight distance that would invite the reader to cross towards me as they read. That sounds abstract but what I mean is that Slavic languages have nouns that change depending on their use in the sentence, which frees up their word order. I love that and it gives a lot of possibilities for emphasising things in different ways and changing the rhythm.

LC: You wrote both the English and Spanish versions of Homesick—the Spanish version is called Serpientes y escalerasbut you’re clear that it’s not a translation. Why is that?

JC: I started working on it in Spanish, but it has a lot to do with my sister. I wanted to run things by her basically and she doesn’t speak any Spanish so, I started making a parallel version and as I was writing, it also started to take shape in my mind in English. It has been translated into Polish though, which is a completely different process—infinitely easier for me, obviously, to be translated, a real luxury.

LC: What was it like being on the other side of that dynamic?

JC: I had a real fear of turning into this awful monster. I could almost see myself turning green. My whole career, I’ve said, oh no, the translator should have total freedom to do whatever they want. You have to change everything. Fidelity in translation in a ridiculous notion. And then when I had to be translated, I was like, what if I didn’t mean any of that?!

Fortunately, Robert Sudół is a really great translator, who’s translated a lot of really difficult writers—which I am not, at least in Homesick—but he wasn’t sure what to do with the title. The English word ‘homesick’ is appealing to me, in part, because it’s very childish sounding, but ‘home’ and ‘sick’ together make this somehow meaningful condition, and it also has ‘sick’ in it, which relates back to my sister’s illness. There isn’t an equivalent of that [in Polish, even though] everyone says that their culture’s way of being nostalgic is unique.

So, I worked with him to brainstorm quite a few other options and I like the title that he ended up with—Odeszło, zostałowhich means ‘left’ in the sense of ‘departed’ and ‘remained’, which I mention in the book. I thought it was a cool alternative.

LC: You hinted earlier that you wanted to write in Spanish in order to create this full life for yourself. I know you’ve also done therapy in Spanish and I was curious as to whether that influenced your decision to then write in Spanish too?

JC: Definitely. Absolutely. Therapy and, also, the conversations that I was having with my friends in Argentina, which were more intimate than the conversations that I was having even with close friends in the US. People just asked nosy questions all the time and I loved it, because it enabled me to start thinking about things that I hadn’t really reflected on at all.

[Serpientes y escaleras] seemed to just be born in Spanish. It never would have occurred to me to write about Oklahoma for an American audience, whereas when I would talk about a few things with my Argentine friends it enabled me to see it with a distance.

LC: That’s so interesting to me.

JC: Where are you from?

LC: I’m from Yorkshire.

JC: Would you want to write a novel about Yorkshire?

LC: See…this is tapping into the horrible pride and arrogance that people from Yorkshire have because my answer would be like, yes, because we’re amazing, obviously. (Laughs.)

JC: That is super interesting. Oklahoma is pretty consistently looked down on in the United States and I personally just always wanted to leave. But I love reading writers who love their native cities and talk about them in an extremely detailed and profound way. That just wouldn’t have occurred to me.

LC: Can you tell me more about Amadou, your forthcoming novel?

JC: It’s about eight translators who gather in a primeval forest on the border between Poland and Belarus to translate their author’s magnum opus. When I say this, people assume that it’s based on Olga Tokarzcuk, which it isn’t, obviously, but it is kind of in response to The Books of Jacob. I was really interested in the dynamic that she created in this sprawling novel and inspired by her circle of translators—I was curious to think about what would happen if we didn’t have her.

I’m actually starting to think of my own writing as almost abstract translations. Amadou is, in a way, an abstract translation of the whole body of work of Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish writer who lived in Argentina for 23 years. For like 15 years I’ve been thinking about his work and then just…reimagined the spirit of that body of work. I mean, that wasn’t what I set out to do, but having finished that now, I’m thinking that that’s what I did.

But what happens is that they arrive and their author, Irena Rey, has totally transformed and she disappears on the second day of their summit. They then have to spend the rest of the book searching for her, but also uncovering some unpleasant truths and trying to get through the translation of the book.

It’s interested in translators’ relationships with each other and the emergence of the ego in the translator, thinking about the subjectivity of the translator. As all translators know, we choose and write every word of the book that people read in English, and yet no one really cares who we are. (Laughs).

[Editor’s note: Not even the publishers, in some cases.]

LC: I think it’s really interesting, this concept of ego within translation. Do you think translation has an ego problem?

JC: I think it has an ego problem in reverse. There can be a tendency to subjugate, and I’ve been also thinking a lot about this in very practical, harsh commercial terms, too, because there are so many publishers who would love to not pay royalties to the translator. And I am absolutely outraged by this because we do everything, we choose every word, but we are also the ones who are the most reliable promoters of these books. How can you not give me a real stake in the fate of the book?

There are also so few readers who follow the career of a translator, for instance, which I love doing because I know their taste, I know how well they work. It’s so easy for people to complain about bad translations but what does that even mean? I want translators to have more of an ego.

LC: Which translators would you read to the end of the earth?

JC: I’ve followed [French to English translator] Emma Ramadan‘s career for a long time and she’s absolutely brilliant. Damion Searls kind of translates everything, which is really convenient—I can just follow him through literature in German. He has such a strong and distinctive voice that I know I’m really getting Damion Searls and I really like that. I think Natasha Lehrer‘s a really great translator from French and I love Deborah Smith‘s translations from Korean.

LC: What else are you working on at the moment?

JC: I’m supposed to be writing a book about postcards, which may end up being a book about postcards and guns. I want to write a personal essay combined with a little bit of a philosophy of communication or something like that. And I’m thinking of doing something similar with guns, which could be in the same book, could be a different book. (Laughs.)

LC: And what are you reading at the moment?

JC: I’ve been reading some really good translations from India, including one translated from Catapult called No Presents, Please: Mumbai Stories. Then there’s another short story collection translated from Gujarati by Jenny Bhatt called Ratno Dholi, by Dhumketu, who is a seminal figure in Gujarati literature, kind of like a Gujurati Chekhov.

I historically didn’t read as many short stories as I did novels, but Fede changed all of that. I don’t know if I have it in me to write a short story collection, but I love reading them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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