Literary translator and author Jennifer Croft translated 2019 Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s novel “Flights” from Polish into English. Croft recalls that after the two shared the Booker Prize last year, she began referring to the novel as “our love child.”
But Croft’s joke also made a serious point about her role in making a foreign-language literary work into something that can be enjoyed and appreciated by English-language readers.
“It’s important for the readers to realize that they’re reading a kind of co-creation,” says Croft, a 38-year-old Los Angeles resident who teaches a seminar on translation at the University of Iowa.
As she explains it, translation involves more than just finding the right English word to replace a foreign one. Instead, it’s an art form that strives to transcend cultural differences and get across the tone and feeling of the original work.
“I’m trying to be respectful to the atmosphere, for example, of the original, but they’re my sentences,” Croft says. “And every time I translate a word, I’m choosing not to translate it in seventeen other ways. I’m making something that I think is beautiful in a way that is similar to how I found Olga’s original sentence to be beautiful. But it is the way I would write it.”
It’s a job that requires someone who is not only fluent in a foreign language but a writer as well, and Croft is both. In addition to her translations of works by Tokarczuk and others, Croft recently published her own memoir, “Homesick.”
In the book, Croft weaves together a combination of short vignettes, photographs and captions to explore her youth in Oklahoma as an home-schooled linguistic prodigy. She details a turbulent emotional life, and her complex relationship with a younger sister plagued with mysterious seizures.
Croft, who holds a doctorate in comparative literature from Northwestern University, sees her dual careers as a translator and an author as intertwined.
“I always saw translation as a kind of apprenticeship,” she says. “I chose to translate authors whose work I really admired, and from also thought I could learn something from.”
In a curious linguistic reversal, she began writing “Homesick” in another language, Spanish, which she learned while living in Argentina. She went there in January 2010 to do scholarly research on Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish writer stranded there during World War II, but fell in love with Buenos Aires. She stayed for seven years.
“I wanted to write a series of prose equivalents to Polaroid snapshots, so that is why I choose to do those little vignettes,” she says. “It was a form I was interested in trying out, and also I was helpfully limited by my non-native Spanish [to] working in that form.”
In the book, Croft unflinchingly describes the painful experiences of her youth, from watching her sister being carried away by an ambulance crew, to her first awkward stirrings of love for her Russian tutor and a mental-health crisis that she experienced as a 15-year-old college freshman at the University of Tulsa. She originally envisioned publishing it only in Argentina as a novel.
She then rewrote the manuscript in English so that her younger sister Anne Marie could read and comment upon it. “I came to love the English version, equally,” Croft says.
She sold the book to Unnamed Press, a Los Angeles publisher. Eventually, at the suggestion of her editor, Croft converted “Homesick” from fiction into a memoir. She also began to incorporate snapshots — some taken by their mother in childhood, others taken by Croft during her extensive travels in Europe and elsewhere — and added the captions, which are fragments of a fictional sister-to-sister letter from the Spanish-language novel. (The narrative mostly hews closely to her actual life story, though she calls herself Amy in the book and renames her sister Zoe.)
“I guess I was feeling when I was writing that I’d gotten an NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) grant for my translation of ‘Flights,’ and I was in this very happy place in Argentina,” Croft says. “I thought, I’ve come so far. I wish my 15- or 16-year-old self could have been aware of all the possibilities that awaited her. So when I decided to write about the difficulties I had when I was a teenager, it was a way of getting this message out.”
Croft says the experience of writing two versions of the book in different languages has “expanded my own thinking of what translation is.” But she’s not the only one translating it. On her website, homesickbook.space, other translators have posted excerpts from her book rendered in 22 different languages, including Serbian, Farsi, Mandarin and Haitian Creole.
After the success of “Homesick,” Croft now is at work on second book, a novel titled “Fidelity,” about an unstable relationship between an author and a translator.
Simultaneously, she is at work on another ambitious project — a translation of Tokarczuk’s Polish-language novel “The Books of Jacob,” which runs 1,000 pages and deals with Jacob Frank, the leader of an 18th century heretical Jewish sect.
Croft says translators tend to have their own individual methods. She starts with a Microsoft Word file of a Polish novel in one window on her computer screen, along with an array of Polish, English and Polish-to-English dictionaries in other windows, along with the Google search engine so that she can check place names and historical terms.
Like a novelist, Croft does multiple drafts. On the first attempt, she does a rough translation into the Polish prose, including changing the order of the words to conform with English grammar. “I don’t do a literal word-for-word translation, because that would be unreadable,” she explains. “At this point, I’ve been translating Polish for 15 years, so it’s kind of automatic.”
Croft then does a second draft, in which she doesn’t look at the Polish text and concentrates on refining the writing. “In the second, I have to make each sentence look good,” she says. If there’s time, she’ll do a third draft as well, in which she compares her work to the original Polish version and looks for differences to be reconciled.
While Croft has developed a friendly relationship with Tokarczuk and is regularly in touch with her, she says that the Polish writer takes a relatively hands-off approach.
“She doesn’t go over line by line,” Croft says. “Olga writes so many books that she is always ready to move on to the next one after she publishes something. She doesn’t micromanage her translators, which I really like. She recognizes that the translation needs to be its own thing and the translator needs to be left in peace to write the translation. But she’s always available for questions.”
To a reader, it may be difficult to tell how much of the prose is the original author and how much is the translator, but Croft says it’s possible to discern the translator’s skill from the overall quality of the book. Snappy dialogue, for example, is an indication of a deft translation.
“It’s hard to make something sound natural,” she says. “Humor is also very difficult to translate. It’s another good way to tell if a translator is good or not.”
Croft says she’s interested in finding an innovative way to combine writing and translation in a single work, perhaps in the form of a online novel or multimedia app in which she would join forces with Tokarczuk. “I love the idea of doing a multilingual collaboration,” she says.
Kiger has written for GQ, Sierra magazine, Fast Company and History.com. He’s also co-written two nonfiction books, “Poplorica” and “Oops.”