Shining a spotlight on the art of translation

When Jennifer Croft talks about translating Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk’s novel “Flights,” she sometimes affectionately refers to the book as “our love child.”

Alexandra AlterThe New York Times
Published : 14 Feb 2022, 10:55 AM
Updated : 14 Feb 2022, 10:55 AM

“It’s Olga’s, but also it has all of these elements that are mine, these stylistic elements and these decisions that I made,” she said in a recent interview.

“Flights” was a labour of love for Croft, who spent a decade trying to find a publisher for it. It was finally released by Fitzcarraldo Editions in Britain in 2017 and Riverhead in the United States in 2018, and was celebrated as a masterpiece. The novel won the International Booker Prize and became a finalist for the National Book Award for translated literature, helping Tokarczuk, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize, gain a much larger global audience.

But Croft also felt a twinge of disappointment that after devoting years to the project, her name wasn’t on the book’s cover. Last summer, she decided to make a bold demand: “I’m not translating any more books without my name on the cover,” she wrote on Twitter. “Not only is it disrespectful to me, but it is also a disservice to the reader, who should know who chose the words they’re going to read.”

Her statement drew wide support in the literary world. Croft published an open letter with novelist Mark Haddon, calling on publishers to credit translators on covers. The letter has drawn nearly 2,600 signatures, including from writers like Lauren Groff, Katie Kitamura, Philip Pullman, Sigrid Nunez and Neil Gaiman, as well as prominent translators, among them Robin Myers, Martin Aitken, Jen Calleja, Margaret Jull Costa and John Keene. Her campaign prompted some publishers, among them Pan Macmillan in Britain and the independent European press Lolli Editions, to begin naming all translators on book covers.

Croft’s latest published translation is Tokarczuk’s “The Books of Jacob,” a 900-plus page historical novel about an 18th-century Eastern European cult leader named Jacob Frank, whose story unfolds through diary entries, poetry, letters and prophecies.

Critics have praised Croft’s nimble rendering of Tokarczuk’s sprawling epic, calling her translation “ebullient” and “wondrous.” In a review in The New York Times, Dwight Garner wrote that “Croft’s sensitive translation is in tune with the author’s many registers; she even makes the puns click.”

This time, Croft’s name appears on the cover. Riverhead added her after she and Tokarczuk requested it. Croft is also being paid royalties for “The Books of Jacob,” which she didn’t receive for “Flights.” (Translators, who typically receive a flat, one-time translation fee, don’t automatically get a share of royalties from most publishers.)

Tokarczuk enthusiastically supported those measures.

“She is incredibly linguistically gifted,” Tokarczuk said in an email. “Jenny does not focus on language at all, but on what is underneath the language and what the language is trying to express. So she explains the author’s intention, not just the words standing in a row one by one. There is also a lot of empathy here, the ability to enter the whole idiolect of the writer.”

For Croft, the campaign to bring greater recognition to translators isn’t just a plea for attention and credit, although it’s partly that. Croft also believes that highlighting translators’ names will bring more transparency to the process and help readers evaluate their work, the same way they might assess an audiobook narration for not just the content but for the performance.

Translation isn’t just a technical skill, but a creative act, she argues. “We should receive credit, but also have to take responsibility for the work we have done,” she said.

Croft’s campaign has resonated with others in the field. Writer Jhumpa Lahiri, who also translates Italian and has translated her own work from Italian to English, said putting translators’ names on the front of books should be a standard practice, and that translators ought to be treated as artists in their own right.

“It’s time to address this historic omission,” said Lahiri, who signed the open letter. “Translation requires creativity, it requires ingenuity, it requires imagination. So often, you have to radically rework the text, and if that isn’t the work of imagination, I don’t know what is.”

That work often entails much more than rendering sentences and syntax from one language to another. Translators also find themselves in the role of literary scout, agent and publicist. Many are constantly reading in the languages they’re fluent in to find new authors and books, then pitch them to publishers. When English-language versions come out, translators are often called upon to facilitate interviews and join authors on book tours and manage their social media accounts in English.

Translated literature accounts for just a fraction of titles published in the United States. Despite the success of books by international stars like Elena Ferrante, Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard, many publishers still worry that US readers are put off by translations.

Ann Goldstein, who translates Ferrante and other Italian writers, said American publishers have long assumed that readers are leery of translations, and as a result they often downplayed the role of translators, sometimes leaving their names out of books entirely.

“What people always said in the past was that Americans wouldn’t buy a book if they knew it was translated,” she said.

That belief has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since 2010, fewer than 9,000 English-language translations of fiction and poetry have been published, and in 2021, just 413 translations were released, according to a database of English-language translations that is compiled and maintained by Chad W. Post, publisher of Open Letter Books, and is available on Publishers Weekly’s website. By contrast, US publishers released 586,060 total adult fiction titles in 2021, NPD BookScan figures show.

An even smaller number of titles feature translators on the cover. Less than half of the English-language translations released in 2021 had translators’ names on the covers, Publishers Weekly reported last fall.

One argument that publishers make against prominently featuring translators is that some readers might be less likely to take a chance on a book that is packaged as a translation. “There is a possibility that books sell better when they’re just presented as good books rather than as ‘translated books’,” Post said in an email.

Most big publishing houses say they don’t have formal policies about putting translators on the cover. Some small presses that focus on international literature do so as a matter of course, including Archipelago and Two Lines Press, which are devoted exclusively to literature in translation. In 2020, the independent press Catapult made it a policy to include the translator’s name on the front cover, and the publisher pays its translators royalties on all copies sold.

“We see it as a simple and highly visible way to acknowledge that the work done by literary translators is skillful and also entirely essential to the enterprise of publishing the best writing from around the world,” Kendall Storey, Catapult’s senior editor, said in an email.

Croft, 40, who regularly translates Spanish and Polish and has also worked on books written in Russian and Ukrainian, says she got into translation by accident. Growing up in a monolingual household in Oklahoma, she had an early affinity for languages and created a secret language with her younger sister.

At the University of Tulsa, she studied with Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who introduced her to Russian literature. She later got her masters in literary translation at the University of Iowa, where she developed an interest in Polish literature.

In 2002, she read a story collection by Tokarczuk titled “Playing Many Drums.” Although her Polish was still rudimentary, she found the prose thrilling and sought out more of Tokarczuk’s writing. She found two English translations of Tokarczuk’s novels by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, and emailed Lloyd-Jones, who introduced Croft to Tokarczuk. They clicked immediately.

After graduating in 2003, Croft moved to Poland on a Fulbright, then sustained herself on fellowships and grants while translating “Flights” and other projects. She lived in Berlin and Paris for a time, then moved to Buenos Aires, where she began to perfect her Spanish, a language she picked up in her 20s. All the while, she championed Tokarczuk’s work.

“Whenever I pitched her books to editors, I always said, this is an author who’s going to win the Nobel Prize,” she said. “I was trying everything just to spread the word, but none of that seemed to really be that convincing for editors.”

In addition to translating Tokarczuk's writing, she began working on books by Polish writer Wioletta Greg and Argentine writers Romina Paula, Pedro Mairal and Federico Falco, who described Croft as “extremely sensitive to the most subtle variations in the speech of different characters, to their feelings, their moods, their silence.”

Croft has a somewhat unconventional approach to translation. She starts by reading the book all the way through, then returns to the beginning and tries, as much as she can, to replicate the author’s writing process.

When she was working on Mairal’s novel “The Woman From Uruguay,” which is structured as a husband’s letter to his wife and which Mairal wrote quickly, Croft translated it as fast as she could to replicate his frenetic pace and frenzied, confessional prose.

“She managed to keep the intimate tone,” Mairal said in an email. “The translation feels as if someone is talking to you, which is just what I wanted to do.”

Croft focuses on conveying tone, style and meaning more than word-for-word accuracy. She described her process as “completely dismantling a book and then completely rebuilding it from the ground up.”

When she’s not translating, Croft writes. She wrote an autobiographical novel in Spanish, titled “Serpientes y Escaleras,” about her coming-of-age and her budding love for the intricacies of language and translation. She didn’t initially plan to release it in English but began translating chapters to share them with her sister, whose illness is a recurring motif in the book. As she recast it, Croft found herself completely rewriting it as illustrated nonfiction, and the English version, “Homesick,” which Unnamed Press released in 2019, was published as a memoir.

Croft, who lives between Los Angeles and Tulsa, Oklahoma, is working on a novel about translation, titled “Amadou.” The story takes place in the primeval forests of Poland, where a group of translators have gathered to work together on the latest opus from a celebrated female Polish novelist. The translators are stunned when the author undergoes an otherworldly transformation and disappears into the forest, leaving them alone to puzzle out what her new novel means.

Croft also has several new translations coming out in the next few years, including three novels translated from Spanish and one from Polish. Although she’s not short on projects, Croft sometimes wonders if her campaign to credit translators on front covers will cost her opportunities.

“I’m sure that there are a number of publishers who won’t want to work with me,” she said. “Some people have really not been happy with the idea, and I have had some difficult conversations with editors.”

Still, the debate her effort sparked has been gratifying, she said: “People are at least paying a little bit more attention to language itself, and to languages, and to the work of translation.”

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