WWB’s Translator Relay features an interview with a different translator each month. This month’s translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question.
What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?
My strongest place connection is definitely Buenos Aires, where I spent the past seven years. I learned all of my Spanish in Buenos Aires, so I only translate works from Spanish that were written by Argentine authors—there’s such great diversity among the different Spanishes, and I’ve always felt it’s really important to be fully familiar with all the little components of speech, the quotidian rhythms writers employ and depart from. It’s important for me to be able to hear the tone of a sentence, picture the facial expression and gestures that would accompany it, in order to find a fitting rendition in English.
I lived in Poland for two years on a Fulbright after learning Polish at the University of Iowa, where I did my MFA in literary translation. Polish has always been more of an academic and professional connection for me, but I try to go back to Kraków or Warsaw at least once a year to maintain that connection.
Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?
A challenge I find I always face in translation is that of preserving (or recreating) the original level of difficulty of a given text. There is always the risk of explaining things to the reader in English that the reader of the original would have found ambiguous. Ambiguity is so important in any work, partly because it enables the reader to be more active, partly because it often contributes to a sense of suspense. So in the novel I just translated for The Feminist Press, Romina Paula’s August, there was a list of things the narrator found in the bedroom of her best friend, who committed suicide five years before the time of the main story. One of those things was a photograph of someone or something called Bulgo. Thinking this might be a cultural reference, I asked Romina, who told me it was the friend’s childhood dog. In the first draft of the translation I added “dog”; when I saw the galleys, I realized I had overstepped, and I deleted that addition. I do explain—very briefly—references or locations or figures I know every Argentine reader will have a vivid picture of, but this was an example of something personal that would evoke merely the sense of intimacy, rather than a specific thing.
To me, nothing is untranslatable. Nor is anything reproducible, in a strict sense. It’s just a question of the sensitivity and versatility of the translator in creating something new that is respectful of the spirit of the original. I only translate works with which I feel an intense affinity—I’ve been fortunate in this—and I’ve developed strong and longstanding relationships with everyone I’m translating now. I think of translation as a process of co-authorship, and I’m delighted to have found such brilliant and talented writers who feel similarly.
Do you have any translating rituals?
Just coffee! Preferably Intelligentsia’s Kurimi or Yirgacheffe.
Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?
I’ve toyed with an array of metaphors, but I ultimately got tired of translation as metaphor and of metaphors for translation.
Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.
Right now I’m translating an essay by the astonishingly astute Polish scholar Roma Sendyka, the monumental Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, and the gorgeous short-story collection A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco. Extremely excited about all three.
(Emma Ramadan’s question for you) You translate from Spanish, Ukrainian, and Polish. What differences, if any, do you perceive in the overall process of translating these different languages—in finding the books, in pitching the books, in translating the books, in interacting with the authors, in the way the books are marketed, and in how they are received by critics and readers?
This is a great question. I love working with such different languages and traditions and find that just about everything in the process is different, with the exception of finding the books, which remains for me simply a question of which books I fall in love with. I don’t see many similarities between the Argentine fiction I feel an affinity with and the Polish fiction I love, but each work speaks to some part of me that gets activated as I read and translate.
On a basic linguistic level, Spanish is closer to English than Polish is, which makes the challenge of translation different, but not easier. For grammatical and lexical reasons, it’s obvious to me as I translate a Polish sentence that the whole must be broken down and rebuilt from scratch—but sometimes a sentence in Spanish that seemingly invites a closer parallel in English in fact requires a full dismantling, as well, and often apparent cognates do denote or at least connote something slightly other than what they might first suggest.
My general sense of Polish literature is that it engages more with the vast literary tradition of Poland, while Argentine literature often participates instead in a contemporary and interdisciplinary conversation within culture today. But every author is different—Federico Falco, for example, is a great reader of many prose and poetic traditions, and a wide range of influences is present and carefully curated in his work.
People’s perceptions in the English-speaking world of “Latin American” and “Eastern” or “Central European” literatures are also so different that I do take this into consideration when pitching translation ideas to editors, while trying not to play too much to stereotypes like sexiness in Spanish and, in Polish, suffering and the age-old wisdom gleaned therefrom. It seems important to me to both understand and challenge readers’ preexisting notions, always within the particular bounds of a specific writer’s interests, themes, and formal choices, since in the end each work has to be dealt with (by me, by editors, by readers) on its own terms, no matter where it was written or by whom.
Jennifer Croft is 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 Workshop Scholarship for her novel Homesick, originally written in Spanish. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a founding editor of The Buenos Aires Review and has published her own work and numerous translations in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, VICE, n+1, Electric Literature, Lit Hub, BOMB, Guernica, The New Republic, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. Her translation from Spanish of Romina Paula’s August is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in April, and her translation from Polish of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights is forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions in May.