When Olga Tokarczuk’s 2014 historical novel The Books of Jacob finally hit the United States earlier this month, hers was not the only name on the cover: University of Tulsa alumna Jennifer Croft (BA ’01) appeared right alongside. Croft, who completed a double major in English and Russian Studies, translated the Nobel Prize winner’s 900-plus page epic from its original Polish into English. Croft also translated Tokarczuk’s 2007 novel Flights, which won Tokarczuk and Croft the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.
Recently, Croft and her prowess as a translator were the subject of a profile piece in The New York Times. In “Shining a Spotlight on the Art of Translation,” Tokarczuk notes that Croft “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.”
According to Croft, The Books of Jacob “[is] Olga’s, but also it has all of these elements that are mine, these stylistic elements and these decisions that I made.” Indeed, Tokarczuk has supported Croft’s efforts to have translators receive credit alongside authors, and Riverhead – The Books of Jacob’s U.S. publisher – plans to pay Croft royalties (a rare feat for translators).
Translation by immersion
Croft is credited with generating a movement in the literary community for translators to receive more credit. Her open letter with Mark Haddon has, according to The New York Times, generated over two thousand signatures from famous authors and translators, including such notables as Neil Gaiman and Philip Pullman. Croft’s actions have had not only positive effects for her but have also made waves in informing people just how much art and effort go into translating fiction.
Earlier this month, for instance, Croft published an essay entitled “The Order of Things: Jennifer Croft on Translating Olga Tokarczuk,” in which she wrote about her process of translating:
Whenever I translate, I first immerse myself in the original as though taking a dip in a lovely cove, far from the eyes of anyone, where the water’s always warm. (I hope it does not undermine all that I have said so far to confess that in life I am not a good swimmer, and that I have never gone swimming in a cove.) By immersing myself, I can feel weightless as the body of the work suspends me — my preoccupations, much of my subjectivity, which merely acts as a filter — and I can allow the images generated by the words of the original to wash over me, feel them all around me, form them afresh in my cleared head.
Translating, Croft makes clear, is a creative process as much as it is a technical undertaking.
A distinguished career
After graduating from TU, Croft went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in literary translation from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in comparative literary studies from Northwestern University. Along with Russian, Croft has also developed a high level of proficiency in Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish. In fact, Croft has translated several books from Spanish into English and has written her own memoir in Spanish — Serpientes y Escaleras (entitled Homesick in the English version), which won her The William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in 2020.
Croft’s talent and industry have resulted in numerous awards from various organizations, including Fulbright, PEN, Tin House, MacDowell and the National Endowment for the Arts. Croft also was honored with the inaugural Michael Henry Heim Prize for translation. Her works have been featured in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Guardian, Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications, and Croft has been interviewed by, among others, National Public Radio, the New York Public Radio and The Paris Review.
Recollecting Croft’s undergraduate days, former mentor and current Applied Associate Professor of Russian Elena Doshlygina remarked, “she started her training in translation with me, and together with one more student, we undertook the translation of a memoir book from Russian into English. Dr. Lars Engle guided her on finessing her voice in English, I taught her Russian language, and legendary poet and TU professor Yevgeny Yevtushenko introduced her to the world of Russian literature.”
With several translations and a novel in the queue, it’s one project after the next for this linguistic and literary expert. First and foremost, however, Croft is eager to spark a lasting change within the publishing community whereby the hard work of translators will be duly acknowledged and celebrated.
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