The art of translation is more profound than word choice. Incarnating the spirit of the author, TU alumna Jennifer Croft (BA ’01) intuits the deeper meaning behind each turn of phrase or punctuation mark. From character description to building suspense, Croft’s translation of a novel is itself a masterpiece. This year, Croft has been shortlisted for The Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights.
“I’ve been working on Olga’s work for 15 years. I feel like I just understand her. I understand how her mind works, who she is and what she wants to convey,” Croft said. “I take a lot of liberties with those translations because of that confidence that I have that I know her.”
Without a distinct or concise plotline, Flights is not a typical novel. Tokarczuk describes it as a “constellation” novel. “It’s a lot of short stories and meditations that the reader links on her own to form a constellation,” Croft explained. Themes of travel and the human body being a carrier of the soul challenge readers to actively engage with the text.
“It’s worth the investment of intellectual energy to get through it because it’s a thought-provoking unusual accomplishment,” she said.
Interaction with languages and grammar captured Croft from an early age. As a child, she started teaching herself Russian. “My father is a geography professor, and I probably got a real interest in traveling the world from him,” she said. “I felt that I was essentially traveling abroad by getting into these languages.”
Only 15 years old, Croft followed her passion for languages at TU by enrolling in Russian Studies and English with a minor in creative writing. While at TU, she managed to balance a full class schedule and write a novel. Her talent has not gone unnoticed. 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. Croft earned a master of fine arts in literary translation from The University of Iowa and a doctorate in comparative literary studies from Northwestern University
She is also 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, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune and elsewhere.
She has lived in both Poland and Argentina as a translator, and although the languages, authors and locations may change, Croft continues to write her own stories. “When I first started translating, I thought of it as an apprenticeship for my own writing,” she said.
Her novel Homesick pays homage to her hometown of Tulsa. Wanting her friends in Buenos Aires to understand where she came from, Croft wrote them little stories about Tulsa in Spanish. Eventually, the stories formed a novel.
“It not only felt necessary to share my past with people but also to remember it myself and combine it into a more holistic version of myself. I’m more than this traveling person who is speaking another language all the time,” Croft said.
Currently, she is writing a fictional story about a relationship between a translator and her author, but she is also penning a series of nonfiction essays about translation to dispel the myth that translating means a constant furrowed brow bent over a book. “It’s not only the translation that you do but also representing these people in the English-speaking worlds. You are kind of their agent as well,” she said. “I spent 10 years trying to get Flights published.”
With one rashly placed comma or one slightly off word, the meaning behind text can be drastically altered. “I can live in Poland and Argentina and be absolutely sure of what the meaning of a word is, but even in those languages, it means a million things,” Croft said. “You always have to choose, and you’re going to choose what you want it to mean inevitably.” With a sixth sense, Croft cautiously weaves fragile text into an artful retelling of a story.