'Everything Is a Translation and Nothing Is': Jennifer Croft on Memoir, Etymology, and Translation

Image: Unnamed Press

“When you consider the plenitude of any word’s inheritance you might think all words are untranslatable,” writes Jennifer Croft in her debut memoir, Homesick. The problem of translation isn’t an abstract one for Croft: she is a translator of Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian-language works including Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, which won the International Booker Prize and was shortlisted for the newly reanimated National Book Award for Translation. Croft has received Cullman, Fulbright, National Endowment for the Arts, and PEN grants for her translation work, and Homesick has garnered rave reviews from the New York Times and NPR.

Homesick is a coming-of-age narrative composed of two strands: the bulk of the text, rendered in a third-person perspective, tells the story of two sisters growing up in Oklahoma whose achingly intimate relationship is threatened when the younger falls ill. Interwoven with this story is a series of poignant photographs, each captioned with meditations from the older sister on language and etymology, on growing up and growing apart. Homesick is about the uncrossable distances between both different people and different languages, and the ways we attempt to span that distance nonetheless. “Every word is untranslatable if what translation is making something new that stays the same,” Croft writes. “But that’s not what translation is.”

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What translation is, exactly, is something Croft has thought about a great deal. We spoke by phone at the end of October, not long after Tokarczuk had been announced as the belated winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, an accolade Croft always saw coming. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


JEZEBEL: I read that Homesick began its life as a novel written in Spanish—when did you decide to rewrite it in English and why?

JENNIFER CROFT: When I started writing Homesick in 2014, I had been living in Buenos Aires for a few years and I really wanted to be a very active participant in the local literary community. But then as I started writing about my childhood in Oklahoma—which I never would have thought to do in English!—I started wanting to share it with people back home who didn’t speak Spanish, like my sister. I wrote the English version kind of simultaneously: the goal of the initial project was to publish it as a novel in Spanish, but it started taking a slightly different shape in English and I got interested in doing both, for totally different reasons. They were always going to be separate.

Is the third-person point-of-view of Homesick inherited from that Spanish version? I’m wondering if you were ever tempted to switch it to first-person as it went from being a novel to being a memoir.

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It didn’t turn into a memoir until a year ago—four years after I began—and by then the main text of the narrative, where all the plot happens, had been mostly the same throughout the many millions of revisions I did. What changed included the pictures, which I started working on in 2016, and the captions, which I played around with right up until practically publication date. It was actually Unnamed Press who suggested we call it a memoir, and I was fine with that. I think the fact that there are those pictures does complicate the idea that it would be fiction, but it’s being published as fiction in Argentina, and in Poland—it’s being translated into Polish now. In other countries, I think, it would be considered more autofiction than a memoir, which is kind of an American genre anyway. All of those things are so slippery. I just decided to keep the book the way I had it, in third person, with the characters named Amy and Zoe.

On your website you have this great Borges-ian statement that “neither the Spanish nor the English is a translation” of the other. I’m wondering how you think of the two versions in relation to each other—I was thinking about Walter Benjamin talking about a sort of ur-language, a greater language

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Oh, yes.

Do you think of both the English and Spanish versions as translations of some other, unreal book?

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I think that’s a wonderful way of thinking about it. First of all, everything is a translation and nothing is a translation. The Polish translation—which is being done by someone else—is just as much an original creation as what I made. And what I made is also necessarily an incomplete and unfaithful representation of the events of my life, which are of course variable and impossible to encapsulate in a single work.

You also have a project going of inviting other writers to respond to Homesick. Those responses almost seem like translations, too, as if every individual person has a separate language all their own that the ideas and themes of the book can be translated into—

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Yes! Exactly. Have you read the Kate Briggs book?

I was going to ask if you’ve read the Kate Briggs book! I loved it. She opens by talking about translation as an act, about how it “complicates the authorial position, sharing it, usurping it, sort of dislocating it.” I wanted to ask: even though we, as a culture, have long been obsessed with the idea of the author as a singular, creative, sui generis kind of figure, it feels like we’re in this wonderful moment of growing awareness of the community required to write...

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Yes, yes.

... or to have words reach readers, and we’re coming around to this more open-minded idea of authoring itself as communal, the way Briggs thinks of it. Since you’re seeing it from both sides—and I love how you talk about them being the same in many ways—how do you see the relationship between author and translator?

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I think the point about authorship as a construct is an important place to start. I’ve been thinking about that a lot as a judge for the 2020 International Booker Prize: we started off our conversation by talking about the ways in which a reader actively participates in the creation of a book. There is a human being who sat down and wrote it, yes, but it doesn’t cease to be written at publication date because the community has to receive it. This is especially true in the case of a book like Flights, which Olga specifically engineered in order to force the reader to participate in the construction of narrative: she calls it a “constellation novel,” so the reader has to put together the anecdotes and the stories and the fragments in whatever way will allow them to find meaning, but it’s going to be different for each reader.

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As for authorship—the idea of what constitutes intellectual property, for example, varies a lot by culture. Olga did so much research for the book I’m translating now, The Books of Jacob, and there are fragments of old texts that pop up throughout the book—that’s another interesting place to think about this essentially moral category we have of authorship. There’s no way someone could write a thousand-page historical epic as Olga has done without reference to the work of countless other writers and ordinary people whose statements or testimonies got recorded. So I think it’s great to challenge that assumption, and along with challenging the idea of authorship you can challenge the idea of fidelity in translation, which is an equally kind of moral and somewhat haphazard construct. I like to think—as does Kate Briggs in This Little Art—of translation as writing afresh, or cowriting, rather than following word for word something someone else has done.

In another interview you said, “I… take enormous pleasure in the beauty of the world. The challenge here was to also find meaning in that beauty, and to create meaning that would vex the text while remaining inviting.” As you talk about the troubled idea of fidelity in translation, I’m curious about this distinction you’re making between pleasure and meaning as what we take from beauty—whether in the world or in a work of art. Pleasure and meaning feel like such loaded words for a translator: how do you see them interacting or separated or in some other conjunction?

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I think what I was getting at was that active/passive dichotomy: pleasure is something that can be passively received. I was thinking about the way I designed the photographs in the text, which was a form of translation itself. In the Spanish version, Argentine readers told me that from the first sentence there was a natural suspense generated by the prose being simultaneously foreign and highly localized: I learned all my Spanish in Buenos Aires, and it’s a very specific Spanish, but I didn’t start studying Spanish there until I was in my mid-twenties, so my Spanish is never going to be native. So there were these tells that at some point the character has to end up in Argentina, even though she’s starting out in a pantry in Tulsa, Oklahoma with her sister, hiding from a tornado.

There was no way to generate a similar sense of suspense in English, because there was nothing I could do with my English that would make it sound weird—I mean, I did want it to sound a little unnatural but still easy to read, but that didn’t have the same effect. So that’s how I ended up using the photographs: the narrative goes in chronological order, and I wanted to go in reverse chronological order with the color photos and then the black-and-white photos, and have them just slightly related to the scenes on the same page. Again, I’m kind of calling on the reader to make that connection. I didn’t just want to illustrate with photographs a text that was already similar to a series of snapshots—I wanted to do something a little more playful and something that would allow the reader to kind of get involved in constructing the meaning of the book.

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I especially loved the discussion of etymologies strung throughout the captions to those photographs. It made me think about how even within a single language, within English, words are translated over time, or in different places, or just by being in different contexts. Do you think about etymologies, or trying to gesture to a word’s multiplicity in other languages, when you’re translating?

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I wanted to think about etymology as a way of getting at this idea of untranslatability. I’ve always heard people say that certain words are untranslatable, or certain experiences are, and I wanted to engage seriously with that idea. I wanted to start with the most fundamental level of any text, the word, and then also think of selfhood in a similar way. Essentially, Homesick is my own etymology, the etymology of someone obsessed with language and working entirely with languages. The connection between people and words—rather than making everything feel super precarious and unreliable, it instead feels to me much more dynamic to think about language’s capacity for change, and power to encompass whole new meanings over the centuries, and ability to cross over into new territories that words never went to before.

When I’m translating, I definitely think about a word’s history when I know it, and I always have a tab with the Oxford English Dictionary open when I’m working. If there is a way to play with that—it’s not necessarily something I do so much with translating someone like Olga, but in translating poetry, for example, I would definitely do that. Olga doesn’t interrogate language as she writes—that’s not really part of her project—so I don’t want to dismantle the words as I’m going, if that makes sense, as I might with other people.

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That makes sense! How did you get involved with Olga to begin with?

I started out translating Russian, and I came to the University of Iowa to do an MFA in Russian translation, where they happened to be offering Polish the semester I started. I just really took to it, and I ended up feeling more interested in contemporary Polish women writers—that’s what I knew I wanted to work with, contemporary women’s writing—and I found Olga right away. I read a collection of short stories she published called Playing Many Drums, and I loved it. I thought she’d be the perfect person to work with. Flights came out in Poland in 2007, and by then I had published a few of her short stories. I went to Poland for the summer, and we met and talked about my doing Flights and she was in favor, so I worked from then on. It took me nine years to find a publisher.

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You’re working on The Books of Jacob now, and I read you’re also working on the Argentine writer Federico Falco’s A Perfect Cemetery. What’s it like translating from two different languages at the same time? Do you find them informing each other, or do you keep them separate?

Right now I’m only translating The Books of Jacob—and teaching a translation workshop, and reading for the Booker—but I’m not writing anything else or doing any other translation. I think it’s not so much a question of the languages being different as a question of the authors being really different. I also don’t even like to read more than one book in a day if I don’t have to: maybe it’s just my personality, but I like to spend time one on one with a person, and I feel the same way about someone’s writing. I like to immerse myself in it and feel like I’m really fully focused.

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From my very amateur perspective, it seems like there’s a lot going on in the translation world at the moment, from the National Book Awards bringing back the prize, to Emily Wilson popularizing the nitty-gritty on Twitter, to lots of small presses increasing their focus on translation—or getting attention for the translations they’ve been publishing all along—and I’m wondering if this increased awareness is translating (ha) in practical ways for a working translator. Are you finding a corresponding rise in funding or publishing gigs? Because obviously it’s a tenuous lifestyle, the working life of a translator.

I’m glad you understand that! It’s very hard to make a living as a translator. I think that’s a really, really, really good question that I want to be asking all the editors, all the magazines. That’s the next thing that has to happen. Translators should get agents, I think: it would be a game-changing thing for the industry if translators also had people to negotiate contracts for them, because that has been notoriously difficult to arrange in a way that actually benefits the translator. Hopefully people’s increasing awareness of how much work translation is and how important it is to get a great match between author and translator—hopefully that will result in a little bit better pay.

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About the author

Mairead Small Staid

Mairead Small Staid is an essayist living in Minnesota. More of her work can be found at https://maireadsmallstaid.com/.