Translator Jennifer Croft shares prize with Polish author
Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Learning Polish wasn’t part of Jennifer Croft’s plan when she arrived at the University of Iowa in 2001 to begin her MFA in literary translation.

“In some ways, my life has been determined by happy coincidences,” Croft says.

Croft had majored in both English and Russian and completed a minor in creative writing at the University of Tulsa, but an opportunity to take a first-year class in Polish at Iowa eventually led to her winning one of the world’s most prestigious translation awards.

Croft, who received her MFA in 2003, in May was awarded the Man Booker International Prize along with Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, whose novel Flights Croft translated into English. The annual award is given to the best work of translated fiction from around the world, and Croft and Tokarczuk will share the prize of £50,000, about $67,000. Flights will be released in the United States in August.

“I didn’t know anything about Poland or Polish literature,” Croft says. “But because of that class, I got really excited about the language and the culture. My whole career in Polish has been entirely thanks to the University of Iowa.”

As she was preparing to move to Warsaw on a Fulbright award, Croft found one of Tokarczuk’s short-story collections in the UI Main Library. That discovery led to a working relationship between the two that has lasted 15 years.

“The more I translate one author, the more comfortable I feel,” Croft says. “I was just reading her new short-story collection—which is amazing and brilliant and exciting—and I had the feeling that I could sometimes predict the next sentence. You also have more experience harmonizing your voice with theirs.”

It’s two voices coming together that creates a successful translation, Croft says. Word-for-word translation often isn’t feasible because a word or phrase may mean something very different in another language.

“The London Review of Books called my translation of Flights ‘exceptionally adventurous,’ which I guess means that I depart a lot from the literal original text,” Croft says. “But I do that in order to be not less faithful to the original text, but rather more faithful. I want to create a work that is faithfully inspired by the original.”

Aron Aji, director of the MFA in literary translation at the UI, says the program emphasizes translation as a writing art, approaching texts in their literary and cultural context.

“The best literary translation recreates the original work in the new language without sacrificing its consummate beauty, its cultural authenticity, its particular literary voice and scope,” Aji says. “Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights is a complex mix of genres and narrative modes; it is philosophically resonant as much as it is aesthetically ambitious. Jennifer’s translation uses a superbly fluid and engaging English that manages to preserve these intrinsic qualities of the original.”

Croft says she has seen a few major shifts in the profession since she first started translating at Iowa, including a greater public interest in reading translated literature.

“People are more open to reading things from other places in the world that have been translated,” Croft says. “There have always been select writers that people have been willing to read, like Milan Kundera and Gabriel García Márquez, but there are a lot more writers like that now. And that has led to more publishing houses specifically dedicated to translation and more publishing houses willing to take the risk of publishing a book of translation. That’s fantastic for the sake of the world because it’s important to get perspectives other than your own.”

Aji says this resurgence in translation creates more opportunities for students.

“All of this combines to create an energetic field where our students are able to participate even in the earliest stages of their career and to perceive their work with professional seriousness,” Aji says. “The majority of our students begin publishing their translations right away, and it is not uncommon for many to secure a book translation contract before graduating.”

With the rising interest have come more awards underlining the importance of translation. The Man Booker International Prize began recognizing fiction in translation in 2016, and the National Book Foundation announced this year it would add a National Book Award for Translated Literature. Like the Man Booker, the author and translator will share the prize.

While Croft’s win may be the most recent, she isn’t the only Iowa alum to have been recognized for translation in recent years. Among other honors in the last four years, two alumni have won the Best Translated Book Award in Poetry, two students won the Asymptote journal’s Close Approximations contest for poetry in translation back to back, and four graduates have received National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowships.

“Jennifer epitomizes this very strong translation community in Iowa City,” Aji says. “Her achievement is arguably the highest kind of international recognition and will continue to inspire our students.”

Along with Polish, Croft also translates from Spanish and Ukrainian. Spanish came about as another happy coincidence. While working on a PhD in comparative literary studies at Northwestern University, Croft took a two-week research trip to Buenos Aires to study a Polish author who had lived there for 20 years.

“I fell head-over-heels in love with Buenos Aires,” Croft says. “I had to go back to Chicago because I was in the middle of classes and teaching, but I started studying Spanish and returned as soon as I could, living there for seven years.”

Croft also is an author in her own right, including of a novel, Homesick, originally written in Spanish.

“I feel like I’ve been doing an apprenticeship with the authors I translate,” Croft says. “I’m grateful that I get to choose the authors I translate because they’re really good and they teach me how to write. For example, Olga is wonderful with building worlds and characters, and she’s taught me so much about how to do that.”

Croft’s family now lives in Iowa City—her mother, Laurie Croft, is associate director for professional development at the UI’s Belin-Blank Center—and whenever she visits, Croft says she likes to drop by and meet with the students in the literary translation MFA program.

“The students have gotten better and better, and the classes have gotten bigger and more interesting,” Croft says. “Aron Aji is doing an amazing job with the program, and it’s always exciting and fun to see what they are doing.”

Croft will return to the UI Translation Workshop as a translator-in-residence for the 2019–20 academic year.

“Jennifer is a very generous alumna who never misses a chance to interact with our students whenever she in in Iowa City—and through countless emails,” Aji says. “They already perceive her as a mentor.”

Croft encourages students in the program or people thinking about a career in translation to immerse themselves in the language, culture, and literary community in which they want to work.

“If you’re translating from Russian, it’s really important to go live in Russia,” Croft says. “It’s also important to be involved in the literary community in the language you’re translating from as well as English. I try to read a lot of new Argentine fiction, and I’m in touch with a lot of Argentine authors, and I follow the presses there. I think that kind of background enriches the translation, and obviously enriches you as a person as well.”

Croft is busy these days, translating works by Polish authors Tokarczuk and Wioletta Greg, Argentine authors Federico Falco and Pedro Mairal, and working her own writing projects. She’s also open to more happy coincidences.

“I didn’t plan anything,” Croft says. “I’m so grateful for Poland and Argentina. I have nothing in my family history that would lead me to either of those places. I just followed my curiosity about them, and it’s been really wonderful to continue those relationships.”