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How translator Jennifer Croft won £26,000 and the Man Booker International Prize

By June 18, 2018No Comments

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Croft won for her translation of ‘Flights’ from the Polish of Olga Tokarczuk’s unusual novel in fragments. This is how she did it.

On May 22, the female duo of author Olga Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft were revealed as the winners of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for Flights (Fitzcarraldo Editions) – a book which travels across space and time, latitudes and longitudes, lives and deaths, bodies and borders, fact and fiction.

A multi-award winning author, and a household literary name in Poland, Tokarczuk has only recently gained recognition across the English-speaking world. Her Los Angeles-based translator, Croft, who works across Polish, Spanish and Ukrainian, is also the founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review. At the award ceremony in London, Lisa Appignanesi, chair of judges, said: “Tokarczuk is a writer of wonderful wit, imagination and literary panache. In Flights, brilliantly translated by Jennifer Croft, by a series of startling juxtapositions she flies us through a galaxy of departures and arrivals, stories and digressions, all the while exploring matters close to the contemporary and human predicament – where only plastic escapes mortality.”

In an email interview, Jennifer Croft took though her journey translating Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights – and into other territories of translation. Excerpts from the interview:

In 2015 you were awarded an NEA Translation Grant and a Pen/Heim Translation Fund Grant to pursue your work on Olga Tokarczuk. Can you speak about the necessity of such grants in nurturing translation projects?
I can’t imagine what I would have done without the grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was for Flights. The day I found out, I was planning to sign a contract to translate a book I desperately did not want to do but would have needed to do in order to keep paying my rent. The NEA grant really saved my career as a literary translator. I’ve since collaborated with them on other things and am consistently amazed by how thorough and how generous they are.

I received a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant to start work on Olga’s 2014 magnum opus, The Books of Jacob, which was great because it raised considerable awareness of the book and of Olga’s career more generally in literary circles in New York in particular. It enabled me to get in touch with editors, agents and future readers, which was very motivating.

The original Polish title of Flights, which is Beiguni (or Wanderers), gestures to the Slavic sect who have rejected settled life. I also read elsewhere that an early title for the book was Runners. Tell us about your choice for the English title – and how this captures the book’s central themes.
The original title of the novel is Bieguni, which comes from a Slavic root that means “to run”. But the word in Polish is a strange one – not a word people use, though they would recognise the root. The word “runners” in English is much more prosaic, much less evocative. I chose a word I thought would accurately reflect Olga’s tendency throughout her work to create networks of associations, a tactic that is especially important in a book like this one, where fragments may appear at first glance to be disconnected from one another, yet in reality they’re linked conceptually as well as though subterranean formal bonds, including the resurgence in different sections of related words. “Flights” suggests plane travel, imagination (“flights of fancy”), fleeing (which is closer to the original Polish title), etc.

While the fragmentary nature of Flights makes for a rewarding read – one dips in and out of it, revisits and re-reads this “thinking” essayistic novel – I expect this also made it a singular experience and exercise in translation. How did you approach the book? What were some of the challenges you faced? And do you have a favourite fragment (or, as Tokarczuk prefers, a favourite “constellation”)?
The most challenging aspect of this translation is precisely the element of Olga’s style that appeals to me the most: her unflagging curiosity about the world and its inhabitants. That she never shies away from travelling in time or space makes for greater demands upon the translator/researcher, but it also means her work is more rewarding. I loved translating this because each time I entered the world of the book I got to go somewhere fascinating and new. I don’t have a favourite fragment, although the story “Godzone” was the only translation I’ve ever done that has made me cry.

It’s taken a decade for the English-language version to hit the bookshelves since the book was first published in Poland. And for this reason Tokarczuk has said that while she’s pleased it has gained renewed pertinence, she also feels “conversationally jet-lagged” talking about it now. With this distance in mind, what are your thoughts on translations as the after-lives or second-lives of a book?
This is a fascinating topic that also gets at the question of what a translation is, whether it constitutes its own artwork, how independent it can be from an original, how independent an original can be from it. I’m planning to write more about this in the future.

You’re also translating Tokarczuk’s magnum opus, the 900-page epic The Books of Jacob, which won the “Polish Booker”, and which is slated to be released in 2019. What can readers expect?
Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob is a monumental novel that delves into the life and times of the controversial historical figure Jacob Frank, leader of a heretical Jewish splinter group that ranged the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, seeking basic safety as well as transcendence. Tokarczuk’s twelfth book, considered by many critics to be her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob is also a suspenseful and entertaining novel that remained a national bestseller for nearly a year after its November 2014 release.

Although set in the eighteenth century, The Books of Jacob invokes a decidedly twenty-first century zeitgeist. It encourages its readers to reexamine their histories and reconsider their perspectives on the shape Europe will take in coming years. It celebrates and problematises diversity in its plot and characters. It subtly participates in the debates dividing Europe – and the world – on how to protect tolerance, how to define intolerance, how to set and abide by the limits of contemporary sovereignty, and on specific issues such as how to handle an influx into Central Europe of refugees in both practical and moral terms.

What are three works in translation from this year that have been your favourites –or that you’re most looking forward to reading?
Two of the other titles on the Man Booker International Prize shortlist really stood out to me: Frankenstein in Baghdad, by Ahmed Saadawi and translated by Jonathan Wright, and Vernon Subutex 1, by Virginie Despentes and translated by Frank Wynne. In both cases, the translators are absolutely brilliant, and the novels are fast-paced and fascinating. Vernon Subutex 2 is coming out next month, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Emma Ramadan has also done a wonderful job translating Virginie Despentes’ Pretty Things, which is coming out in August, and which is also a quick, thrilling, thought-provoking read.

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