Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jennifer Croft talks about her novel 'The Extinction of Irena Rey'


Eight translators walk into a house. Now, this isn't the beginning of a joke. It's a novel by the famed translator Jennifer Croft. It's 2017, and eight translators of the works of Irena Rey, a celebrated Polish novelist, arrive at her home to translate her unfolding work. The author leads them on hikes into the ancient Bialowieza Forest but doesn't show them her pages. Then the author disappears. The story of the search of translators for their author, whom they worship, leads them through thickets of cunning debates about language, meaning, national differences, cultural thefts and the fragility of the great forest all around them. The title is "The Extinction Of Irena Rey," and Jennifer Croft, who joined us in 2022, as translator of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk's "The Books Of Jacob," joins us now from Tulsa, Okla. Thanks so much for being with us.

JENNIFER CROFT: Thank you so much for having me back.

SIMON: Do translators really get together like this?

CROFT: You know, it doesn't happen a lot, but I have gotten together with Olga Tokarczuk's translators a number of times, whether she's organized it or whether it's been organized by the Polish government, which sometimes sponsors translations into other languages in an effort to promote Polish culture abroad.

SIMON: The translators in your novel are nicknamed by their languages, so Swedish, Czech, Serbian, Slovenian, English, German, French and Spanish. Did they begin to see themselves as kind of national representatives, almost like a translating U.N.?

CROFT: Yeah, I think that's one of the many questions that I wanted to explore that there may not be an easy answer to. But when I speak of myself or think of myself as the English-language translator of Federico Falco, an Argentine writer I work with, that gives me a lot of responsibility, obviously, and also a lot of power, because I'm taking on this role for the entire English-speaking world, and I wanted to explore what that means.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the trouble between Emi, who's the Spanish translator, and Alexis, who's the English translator. What's at the root of that, do you think? Is it just rivalry, something else?

CROFT: Well, it was important to me to write the book from the perspective that was not the English-language translator perspective, because I did want to explore these power dynamics and hierarchies within the world of the translators, who seem to be very selfless, benevolent creatures on the surface. But I wanted to kind of tap into - surely they must have underlying egos, and I wanted to tap into what was happening inside them, especially once their author leaves. Here they are in the wilderness, and the English-language translation is the one that is associated with the most prestige and the most money. So I have my main narrator is the Spanish-language translator. She's from Argentina, which is a very particular kind of Spanish. And she has written this novel in Polish, not her native language. It's being translated for us into English by her archnemesis, the English language translator from Arkansas, Alexis Archer. And I did that also to really dramatize the power of translation, because Alexis is constantly undermining the main narrative in her translation.

SIMON: Are they all competing for the love of their author?

CROFT: Yes. I mean, I think they're all competing for a lot of different things, but in this case, there is this kind of cross between a divine figure and a maternal figure, and they really believe that she can change the world. And one of the things in particular that she's working on here has to do with climate change and biodiversity loss. So the stakes are high, and they have this faith in her that she can help solve these problems.

SIMON: Well, that brings us to, in many ways, the overwhelming character of the novel, which is the Bialowieza Forest, overwhelming and endangered. What would you like readers to feel?

CROFT: I started really working on this book in 2017. I had been to the Bialowieza Forest before. It's the last remaining primeval forest in Europe, meaning it's the last forest that hasn't been interfered with by human beings. Of course, there have been humans around, but it hasn't been cut down and replanted. When trees die there, they're just - they're left there, and that allows for this incredible richness of insect life and fungal life. And it's such a powerful place. It's really like nothing else I've ever seen. But in 2017, the Polish government began logging, so there was this whole controversy that I wanted to explore. Essentially, how do we respond to climate change? There was an unprecedented drought in the forest, and that seemed to be leading to an infestation of spruce bark beetles. The government is responding by just cutting down massive swaths of trees. And yeah, it was kind of a disturbing time, and I wanted to really just bring people's attention to this sacred space that is unique and I really do think we have to fight to protect.

SIMON: There's a lot of fungi, slime and mold in the novel, too.

CROFT: There - yeah.

SIMON: And it's beautiful.

CROFT: Yeah. Well, yeah, I'm always drawn to, you know, making the humble beautiful. I was very taken with a book called "Entangled Life" by Merlin Sheldrake. He goes a long way toward making fungi seem like the world's most spectacular beings. And he argues that life as we know it on earth couldn't possibly exist without fungi, and maybe that fungi hold the key to our future. So I wanted to think about various kinds of intelligence and also especially shapeshifting, which is something that translation is and something that fungi and slime molds can do much more easily than the animals we're familiar with.

SIMON: Translation is shapeshifting.

CROFT: Yeah. I mean, I think here it really feels like the translators are becoming their author, particularly once she's gone, actually. They start kind of consuming her food, wearing her clothing, wearing her shoes, reading things they're not supposed to be reading, just increasingly taking over her role in the household, the village, the forest and perhaps even in the publishing industry. So there's some shapeshifting there. There's the way that the actual text on the screen transforms as I put in my English words over the Polish language or the Spanish language, where it's kind of consuming them. So there's an element of that, definitely.

SIMON: Completing this novel sounds like it coincided with just about the busiest time of a human life. You gave birth to twins. Do you think that affected the story?

CROFT: I think it definitely must have. I was wrapping up this manuscript to submit to publishers when I was so pregnant that I literally couldn't reach around my own belly to access the keyboard of my laptop. I mean, and I had all kinds of health complications because I gave birth when I was 40, and multiples often lead to more complications anyway. So I had carpal tunnel syndrome. My vision got worse. It was an oddly intense situation in which to be completing a book, and then I sold the book about two weeks after giving birth to them by emergency C-section. So I was still having some health issues, quite a few, actually, and suddenly I had these two little squealing, tiny 6-pound items that I had to keep alive, and it just totally transformed my way of working, obviously. I...

SIMON: Yeah.

CROFT: I wrote the first part of this book in a luxurious Swiss treehouse, completely alone in the mountains near Geneva. This was the opposite of that. I was never able to focus for more than a few minutes. I was never able to kind of immerse myself in this fictional world. So I will be really curious to hear from readers if any of that sort of delirium or panic comes through in the text. It probably does.

SIMON: Jennifer Croft - her novel "The Extinction Of Irena Rey" - thank you so much for being with us.

CROFT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.