A New York Times By the Book Interview With Jennifer Croft

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Jennifer Croft Knows a Good Translation When She Reads One”:

What books are on your night stand?

“Landscapes,” by Christine Lai, “Glory,” by NoViolet Bulawayo, “La Migración,” by Pablo Maurette, “Time Shelter,” by Georgi Gospodinov and Angela Rodel, Sara Baume’s “Seven Steeples,” a little book about Paul Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?,” by George T.M. Shackelford, and “Goodnight Moon” — the board book edition — by Margaret Wise Brown.

What’s the last great book you read?

I just finished reading “Chain-Gang All-Stars,” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, which is a masterpiece. He is brilliant and sensitive, and he manages to write about things that matter (to him and to us) while drawing on a panoply of influences, from hip-hop to anime to 19th-century Russian literature, which enables him to deeply engage the widest possible audience, an ability I very much admire.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Translated novella, hammock, oaks.

Which translators working today do you admire most? And which writers in other realms — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets?

There are so many great translators working into English right now — we’re so lucky — that I won’t even be able to scratch the surface, but here are three who are also writing fiction, plays and nonfiction, respectively: Anton Hur (who translates from Korean), Jeremy Tiang (who translates from Chinese) and Frank Wynne (who translates from French and Spanish).

As for writers in other realms, I adore Angie Cruz, who is quietly reinvigorating the English language by infusing it with Spanish, and who is so deft at voice that her characters feel like family by the end of every book. Jamel Brinkley’s prose is so graceful and entrancing. Idra Novey’s political poetic novels pack such a fantastic punch. Maaza Mengiste is a genius. I hope Paul Yoon wins the Nobel Prize, unless there is a better prize by the time he’s old enough to win the Nobel Prize, in which case I hope he wins that.

I’ll be happy to read anything by Virginie Despentes, who writes in French, László Krasznahorkai, who writes in Hungarian, and Yoko Tawada, who writes in German and Japanese. Novels originally published outside of the United States are often less heavily edited, and I like that freshness, that uniqueness and sometimes that slight chaos.

For children, Yuki Ainoya writes and illustrates oneiric little masterpieces translated from Japanese by Michael Blaskowsky.

Which writers in other languages do you wish had a wider audience in English?

I recently nominated the Senegalese writer and activist Boubacar Boris Diop, who writes in French and Wolof, for the Neustadt Prize, which he won, but I think he still hasn’t reached the readership he deserves. I especially love “Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks,” translated by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop.

What makes for a good translation? Can you (or anyone) recognize a good translation from a language you don’t read?

In general, there has to be chemistry between form and content for a book to be good. What translators do is create new forms for the same content in order to bring readers great books they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. If a translated book reads as great — if the chemistry is there, which does not necessarily mean the book sounds like it was originally written in English — then the translation is great. You don’t need prior knowledge of, say, Iceland or Icelandic in order to appreciate Victoria Cribb’s translation of Sjón’s “Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was.”

Your novel “The Extinction of Irena Rey” (coming next year) is about a group of translators contending with the disappearance of the author they translate and trying to figure out who they are without her. Should we surmise that you see translators as parasites on a host organism?

The central metaphor in “The Extinction” is amadou, a once widespread product of the fungus Fomes fomentarius, which starts its life as a parasite but becomes, after killing its host tree, a decomposer. As such, it enriches the soil and ensures the ongoing vitality of the forest.

Translators overwrite originals, making texts in other languages visible and invisible at once. Without translators, literary traditions and even languages might rot in isolation. With translators, the literary ecosystem keeps up the diversity it needs in order to flourish.

Fomes fomentarius embodies the clash between alarming and awe-inspiring that I think makes translation unique among literary forms. Amadou, meanwhile — the treated flesh of that fungus — was how humans started fires before the invention of safe and reliable matches. (One common name for Fomes fomentarius is tinder polypore.) That technology went extinct, but I don’t think our relationship with Fomes fomentarius is over. It could replace some forms of plastic. It can stand in for leather now.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

Listening to audiobooks doesn’t make me feel guilty, but it does give me a lot of pleasure, and it does seem to make some people feel guilty. I love Aoife McMahon’s narration of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People” and “Conversations With Friends.” I love getting a feel for the Irish rhythms of Rooney’s prose, and I find listening to those books, likely as much thanks to McMahon’s voice as Rooney’s, very soothing. When stressed, I frequently also return to Merlin Sheldrake narrating his own gorgeous book about fungi and connectedness, “Entangled Life.” And I will listen to literally anything narrated by Edoardo Ballerini.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

I fell in love with my husband, Boris Dralyuk, as he was translating Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “Sentimental Tales” from Russian. He wooed me by recounting the tales every evening on my doorstep as he picked me up for dinner, carefully, paragraph by paragraph.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Bolesław Leśmian, Bruno Schulz and Gershom Scholem. I’d record their conversation, publish the transcription, and convince Edoardo Ballerini to narrate the audiobook. At no point in this scenario would I cook.

What do you plan to read next?

“Reproduction,” the new novel by Louisa Hall.

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