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UI graduate Jennifer Croft wins Man Booker International Prize for translation of Polish novel

Boris Dralyuk

Jennifer Croft (left) poses with “Flights” author Olga Tokarczuk (center) and their editor, Jacques Testard, on May 22, the night she won the Man Booker International Prize.
Boris Dralyuk Jennifer Croft (left) poses with “Flights” author Olga Tokarczuk (center) and their editor, Jacques Testard, on May 22, the night she won the Man Booker International Prize.

Jennifer Croft, a graduate of the Iowa MFA program in Literary Translation, has won the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of the Polish novel “Flights.”

She is the first program graduate to win this award, which is given annually to a work of fiction that has been translated into English and published in the United Kingdom in the last calendar year. An extremely prestigious and competitive award, Croft will split the prize of 50,000 British pounds with the novel’s author, Olga Tokarczuk.

In addition to translating works from Polish, Croft, whose family lives in Tiffin, translates from and writes in Spanish, and she also has studied French, German and Russian.

Before moving to New York City to start her Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a yearlong research opportunity awarded annually to just a handful of scholars, Croft answered a few questions about her background with languages, her work as a translator, and why it’s important to read international literature.

Q: I hear you taught yourself Russian as a kid. Could you tell me about that? And how it was you came to fall in love with languages?

A: I did. My parents home-schooled my sister and me when we were kids, so I had the flexibility to pursue my interests however I pleased. They helped me find some textbooks with cassette tapes at the public library and later arranged a tutor. I fell in love with language and travel when I was 6 years old, after a trip we took to Prince Edward Island. My dad (Jerry Croft, professor emeritus of Geography & International Studies at the University of Iowa) is an extremely enterprising geographer who has always been very curious about the world, and that curiosity rubbed off on me. My way to travel on my own when I was younger was through languages, and subsequently literature in those languages.

Q: You didn’t grow up speaking Polish. How did you learn the language — and the culture — so well?

A: I studied Polish at the University of Iowa with a wonderful professor named Christopher Wertz. I then received a Foreign Language and Area Studies grant and a Fulbright to go to Poland for a year. I studied at the University of Warsaw and then established a relationship with Krakow, where I spent an additional year and then returned many times thanks to the generosity of Poland’s Book Institute, which gives grants to translators of Polish.

Q: Many people think of translation as simply changing words from one language to another. But it’s so much more than that. Can you explain a little about what it actually means to be a translator?

A: Every translator approaches her work differently, but think about my work in terms of creating something new — not recreating something that is missing parts from the original. People always talk about what is lost in translation, but I find that idea kind of crazy. As I talk with you, in English, which is our shared native language, you will not understand exactly the same thing from any of the words I say as how I conceive of them as I’m talking. We inevitably have different associations with words, different histories, and we grew up in different regions, even though we grew up in the same country. Something is “lost,” then, in any communication. But so many things are gained.

Q: “Flights” seems like it would be incredibly difficult to translate, given the leaps in form and the historical research. How did you approach this project specifically?

A: The greatest difficulty in translating “Flights” was also the greatest pleasure. Olga’s curiosity about the world is what sets her apart from most writers. She never shies away from a new subject, time or place. I do my best to keep up.

Q: Here in the States we don’t tend to see much literature in translation, but small presses like Transit and Deep Vellum are making some inroads. Why is it so important to read literature from around the world?

A: Absolutely, there are several wonderful new presses for translation, like those and like Open Letter and New Vessel, as well as more established independent publishers like Archipelago and New Directions. And that’s just in the U.S. Not to mention wonderful online journals like Asymptote and Words Without Borders, which do so much for translated literature. I think it’s important to read as widely as possible both domestically and internationally. A lot has been written lately on the connection between reading fiction and developing empathy. Inhabiting a narrative from someplace like Baghdad — to take the example of another book that was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize, by Ahmed Saadawi and translated by Jonathan Wright — enables us to see and think much more clearly than we might have otherwise. Plus different cultures have different literary traditions; I know my horizons have been broadened intellectually and artistically by so much contact with so many different forms, as well as perspectives.

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