In Jennifer Croft’s ‘The Extinction of Irena Rey,’ literature is alive—even dangerous

Set in a Polish forest, the award-winning translator’s first novel embarks on a rewilding of language, narrative, and art itself

In the primeval Białowieża Forest, eight translators have descended to work on Polish literary icon Irena Rey’s new novel. But soon after they arrive, she disappears. The translators are left with the novel, Grey Eminence, and with the residue of her life, as they attempt to piece together where she might have gone.

In The Extinction of Irena Rey, the first novel and second book in English by the International Booker Prize-winning translator Jennifer Croft, literature is alive, even dangerous. The Extinction purports to be written by Emi—Rey’s Argentina-born Spanish-language translator, who, the opening “warning” tells us, has written her book in stilted Polish. Thus, it has been left to Rey’s US translator (and Emi’s sworn rival) Alexis, to render the novel in English—a job she does while attaching snarky footnotes.

Croft has chosen to weave together three languages—English, Polish, and Spanish—that she works closely with: she is well-known as the translator of the Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, and she translates many contemporary Argentine writers, including Federico Falco and Sebastián Martínez Daniell. This novel’s translation conceit—and translator protagonists—make visible the task so often misunderstood and invisibilized. The Extinction of Irena Rey complects and complicates the relationships between translation and border politics, art and nature, image and text, truth and myth. It is about not just the extinction of its demigod-like author, but, perhaps, all of us.

Drew Zeiba: What was the experience of writing around a character, Irena Rey, who is absent yet looms so large, or exists primarily in her non-presence?

Jennifer Croft: I was really interested in exploring the translators’ relationships with each other, partly because of my own experiences with the other translators of Olga Tokarczuk. I’ve met them at three different events around Poland, and also in Stockholm when Olga got her Nobel Prize. I don’t know any of them that well, they’re all super lovely-seeming people. But you bring together really intelligent, creative people who are all obsessed with the same figure, and then I just wondered, what if you took away that kind of central organizing force of gravity, what would happen to them? Especially if you put them in a forest, how wild would they go? I made mine go pretty wild, obviously.

She had to be absent. I think that also has to do with my experience of the process of translation. The author is never there, but you’re always in search of this mystical essence of their original voice. But it’s never really there. It’s always in and out.

Drew: You don’t have someone else’s text to inhabit, but was there something akin to the act of translation in writing this novel?

Jennifer: Definitely. I wanted people to pay attention to the role of the translator, not only through the plot, but also by pretending that the book itself is a translation, that it’s written in a second language, or even a third language by the Argentine translator, and then it’s translated for us by her archnemesis, the US translator. The thing that felt most like doing a translation to me was the back-and-forth in the footnotes. It wasn’t there in the first draft as much. But then, as the characters became more fully fledged in my mind, I became very affectionate towards Alexis, who was completely ridiculous and over the top. Somehow she grew on me, and I wanted to give her the space to respond to the things that were happening in the main text. Of course, her comments are often very silly. But it’d be fun to have a little more commentary from translators in general in the books that we’re reading—at least an afterword, which doesn’t happen that often.

I get frustrated with this reverential way of talking about ‘people telling their stories,’ and art-making as just the greatest and most noble thing that we can do as human beings.”

Drew: I’m also interested in the way the footnotes establish or destabilize these modes of what I could call trust. Because we have to trust that Alexis is being ‘faithful’ to Emi’s original text, whatever that means. And in fact, she says that she’s smoothing over Emi’s Polish sentences which read as if they’re “tiny haunted house[s]” with ghosts of Spanish. Alexis also admits to rewriting her own dialogue as she remembers it at one point. I’m thinking too—and maybe this is certain readers’ Anglophone chauvinism—of the idea of being mistrustful of translations, of thinking they aren’t ‘faithful.’ So this metafictional conceit doesn’t just undermine some of the expectations of plotting and character, but it also opens up different ways of thinking about how a translator relates to a readership.

Jennifer: It’s a way for me to work through all of my ideas around the relationship between the translator and the reader and also the writer. You have these multiple forces that are pulling on the translator as they’re working. I’ve been on this campaign for a few years to recognize translators for a variety of reasons, not only because I want translators to receive credit for their hard work, but also because I want authors to be recognized for their original languages that they’re coming from. I want the collaborative and new aspect of the translation to be understood and approached on its own terms, which I think is really important. I think a lot of that mistrust or the English-language chauvinism that you mentioned comes from the fact that the translatednesss of a text is so frequently concealed. Then it’s true, you don’t know what you’re getting. If you can’t figure out who the translator was, you don’t know anything about their identity, or their politics, or why they’re working on this project, or what they brought to it, it can make it really hard to trust what you’re reading. Translation in general is, of course, an activity that I endorse. I think it does enrich the cultural ecosystem. But it comes with so many responsibilities. There are other things to consider when we talk about translation, like the potential for erasure and the ways that the translation can perhaps obscure the original or obscure the author.

I wanted to explore these unresolvable tensions. There’s the tension between Emi and Alexis, who represent opposite ends of the ethical spectrum when it comes to translation, but also of our relationship to another, to a person who is different from us, our understanding of our own subjectivity and individuality in the face of someone else’s. That’s a very important thing. And I feel like every reader will identify with at least a little bit of the extremely faithful approach and at least a little bit of the extremely free approach. Probably no one is quite as extreme as those two characters.

I was also trying to think through, in the context of the forest, [what it means] to be a native species versus an invasive species, what it means to be visitors like the translators are. At what point do they become trespassers or interlopers? I wanted to, without really coming to a full resolution, open all of those questions for people.

Drew: One question that seems related—and it’s related to the narrative around the forest and by Irena’s novel that they’re meant to be translating—is about the ethics of art at all, for lack of a better way to put it. Sorry, I’m going to read yourself to you… ‘It seemed to me that Irena’s novel was suggesting that our current extinction event—in which hundreds of thousands of species, maybe millions, were dying out all around us, right before our refusing eyes—was the direct result of art. Painting, sculpture, literature—even language itself, a system of abstractions intended to stand in for the real world. That was the key: every creation that served as a substitute for what was given in nature was art.’

I realize this is being spoken by a fictional narrator, I’m not saying that these are your words or your beliefs. But there are interpretations that could be—interestingly—contradictory, insofar that you yourself wrote a novel. I’m wondering about that tension around the responsibility or irresponsibility of art—whether in the context of this novel or more broadly, and about what you were trying to draw people’s attention toward there.

Jennifer: I get frustrated with this reverential way of talking about ‘people telling their stories,’ and art-making as just the greatest and most noble thing that we can do as human beings. I do wonder why we have this compulsion to always be creating something new. It does sometimes come at the expense of what came before, whether that’s the literal landscape that we’re destroying to get the materials for what we’re making or because we’re staging our art in that space. There is, to my mind, the possibility that we are overly obsessed, as a culture, with creating, and particularly with the ‘individual genius’ we hope to find who is constantly creating something new when we’re surrounded by fascinating forests, for example, that are full of creatures we don’t really understand yet. And we’re nonetheless driving them to extinction before we ever will understand them or, in the middle, there are activities like translation, which is a way of recycling and recontextualizing pre-existing projects.

Probably my actual position on that would be that I would love to see a little bit more moderation in the way that we talk about art-making and in the way that we think about collaboration as opposed to solo work.

I wanted the translators to go wild and, accordingly, I wanted the prose to go wild.”

Drew: Deforestation is a big part of the novel, but there’s also the more metaphoric extraction of others’ time and creative energy going on within the narrative. I feel like with this idea of ‘telling your story,’ this general compulsion to package everything as a highly individuated creative act—a creative act which you need to keep doing over and over, or even accelerate—mirrors both the rhetoric and function of consumer capitalism or ‘content creation.’

Jennifer: And also the underlying tension there, too, between the cycle of endless creation and destruction, versus the kind of artistic impulse to leave something to be eternal, to achieve something that will last for future generations. That also feels very destructive as an idea to me. They talk about this in the book, but what is more lasting or enduring than plastic, which is destroying the planet?

Drew: It’s also like, what good is ‘immortality’ if there’s a mass extinction event?

Jennifer: Yeah, and no one thinks about that, I feel.

Drew: The small existential questions. Returning to Irena Rey, there’s a lot of research woven in. There’s a lot of information about Białowieża Forest, of course. There are also things that I know you’ve written about before, like postcards, Tempelhof Airport. And there are all these photos. Maybe that’s two questions, but I wanted to ask about the research and accumulation and these fascinations and how they found their way to the book. And then I also wanted to ask about how you’re using photos.

Jennifer: I’ll start with a photography question, because that’s related to my first book [Serpientes y escaleras, later published in English as Homesick]. It’s kind of the opposite of this book. It’s very short vignettes, in chronological order about a young girl who’s trying to control a world that she is frightened by through photography. Each vignette is like its own little Polaroid snapshot. So I started working with photography in text in that way. And then I just since then, I’ve just felt like, Why doesn’t everybody do this? This is just more fun. The photographs can really expand what the text is doing. And the text can really enrich what the photographs could do on their own and deepen things. It’s a wonderful thing to push the boundaries of genre, push the boundaries of media. We can do that. So why don’t we? The function in this book is a little bit simpler. But I think relating it to the other part of the question about all of my long-standing obsessions… My first book was hyper-focused. And this book, by putting them in the forest—which is such an overwhelmingly powerful space so densely populated by all of these creatures who are constantly on top of one another—I wanted the translators to go wild and, accordingly, I wanted the prose to go wild. I basically threw in everything I had—postcards are obviously related to what we just talked about in terms of the meaning of text and image. But there’s also something about the way that they capture and misrepresent a particular place that I thought was relevant. They’re not a huge part of the plot. But Tempelhof is, of course, and Tempelhof I chose because I’m obsessed with it. And because they felt like it was the opposite extreme of Białowieża Forest. Have you ever been there by any chance?

Drew: I have.

Jennifer: I thought you might have.

Drew: I seem like the type?

Jennifer: No, just the way that you casually mentioned it, because I feel like people don’t know what it is. I find it to be such a fascinating space. Part of it is almost post-human. It feels as if it’s been retaken by nature. But it has always been this powerful and almost sacred space within Berlin. There’s so much that’s happened there. There was the concentration camp that was there for a while. There was the Nazi photography lab that was destroyed by who knows whom. It feels like a bunker, which is, of course, well, I won’t spoil it… But it felt like this could potentially be the future of the last remaining original forests in Europe or potentially the future of all human things that might be retaken by hardier forms of nature.

Drew: The photos are also interesting, because even though they’re tied to the narrative as being Instagram images or are referred to in the text, and although they work on the page as a kind of montage, they don’t usually contain narrative information themselves. They’re photos of signs, cooking, lichen, which aren’t necessarily mapping their content one-to-one on the text that comes before or after. Did you take the images with the project or their place in it in mind, or did you start with a photobank already? Was this narrowed down from a larger selection?

Jennifer: I find that editing photographs for whatever reason is really helpful to me in editing text, it always helps me rethink and reframe. And yes, it’s good for me for plotting. Then montage became necessary as I wanted them to get done with the translation that they’re working on without being excruciatingly boring, and just literally showing them translating for hundreds of pages.

When I was working on Homesick, I did have a huge bank, and then I went back to certain places to take more photographs. It took me forever to edit them and to figure out their placement. In this case, I just went with my instincts. I always want the image to suggest something that might be outside of language or underneath language. And to slightly redirect the reader from whatever they’re thinking about in terms of the text. I love that picture of the bone, which, actually, that’s the only one that doesn’t come from the Białowieża forest. That comes from the place where I wrote the book in Switzerland, but I was so happy to come across this random bone on a path in a bunch of leaves. It just felt perfect.