April 25, 2024

Playful and beautiful language is not
unexpected from a translator as gifted as Croft, who has worked with authors
ranging from the young Argentine story writer Federico Falco to Polish Nobel
laureate Olga Tokarczuk (a partial model for Irena Rey? Certainly Croft is
tempting readers to think so, though it seems immensely unlikely that the real
writer’s behavior matches the fictional one’s). Neither is it surprising that
Croft plainly delights in unusual words, often turning them into Easter eggs of
sorts. After the Swedish translator gets bitten by a tree adder on an excursion
to the forest with Irena, his colleagues are “unable to keep from sensing the
throbbing of Swedish’s hot, pomiform hand.” The basic worry here is
apparent—but if you take the time to look up pomiform, or know that it
means apple-shaped, the looming end of the translators’ Eden is suddenly
clear.  

But Croft is not a thesaurus writer. She
is elastic in tone, as comfortable in low registers as she is in high ones. Her
prose is as funny as it is elegant; it would be propulsive if it weren’t so
packed with words, phrases, and translation debates worth appreciating. The
Extinction of Irena Rey
is, I’d say, the first novel since Jennifer Egan’s A
Visit From the Goon Squad
to pull off a chapter written in the mode of a
relatively new app or program: PowerPoint for Egan, Instagram for Croft. But
though Croft’s good at both Instagram-caption-as-story and, more broadly, at
integrating social media and internet research into a novel about the
archetypally analog subjects of nature and literature, she shines most of all in
her use of a very old technology: the footnote. The Extinction of Irena Rey’s
true plot happens literally below the story, where Alexis, the English
translator, footnotes as she goes. At first, she just offers catty
clarifications— “perhaps it will be useful to the reader to know that the
author liberally employs a very royal ‘we’ throughout”—but before long, the
book’s bottom margins fill up with comments, objections, and critiques of the
translation philosophy to which poor author-worshipping Emi clings.

Using footnotes is itself a
philosophical choice for translators, many of whom argue that doing so is too
academic; that footnoting a novel makes it an object of study, not a story to
be enjoyed. Alexis would likely agree with this idea, which suggests that not
only the content but the presence of her footnotes is meant to undermine the
novel she’s translating. Emi would certainly think so. Emi’s enmity toward
Alexis is rooted partly in envy of Alexis’s beauty and assurance and partly in resentment
of her U.S. citizen’s entitlement (the novel takes pains to distinguish between
American, as in resident of the Americas, and person from the United
States
). Alexis believes in smoothing and tidying translations to ensure
her readers’ pleasure. As a translator, Alexis isn’t all about herself,
but she has faith in her judgment and prioritizes her own ideas, aesthetics,
and career. According to Emi, this means that Alexis violates “our sacred
translation honor code”—and flagrantly, too. “She said it openly,” Emi
complains: “She thought translation was also editing.” Emi, naturally, would
never change a thing. She’s the model of a more old-fashioned school of
translation, the translator who strives to be neither seen nor heard. Her goal
is perfect fidelity to Irena’s original works—which, to Alexis, is itself a
form of betrayal, since preserving meaning word by word can undermine aesthetic
and emotional effect.