BY Ivana Cholakova in Books | 15 MAR 24

Jennifer Croft Navigates the Terrain of Translation

In her debut novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey, the writer experiments with form whilst interrogating literary theory and the politics of language 

BY Ivana Cholakova in Books | 15 MAR 24

Widely praised for her translations of Nobel Prize-winning Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, Jennifer Croft’s debut novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey (2024), is not for the faint of heart. Steeped in literary theory, meta-narratives and a plot filled with illusory staircases and ghostly doors that lead to nowhere, it operates in the enticing purgatory of autofiction. In this novel Croft continues to expertly dissect the agency and function of language with enviable ease and precision, drawing long-overdue attention to the often-imperceptible labour of the translator. Following the tradition of Slavic fables, The Extinction of Irena Rey is not afraid to lean into the sinister and relishes in the unease of both its protagonists and readers in a world of magical realism and abject horror.

We are introduced to a translating collective, or a singular organism, that thrives in the strict language ecosystem of the renowned writer Irena Rey. ‘Born out of the foam’ of her first book, Lena, they regularly convene in Poland’s primeval Białowieża Forest, this time to translate her magnum opus, Grey Eminence, into eight European languages. Croft creates a translator’s Eden, rich in literary symbolism and biblical connotation. Bestowed with the spiritual title ‘Our Author’, Rey governs the translators as a god tasked with the omnibenevolent responsibility of ‘stitching up the world’s wounds with language’. Her literary brilliance is often manifested in long, sermon-like descriptions that endow her with the power of genesis: ‘Irena had always made sense. That was her whole job, as an author: to produce meaning, glimmering and glorious, for all her readers to behold.’

In comparison to this omnipotence, her translators initially appear as one-dimensional figures, assuming the names of the languages into which they transmute Rey’s works. We are told by Spanish that the languages know little of each other’s lives outside of the summit, despite having known one another for decades. Deprived of individual thought or emotional depth, these translators are the ominous personifications of a medium which can consume a person’s identity. Likely to strike a note with most who share their vocation is English’s comment: ‘People don’t think about translators very much […] sometimes we even get written out of the story, out of our own life stories.’ Inextricably linked to Rey’s despotic writing, the collective acts solely as humble apostles of her sacred words.

Jennifer Croft book cover
Jennifer Croft, The Extinction of Irena Rey, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Scribe 

As readers, we see only a refraction of Rey’s persona, kept alive by the convictions of her translators. When she mysteriously disappears, her disciples desperately cling to her previously imposed order: erecting a shrine to ‘Our Lady of Literature’, they dutifully continue the translation of her work. Soon, however, without her supervision, they begin to slip back into their human forms: we learn their real names and are offered tentative glimpses into their lives. This comes at a price: the more fleshed-out they become, the quicker Rey dissipates; her deified writing is revealed to be the product of plagiarism as she incorporates her translators’ tragic family histories into her work. Recognizing that their dedication and admiration was unreciprocated, they realize she did not choose them based on linguistic merit but because she considered them interesting characters.

Within the microcosm of the forest, the reader becomes immersed in a translated reality where mystical powers, uncanny omens and dark medievalism abound. Rey’s fortress of solitude – not unlike her carefully curated reputation as a literary genius – belongs to a folkloric past replete with skull chandeliers, tragic family duels and the occasional act of resurrection. Abandoned by Rey’s authoritative voice, the narrative of the days after her departure stumbles away from the comfort of clarity. The mercurial author-translator relationship is fraught with superlatives, changing with such great frequency that it might induce mild vertigo in any reader. Initially described as ‘everything we’d ever wanted, all anyone could want in the word’, Rey is later resented for being ‘not noble, but cheap, thieving. Base. Her genius wasn’t hers: it was everybody else’s.’

The translators, too, assume kaleidoscopic roles, oscillating between friends, lovers, strangers and arch rivals, often within the span of an individual chapter. Nowhere is this fluidity more notable than in the complicated relationship between English (Alexis) and Spanish (Emi), which entraps the reader in a purposefully convoluted literary mise-en-abyme. Where Spanish represents the ‘prototypical’ translator, sacrificing her selfhood in order to do justice to another author, English sees translation as a collaborative process and is unafraid to question or omit aspects of the original. Their dispute culminates in a duel from which, ultimately, neither emerges victorious. Retrospectively, Spanish (perhaps speaking for Croft herself) notes: ‘It would have been impossible for me to kill Alexis because I was Alexis, or Alexis was as much a part of me as I was.’ To have one of them win would effectively simplify the art of translation.

Jennifer Croft portrait
Portrait of Jennifer Croft. Courtesy: Scribe UK; photograph: Nathan Jeffers 

The most memorable aspect of Croft’s literary experiment is its form. Reminiscent of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), The Extinction of Irena Rey employs academic footnotes to create a meta-commentary between the writer and translator alongside the main narrative. Through her long-winded footnotes, English is an ever-present voice, unafraid of committing translational sacrilege by ridiculing, correcting and undermining Spanish’s work. Their perspectives on translation clash when Spanish quotes Israeli author Etgar Keret’s assertion, made during a speech at the 2012 Edinburgh International Book Festival, that: ‘Translators are like ninjas. If you notice them, they’re no good.’ English is quick to dismiss this with a blunt annotation: ‘Perhaps because she wants you to believe that this book contains some secret knowledge. Exclusive access that lasts only as long as Irena’s story does. Needless to say, I disagree.’ Defying academic tradition, English’s comments are instead used as a form of emotive retaliation to the accusations issued by the writer. It is a rare treat to see fictional characters respond so directly and with such verve to their own depiction. What emerges is a deeply insightful conversation that reminds the reader of the story’s subjectivity while reconsidering the agency of its characters.

The Extinction of Irena Rey is defined by its purposeful ambiguity: the plot and its characters wrestle against direct interpretation. Instead, the novel is an exercise in language, a cautionary tale warning against literary deification and advocating for artistic collaboration. Whilst marking a bold and mostly successful move towards fiction-writing for Croft, the book’s extensive rumination over the role of the translator risks trapping the novel in theory. Having killed its darlings, the narrative remains a haunted house, whose ghosts persist to remind us that, whether we like it or not, we all live in a world of translation.

Jennifer Croft's The Extinction of Irena Rey is published by Scribe UK and Bloomsbury in the US

Main image: Image of forestry. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Ivana Cholakova is a writer and editorial assistant at frieze. She lives in London, UK.