A Translation the Size of the World

“Translators and writers must fight through the “labyrinth of [the] imagination,” find their way through their private language toward a text’s new picture of reality.”

“The responsibility of translator,” writes Olga Tokarczuk, “is equal to that of writer.”1 Both connect “intimate language”—through which individuals understand their experience—with “collective language”: the shared vocabulary through which a society forms its “picture of reality.” Ideally, a writer refreshes stale collective language by offering new articulations of experience, and a translator shares different societies’ languages to reveal that there is no single way to interpret the world. In this sense, writing and translating stitch together individual voices into new collectives, forming new totalizing conceptions of reality.

So writes Tokarczuk—or, rather, so writes Tokarczuk as translated by Jennifer Croft. Croft herself imagines translators similarly in her new novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey: as upcyclers, parasites, devotees, minotaurs, conquerors, creators, invasive species, and, perhaps, human beings. But she insists most ardently that translators are the connective tissue in massive systems.

Croft and Tokarczuk share a concern for individuals and the totalities they inhabit. The profound feat of Tokarczuk’s historical epic The Books of Jacob is its new collective language, which figures the massive web of reality through the textured frailty of human beings. Croft, in contrast, attends to the way the intimate language of the individual sustains whole pictures of reality. And, precisely in the novel’s shortcomings, Croft also shows the fickleness and fragility of individual language—and its failure to produce pictures of existential systems.

In her celebrated Nobel lecture, Tokarczuk suggests that the contemporary world requires a new kind of novelistic voice. To represent the world’s massive systems without losing fidelity to individuals, spares, or strays calls for a “tender narrator”: a storyteller with a “perspective from where everything can be seen,” who illuminates “that all things that exist are mutually connected into a single whole.”2 Such a narrator, she clarifies, is not a mere accumulator of information but a mythmaker, synthesizing disparate objects into a totality the reader can experience.

In Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, the tender narrator is ostensibly Yente, grandmother to the titular eighteenth-century Jewish messianic leader Jacob Frank. On the first page, Yente swallows an amulet meant to forestall her death and is mysteriously transported outside her body, allowed to watch centuries of history and countless human lives unfurl.

But really, Yente is a fictive conceit; one doesn’t get the sense that in Tokarczuk’s epic, intimate language comes from Yente’s lips. The true tender narrator is a phantasm of syntactic twists and dictional choices: the prose itself. Tokarczuk’s great achievement is the creation of a new language for grasping the world, a narrative voice that conjures and binds individual people in their hopes, agonies, desperations. The novel’s massive web of characters, immersed in the tumult of plague and war and intolerance, lament, each in their own way, that the world is “made poorly.” But the novel itself binds them together in the enormity and minutia of their thirst for salvation.

Consider, for instance, Jacob’s encounter with the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, among the most renowned Christian icons in Poland. The scene’s details are narrated in the present tense, flinging us into the middle: “Jacob is permitted to enter the crowd in front of the picture. He is scared, but not of the picture—of the crowd.” Then, rupture:

Something strange freezes in the air, so that your heart contracts as if from fear, but it isn’t fear, it’s something bigger, and it happens to Jacob, too, so that he falls on his face, onto the floor that was only just stomped all over by the peasants’ dirty shoes, and here, next to the floor, the racket quiets, and it’s easier to bear the tightness in his chest that out of nowhere folded him in half.

Later, in his chambers, Jacob deliriously prophesies that the Virgin is a guise of the Shekinah (a Kabbalistic divine feminine figure) and a key to salvation: “She has to hide in the abyss … But every day she will appear to us more clearly, down to her every detail.” The perspective gently shifts to Jacob’s attendant, who leaves the chamber and later spots a strange hierophantic inscription on the wall. “He looks at it, his surprise not wearing off, then shrugs and blows the candle out.” And then we’re gone, on to another chapter.

Episodes like this accumulate over the novel’s 900-odd pages, a complete image forming from disparate pieces. Patterns emerge: the inexplicable in the ordinary, suffering that defies explanation, salvation that appears this close. We discern an underlying fabric, a narrative logic tuned to existential need.

This logic most clearly appears when Yente, from her mystical vantage, gazes upon the “messianic machine,” the metaphysical infrastructure of reality. It spins “slowly and systematically,” working pedestrian life into salvation, and its product is the Messiah itself. This Messiah, like the narrative voice that permeates the novel, “is something that flows in your blood, resides in your breath,” and is found in the “dearest and most precious human thought: that salvation exists.”

The novel’s own messianic machine is built of this fragile particularity: fugitive note-taking and rambling letters, webs of backdoor diplomacy and gossipy fortune telling and the delirious look by which the faithful realize the Spirit of God has entered Jacob. In them, we find a world that is, in Walter Benjamin’s words, “shot through with chips of messianic time.”3

With its whirring salvific hydraulics, The Books of Jacob’s narration creates a new picture of totality. And it does so simply—impossibly—by holding together moments of human frailty.

Narrative voice—tender, sober, mystical, earthly—is Tokarczuk’s achievement. But it isn’t hers alone: after all, it is Jennifer Croft who brought forth Tokarczuk’s private messianic language in English.

Croft has described translating The Books of Jacob as a multifocal process. Translation, she argues, means parsing the meaning of each word and intuiting the cultural architecture to which words belong—the exact kind of massive system underpinning the novel itself. This means a text must “pass through the vast, dynamic labyrinth of the translator’s imagination.”4

Yet the result is necessarily ambivalent: “To the extent that the map can change the territory by determining an undetermined space or feature … I have likely both narrowed and expanded Olga’s original text in my translation.” Managing every aspect of a text is fractious and uncertain—a consequence of the translator’s subjectivity, for better or worse.

This uncertainty is at the heart of Croft’s new novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey. The plot centers on eight devoted translators of Polish celebrity author Irena Rey. The author assembles the translators at her forest estate for the purpose of translating her magnum opus, but then she disappears. (Rey is clearly a stand-in for Tokarczuk, though Croft assures the reader that her fictive author is “the opposite.”5)

With its whirring salvific hydraulics, “The Books of Jacob” creates a new picture of totality. And it does so simply—impossibly—by holding together moments of human frailty.

Perhaps naturally, the novel has plenty to say about translation. Croft writes that translators are like fungi—especially the hyphae of a mycorrhizal network, the threads that “coursed through the soil and stitched the plants and trees of the forest into a united and communicating whole.” They are nexuses in which all things are (or seem) connected. The novel is fascinated with such sites where disparate things come together: from the primeval Białowieża Forest to Berlin Tempelhof Airport, from a writer’s house to Instagram, the protagonists of Irena Rey continually encounter places where “everything was connected to everything else by means of a word.”

But whereas Books of Jacob’s narration illuminates the messianic mechanics of such all-inclusive systems, Irena Rey fixates on their fragility: asking how individuals prevent greater wholes from forming.

Although the book is named after the authoritarian and enigmatic Irena, the story is really that of Spanish translator Emi, the novel’s narrator. Among all the translators, she is Irena’s most zealous devotee; Emi cringes at the possibility of misrepresenting Irena’s language, lashes out at the other translators for doubting the author, and is convinced that the new novel will save the world from climatic extinction.

Emi is less sure about her own work. She’s entranced by the notion that translators, like fungi, “stitch the world into a united and communicating whole,” but she worries: If fungi are “translators of trees,” are they “unwaveringly faithful” or simply parasites destroying their hosts? Translation has a captivating power to connect the individual to the collective, but in doing so is vulnerable to the power of individual subjectivity.

This tension haunts the novel’s narrative method. Irena Rey professes to be the English translation of Amadou, a novel that Emi originally wrote in Polish (despite being a native Spanish speaker). The text is peppered with footnotes by the ostensible English translator, Alexis Archer—herself a character in the novel, Emi’s nemesis. Archer’s notes frequently explain the complexities of translating from Polish to English while reading Spanish between the lines; she often finds no direct translation for Emi’s writing, so she makes creative alterations, becoming an author unto herself. But Archer also engages with the narrative, disparaging Emi’s storytelling and outright disputing her version of events. Though Emi proposes to capture the whole story of Irena’s disappearance, Archer makes the text messy: the narrator isn’t a voice from beyond but a collision of private and public languages.

But of course, it’s all fictional. Alexis isn’t real and Irena Rey (presumably) isn’t a translation: the multiplicity of voices is just one voice, Croft’s. The point isn’t so much the postmodern truth-telling reverie but the question of how many voices it takes to create a picture of reality with language. Maybe there are multiple voices (it feels sexy to say so)—but maybe there’s one synthesizing voice in the end.

Messy individuality is also part of Irena Rey’s failings. While the text boasts an array of quirky characters, it is short on compelling people. Outside of Emi, we’re most acquainted with the too-beautiful, too-online Alexis; Freddie, the philandering pseudointellectual Swedish translator; and Chloe, the stolid French translator (four more translators flit in and out of view, plus a bevy of side characters, but their personalities are ill-defined). Even Alexis, Chloe, and Freddie remain woefully undeveloped because they’re filtered through Emi, for whom they are, respectively, objects only of petulant spite, sophomoric possessiveness, and adolescent infatuation.

In a sense, all these problems are by design. Emi represents the extreme of a translator’s worst impulse: fixation. She throws herself into either absolutist devotion or hatred, too attached to the object of her desire to fit into the networks around her. But although her fixation makes for sharp commentary, it also makes for poor reading. Her obsession is repetitive, not generative; we hear over and over that Irena is immaculate, Freddie is alluring, and Alexis is vapid—but little more than that. This does an especial disservice to Alexis, perhaps the most interesting character in the novel. Although she’s vain, she’s also the boldest, most original theorist of translation in the group, but anytime she begins to voice her thoughts, Emi’s narration cuts her off with nonspecific hatred.

Emi’s obsession also dampens the novel’s central mystery. Although Irena’s cryptic disappearance prompts reflections on the nature of translation itself, Emi is so narrow minded that every new revelation appears as over-the-top shock. Often, this means contrived rhetorical questions: “If we knew more than what we strictly needed to know, would it make our translations better? Or would it make them worse?” “Was all of this—everything I held sacred, understanding Irena, doing her language justice, giving her what she deserved—just a game to them?” “Were we mostly responding to the notion that we might not know her every thought, her every move, her every conscious desire, like we had always believed we did?”

The novel wants to suggest that narration and translation can both forge new collective totalities from individual creativity. But these ideas fizzle because Emi, as an individual, cannot narrate them effectively. It is clear that she has an imperfect understanding of translation, has made a graven image of Irena, and has unhealthy attachments to her collaborators—but the reader knows this long before the novel seems to. The result is that her individuality disrupts the wholeness it tries to create.

In her introductory note, Archer suggests that Emi is “completely unequipped to comprehend” her own story. Unfortunately, this judgment is even truer than the novel realizes.

This weakness, however, might be revealing. If The Books of Jacob develops a new totalizing language from individual lives, Irena Rey demonstrates how intractable individuality can be. Translators and writers are rarely tender narrators—they are liable to bias and preference and obsession. They, too, must fight through the “labyrinth of [the] imagination,” find their way through their private language toward a text’s new picture of reality.

For some translators, like Croft herself, individual language helps build a messianic machine. But for others, like Emi, bathos and obsession mean we never escape the labyrinth. icon

This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.

  1. Olga Tokarczuk, “How Translators Are Saving the World,” translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, Korean Literature Now, June 19, 2019.
  2. Olga Tokarczuk, “The Tender Narrator,” translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft and Antonia Lloyd-Jones, The Nobel Prize, December 7, 2018.
  3. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated from the German by Harry Zohn (Schocken, 2007), p. 263.
  4. Jennifer Croft, “The Order of Things: Jennifer Croft on Translating Olga Tokarczuk,” Literary Hub, February 1, 2022.
  5. “A conversation with Jennifer Croft, author of The Extinction of Irena Rey.” Prepublication advance reading material for The Extinction of Irena Rey, from Bloomsbury.
Featured image: "lost in the forest" by Benny Rotlevy / Unsplash (CC by Unsplash License).