In January, Jennifer Croft and Boris Dralyuk were nominated, separately, for the National Book Critics Circle’s Gregg Barrios Book in Translation Award. This is noteworthy because Croft and Dralyuk are translators of rare happiness, Croft of 2018 Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk (she is a finalist for Tokarczuk’s “The Books of Jacob”) and Dralyuk of Isaac Babel, among others (she is nominated for Andrey Kurkov‘s “Grey Bees”). Also notable: the translators are married, making this the first time both members of a couple have competed for the same National Book Critics Circle award. On March 23 it will be known if anyone wins the prize.
Whatever happens, it will not define them. They are also acclaimed authors in their own right. Croft’s memoir “Homesick” won the 2020 William Saroyan Award. Dralyuk is a poet and until recently was executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Last year, the couple left Los Angeles to teach at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. We met via Zoom to discuss his multiple work and life.
What is it like to marry someone from your discipline?
Jennifer Croft: We met because we were both translators of Slavic languages and we had mutual friends. Once we started dating, I would find Boris in my steps, where he would tell me what he had just translated. He gets so emotionally involved. He was at the LA Review of Books, so his time was limited. He translated 500 words a day. He is so careful with every word. He was very moving and, I think, a big part of how we came together.
Boris Dralyuk: Jenny, as a writer and translator, works faster than me and in big bursts of immersion. One of the inspiring moments of our courtship was reading the almost final manuscript of “Homesick” in a single block, and at the same time receiving these very long excerpts from “Flights” (by Tokarczuk) and responding with excerpts from me. So we courted each other with our projects.
Translation implies inhabiting the language and work of another person. But it is also a creative act.
Dralyuk: It is very similar to writing; in fact, it is typing, but you have some help. The plot is there for you, the nuances of emotion. But your task is to recreate that by creating something new. You apply the same tools that a writer uses, not only the devices but also your psychology.
Small farm: Authors have told me that translators are their closest readers. That we understand your work better than anyone else, including publishers. Still, unlike many translators, I never consult the writer as I work. I feel like the text has to be a separate entity. I want it as the original reader would have experienced it.
Lydia Davis He once told me about the research he does on his translations, which includes reading each version of a given work. What do you do for a living?
Small farm: I investigate, but only in a certain sense. For example, I published a translation of Pedro Mairal, a book called “The Woman of Uruguay”, which traces a journey from Buenos Aires to Montevideo. My research was that I lived in Buenos Aires for seven years and I made that trip many times. That is why I translate contemporary writing, because for me it is important to have experienced what is described. That’s why I don’t do, like Boris, historical texts.
Dralyuk: When I started translating, or retranslating, I had every available version open in front of me, along with every dictionary I could find from the time. I have reduced it. I keep consulting previous translations, but I contribute my own diction, my own syntax, my own sense of the original. Just as important is historical research on the Russian reality of the 1890s or 1900s, the Soviet reality of 1921.
American culture is notoriously resistant to works in translation.
Small farm: There is still some resistance from publishers of a certain generation (to the translation itself, to crediting and properly remunerating the translator), but I think people are less phobic than they once may have been. It used to be that people like me were the most common translators into English, people who grew up speaking English but picked up other languages. Now many people who have immigrated to the United States are bringing their literature to English. People of color are translating writers of color, which is very important. I am optimistic and excited.
Dralyuk: I share that enthusiasm and optimism. I also feel that readers are more willing to accept stylistic innovation on the part of the translator. There has been an overemphasis, I think, on a very superficial idea of precision: “Well, this is wrong, because the original has this word in this place.” That may be fidelity, but it is fidelity to an element and betrayal of the whole.
What is the relationship of the translation with your other work?
Small farm: I have always thought of translation as an apprenticeship with a writer I admire. I just finished a novel about eight translators who meet to translate an author’s magnum opus. But the day after her arrival, she disappears. So, in part, the book is about translators realizing their agency over the work itself.
Dralyuk: I am a lover of sui generis voices, which are always threatened with extinction. They can tell us more about their time than any number of homogeneous voices from the same period. I am also interested in style, sometimes at the expense of even great substance. As an editor, I’ve always worked to help people sound more like themselves, to refine their voices and remove false notes.
You recently left Los Angeles for Tulsa and teaching. What has it been like to make that change?
Small farm: I grew up in Tulsa. I thought Tulsa was terribly boring. Then I ended up writing a book about it because I lived in Buenos Aires and realized that Tulsa might be interesting for readers who have no idea what it’s like to hear a tornado coming. Boris was forced to emigrate when he was a child and I grew up in a place I couldn’t wait to leave. I lived in Krakow, Warsaw, Moscow, Berlin, Paris, Buenos Aires, New York and then Los Angeles. So for me, it’s a different experience.
Dralyuk: I have always thought of teaching as a form of presentation, curation and performance, all of which I put into practice in translation. And editing too. I have loved working as an editor, especially the interaction between author and editor. In the case of students, I feel that the relationship is similar. I am helping them find their voices, their enthusiasm.
Ulin is a former book editor and book reviewer for The Times.