The Extinction of Irena Rey

Jennifer Croft

February 26, 2024 
The following is from Jennifer Croft's The Extinction of Irena Rey. Croft won a Guggenheim Fellowship for this novel, the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing for her memoir Homesick, and the International Booker Prize for her translation of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. She is the translator of Federico Falco’s A Perfect Cemetery, Romina Paula’s August, Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay, and Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.

We worshipped Our Author, and when she sent us an email telling us her masterpiece was done, we canceled our plans and packed our bags and flew from our cities to Warsaw, where, bedraggled and ecstatic, we took the train into town and boarded the bus for Białowieża.

It was our seventh pilgrimage to the village at the edge of the primeval forest where she lived. She had always lived there, five miles from the Belarusian border. She loved that forest as much as we loved her books, which, without a fraction of a second’s hesitation, we would have laid down our lives to defend. We treated her every word as sacred, even though our whole task was to replace her every word.

We arrived on September 20, 2017. It was a new moon, but the stars of the northern hemisphere transformed her slim sinuous home, converting the oak strips on the convex walls into quicksilver that momentarily held the frenzied shadows of the forest, slickening their inextricable shapes, and then engulfed them.

There were eight of us. Swedish was new, handsome as a red deer, and we knew at first sight that he would be her favorite. Not only because of the prestige of his language, a conduit to her inevitable Nobel Prize, but also because of his saunter, his stance, that gratifying invitation in his hot blue eyes. Because somehow, that evening, Our Author’s unshakable husband, Bogdan—whose lust worked like kerosene on her authorial imagination—wasn’t there.

With Bogdan gone, she was different from how we’d ever seen her. She was ghost-white. Her eyes were black holes, and it hurt to look into them directly, like we were being torn apart. So we kept our eyes on her crossed arms, but even her arms weren’t her arms anymore, exactly—more like twigs half inhumed by her too-heavy, sludge-colored dress. Her neck lacked the onyx amulet she’d been given by her grandfather, the local black magician; without it, her collarbone jutted out like it wanted to break.

She didn’t say much; she said nothing about Bogdan. We chalked up all these departures from our routine to the toll of finishing a magnum opus. We felt certain we could help her. Not only because of Swedish, but because we always had. Now we’d have to: Besides Bogdan, we were the only ones she truly trusted. If he was gone, that meant that all she had was us.

That night we simply tried not to tax her. Soon we adjourned to our usual rooms, while Swedish stayed downstairs, with her. We assumed she’d catch him up on our traditions, which we would teach him, too, over the coming weeks. We’d learn in turn that he had expert knowledge of much of what was hidden in the forest, underground networks, electric, that we never even knew were there, although we had always belonged to them.

The staircase was a spiral of oak that dawn brought back to life; the third step up had a knot that brought good luck. On the third floor, Serbian and Slovenian shared the bedroom with the slanted ceiling and the skylight, two twin beds, and the balcony overlooking Belarus; English occupied the second-floor suite with the sleek tiled stove and private shower, a glass case in the middle of the room; German got the cot in the winter garden, where he’d sleep beneath the upside-down constellations and the Czech chandelier, surrounded by prayer plants and ferns.

[Note from the translator: Now is as good a time as any to address the elephant in the room: This is a fictional version—a wholly and completely fictional version—of a translation summit that I attended in 2017. That summit was also attended by this author, Emilia Martini, who for some reason—for reasons I will never understand—later chose to write this fictional account not in her native Spanish, but in Polish, a decision that resulted in each of her original sentences becoming a kind of tiny haunted house. Angered by her efforts to forget it, the spirit of Spanish comes whooshing through the walls of every paragraph, breaking plates and continually flicking the light switch, creating an atmosphere of wrongness and scaring the shit out of everyone’s dog. By correcting word order and register, my translation aims to exorcise the neighborhood.

Since trust is crucial to every stage of the translation process, I want to reassure the English-language reader that none of these corrections was ever motivated by my extreme discomfort with my character—that is, the English-language translator who is but one of many outlandish (patently fictional) characters in Emilia Martini’s creative writing exercise—although she is unrecognizable to me (Alexis Archer, trans.).]

That night our sleep was heavy, and when she roused us in the morning at four, our dark march toward the strict reserve bled back into our dreams. We passed through an expanse of weeds that reached up to our knees. The birds at that hour were deafening, mustering the forces of the sun. Rumpled from our journeys, our clothes soaked up the dew.

The strict reserve was the most protected part of Białowieża, off-limits to the public. But nothing was off-limits to Irena Rey. At its entrance she turned and pressed her trigger finger to her mouth. Then we all turned in silence to look out over the field. A pale halo on the horizon revealed pine islands, pinkish, awash in a web of fog; the field was filled with tiny starry flowers. We stood stock-still. The field responded to our quiet in kind, and, satisfied no one was following, we went in.

She’d been convoking us here, on the periphery of Poland, since 2007, the year after she published her third book. A hit in the original, Lena soon gave rise to translations, first into French, then into German. That was how we were born, from the foam of a novel called Lena.

[I actually completed my translation before anyone else did—it just took longer to get published (A.A., trans.).]

Now she led us down a curving path deeper into the forest. On either side of us were stinging nettles, a couple of feet deep; past that, slender trunks that bowed under the weight of their fresh foliage. Some of the older trees were fallen, spiked, half covered by mosses, lichens, slime molds in bubblegum pink and neon yellow.

We came to a fork marked by a ragged stump. In Polish, these vegetable wrecks are known as złoms. They are created by rime—the frost formed by fog—or by very strong winds, or by hail. The word “złom” can also mean an old car no one wants, one bound for the scrap heap, or any useless piece of junk, like a washing machine that won’t work or a hefty home phone. It is related to the word “załamanie,” meaning fracture, crash, collapse. A person who is załamana is psychically broken—like Irena Rey, who stood stooped over the stump as though scrambling to decide how to proceed. Stress shot through our bodies and made our extremities ache; she’d never hesitated in the past, especially not on an opening day, and she had certainly never gotten lost or confused in her own forest.

At last she went left, and we passed through a swamp we knew well, our footsteps resounding on the primitive bridge, unleashing splashing and scampering that shook the primordial ferns. We took deep breaths and were soothed by the scent of urine and stinkhorns and rot.

If you take away the m, “złom” becomes “zło,” the Polish word for bad, or evil, which would start to feel more apt to us over the coming weeks, when we’d happen on these rough-hewn ruins in new moons, praying we would find her, leaving no snail, no stone, no scarlet elf cup unturned. We’d come to understand the forest wasn’t a place that could be searched like any other place. It was a million unconnected events in the process of connecting, some advancing in time, some going backward. It was as many unentanglings, unpredictable and unstoppable. It was all time condensed into a moment at once so fleeting and so unfathomably vast that if a person wished to disappear in it, there would never be anything anyone could do to recover her.

Unless, of course, she’d never been there in the first place. But none of that could have occurred to us that morning. We were book people. We had yet to truly concern ourselves with earth.

We came at last to a little clearing, and Our Author positioned herself in front of a massive, ancient oak. Our eyes moved from grass, dirt, and our feet to her feet, and from there up the scant remnants of Our Author’s body, past her caved-in face, entering the crevices and ridges that formed the bark’s great maze, up, and up, and up, and up, twenty meters to the beginning of its branches, which then shot out in all directions, swerving and spiking and exploding into leaves. Our Author bent and searched for something in her small olive-green backpack, then didn’t find it, straightened up, flicked her hair back, leaned against the tree, and cleared her naked throat.

Szara eminencja,” she said in a disconsolate gurgle, yet in our minds we invested her voice with our own ecstasy and vigor, made it pronounce this new title in our languages: Éminence grise, Siva eminenca, Graue Eminenz. Grey Eminence. But then she didn’t read.

[An excerpt of some length of my translation of Irena’s novel Szara eminencja first appeared in a Romanian magazine that adopted U.K. spelling for all words, including the first word of the title, Grey. Perhaps due to the outsize success of that excerpt, the U.S. publisher made the unusual decision to preserve that spelling here (A.A., trans.).]

When we had translated Kernel of Light, and then Perfection, Matsuura, Sedno I: The Sacher-Masochists, Future Moonscapes of the Eocene, Sedno II: The Hopefuls, and Pompeii Catalog, we had kept to a certain routine. First she would divulge the title of her latest work. Then she would wait a little for the title to sink in, and we would marvel over it. Then she would read us the first paragraph, which ranged in length from just a couple of words with a semicolon (in the case of Pompeii Catalog) to thirty-five pages (in the case of Perfection). But now there was no paragraph, and the absence of a manuscript was a sudden precipice in the forest, as if a fault had yawned and would swallow us. Then, in the distance, a brief roar became a rumbling, and to our utter bewilderment, Our Author strangled a sob.

She fled, and we followed, out of the forest and through the village and back to our summiting place where, without a word, Our Author retreated to her office. We heard her lock the door. We shuffled upstairs, to our working table, and sat down to wait.

We waited for hours. She joined us at noon, smelling pleasingly like petrichor, appearing more collected, or sturdier, at least; her ribbed brown dress that hit just below the knee even seemed to fit her better, as if it issued from her instead of merely overhanging her, although its ballerina neckline continued to emphasize the absence of her grandfather’s black magic ring. She might have been in crisis, but some people flourish in crisis, and we had always assumed that she’d be one of them. She was holding three thin pages that were covered in words. So there was a book to translate—here was its beginning—and our bellies’ anxious rumblings were quelled.

“Over the course of its more than ten-thousand-year lifespan,” she proclaimed, “Białowieża Forest has offered shelter not only to Europe’s sole surviving megafauna and the royals who legislated its exclusive use, but also to boreal owls, dwarf marsh violets, black storks, gray wolves, snakes (as we have witnessed), the world’s only population of Agrilus pseudocyaneus, around two hundred types of moss, two hundred eighty-three kinds of lichens, and over eighteen hundred fungal species, of which nine hundred forty-three are classified as being at risk. Of which two hundred can be found nowhere else in Poland. I am saying that there are two hundred different kinds of fungi here in Białowieża that are, everywhere else, probably already extinct.”

She scanned our faces. “This is not the novel,” she admonished us, and our gazes scattered, and the thick glass distorted the shapes of the small objects in the cabinets arranged around the room, turning seashells into goiters, little books into hunchbacks, teacups into death caps. Swedish’s hand was on the table near the loose coil of beige gauze it had just shed, the aftermath of some unknown accident.

Scowling, she went on: “What I am trying to tell you is that Białowieża lost its last endemic bison to German soldiers, Polish poachers, or Soviet rogues in the winter of 1919. This has everything to do with the novel, but it isn’t the novel.” She wrung her once-beautiful hands, looked back up at us, and squeaked, “I never should have written the novel.”

And yet at this there was general elation. She had openly admitted it: The novel existed. She simply wasn’t ready to share it with us yet. All that mattered was that we wouldn’t return empty-handed to the clamoring world.

None of her previous books had ever elicited half as much eagerness or speculation. The Polish press had been host to vicious disputes over whether Irena’s new work would be poetry or prose (this despite the fact that she had never written poetry). Critics from around the world had conjectured: Maybe it would be a VR drama! Maybe a sculptural sound piece. Maybe an exhibit of radical textiles at a museum she’d once mentioned in Makassar, Indonesia, or maybe just a handkerchief.

Readers favored simpler explanations. Perhaps, they hoped, confiding in Twitter, Irena’s next project would be Sedno III, the volume that would finally resolve the many tensions between the Hopefuls and the Sacher-Masochists at the end of Sedno II. But we knew Sedno was no trilogy. And the last time we’d seen her, she had shared with us the thrilling secret that she was writing something pertaining to art and extinction. “Art and extinction,” she had said—we all, aside from Swedish, recalled her putting it that way.

Irena had always taken legible pleasure in the connections between text and textile, so we knew the new book could have to do with fabric, as the critics had said, and that it was possible to combine prose (or poetry) and fabric, and even to combine this combination with art and extinction. She might, we thought, be writing about fast fashion’s long-term tolls on the environment, or embroidering Sumerian words like “bir” (“to wreck,” “to weep,” “to murder”) onto corrective canvases in madder and myrobalan threads. But what we had always hoped for, for the sake of our careers and hers, was the Great Polish Novel, and now that we were sure she’d written it, our cares burned off like fog from the forest at dawn.

[The “Great Polish Novel” had, by 2017, already been written, repeatedly, by Bolesław Prus (for instance, The Doll), Witold Gombrowicz (for example, Pornografia), and maybe even Stanisław Lem (although I haven’t really read his books), as well as Nobel laureates Henryk Sienkiewicz (With Fire and Sword), Czesław Miłosz (The Captive Mind, which isn’t a novel, but which offers the intellectual and emotional satisfaction of a novel), and Olga Tokarczuk (The Books of Jacob), who received her 2018 Nobel in 2019 (A.A., trans.).]

Yet now she stood, ripped up all her pages, threw them in our faces, and screamed: “Białowieża isn’t a place! Don’t you get that? It’s a network!” She was pacing, wringing her hands. “Remove the trees, and you sever every link! I haven’t slept once since they started chopping down the spruce trees in the spring! Are you not aware of what’s been happening? Have you not been moved?” She grabbed her head, and it looked as though she’d rip her hair out. But then she sank back down into her chair and whimpered, “What are we going to do?”

Perhaps there had been times we wished her husband wasn’t there, but this was not one of them. We’d been jealous of Bogdan, though not exactly in the way people would conclude nearly a decade later, after some unfledged U.S. journalist happened on our Instagram and took it literally and reposted our video from Halloween in an article on literary sex scandals, no doubt in desperation to add a woman to the list. But we were her translators; everything was metaphor, was transference, with us.

It is true that we had coveted her husband’s access to her. We’d wished we could be by her side at every moment, maybe especially when she lay in the dark, defenseless, submitting to her dreams—to the parts of her that even she could not fully write. Some of us had gone so far as to say they couldn’t see what she saw in him. That he was crude and undeserving and already losing his hair. Yet how all of us longed for Bogdan now, to reassure her, restore her to the voice of reason and consistent and coherent inspiration she had always been, at least since Lena.

“Think of the lynx,” Our Author exhorted us, and we dutifully pictured bright eyes and ornamented ears. But we couldn’t figure out what to do with the lynx once we had pictured them, and, like morning fog, little by little, they evanesced.

We never meant Our Author any harm. How could we have? All we wanted was to follow in her footsteps, making them our own. We were all in love with her. I was in love with her, too.

“Think of the fungi,” whispered Irena, and our gazes returned to her face. “Fungi are the epitome of evil, feasting on—rejoicing in—the deaths of everyone and everything around them. How many species of frog have been led to the brink of extinction by some fungus?! How many species of bat?” She looked at me, and I didn’t know if I was supposed to answer, and I didn’t know the answer, and then she looked at French.

“Many?” French ventured. “Many species?”

Seemingly satisfied, Irena went on: “Yet they are a necessary evil because fungi consume death. Fungi make the forest possible. Without them, death would amass, death would obliterate life, leading to far more extinctions, perhaps a mass extinction; but now, without the bodies of the trees to eat—without the deadwood—how will the fungi survive?”

Most of us were paralyzed, terrified of saying the wrong thing. Most of us were disoriented, too. Yet German cleared his throat, brought his thumb and middle finger together over his mustache, and, in a tremulous, half-muffled voice, ventured: “Is Grey Eminence about . . .”

We watched him watch her. We watched her, too. She didn’t move, didn’t take her eyes off the ring-stained surface of our table, the place where we’d performed and compared our performances of seven of her brilliant prior works. At the same time, Swedish’s newly bared hand rose slightly, and ever so slightly, it ventured toward hers. An electric charge ran through us: Suddenly one of us was holding her hand.

Then German finished: “Białowieża?”

Around the room went a sigh of relief, and English even grinned (her white gleaming teeth were among my least favorite of her perfect features). Yet we were stunned that one of us—a translator—could be guiding her—an author—helping her search for her own words. It was the opposite of translation—it was an unthinkable act—yet for a moment she looked grateful, and the world was on the verge of overturning, but then she recoiled, releasing German from her gaze and Swedish from her fingers as she leaped out of her chair, sending it crashing backward, and then she cried, “I can’t! Can’t you see I can’t?” And she ran out of the room and down the spiral staircase and back into her office, slamming the door.

Our hearts were pounding. For a few beats we sat perfectly still. Eventually, we blinked at each other like we’d just been released from a spell.


All of us, except for maybe English, were racked with guilt. It was the second time in a span of only hours that we, or Swedish, had driven her away. It was more power than we should have had, more than we had ever had before, and we yearned for the bright unmistakable commands she had so magnanimously issued over the course of summits past.

We worshipped her. That was the truth. The other truth was: This was our job. If she didn’t give us her novel to translate, it would mean that we were unemployed. Some of us had other mouths to feed: Ukrainian had a wife with a penchant for misadventures, not to mention a dog; Serbian’s profligate daughter was now at the University of Niš. I had parents who would never let me hear the end of it if I became a failure, and if I failed, I would be forced to move in with one of them, probably my mom, and my mom would keep haranguing me with diagnoses—depression, anxiety, malaise—stock the fridge with probiotic yogurts, lettuce heads, Rutini chardonnay, and nothing else.

For a while we stayed at the table, praying for forgiveness or refreshing her semisecret personal Facebook page. She hadn’t posted in three weeks. All her official social media was paused, as it always was when she was writing or preparing to launch a new book. Finally we googled “spruce Białowieża 2017.”

This, unlike what would come next, was the kind of investigation we knew how to conduct. Our lives away from her were spent almost entirely online, researching and double-checking, and sure enough, we soon turned up an explanation, or at least a set of facts.

First: On March 25 of the previous year, Jan Szyszko, Poland’s minister of the environment, announced a plan to triple Białowieża’s logging limits; prior to our investigation, none of us had realized there was logging in Białowieża at all. According to Greenpeace Poland, the 3,100 square kilometers of the forest were divided on the Polish side—which was 41 percent of the total forest—into 17 percent national park, 19 percent nature preserve, and 64 percent government-managed forest that could be cut down within limits that had been all but eliminated now.

Second: The reason, or the pretext, for the policy change was that spruce bark beetles had overrun the forest. Their remarkable proliferation wasn’t in dispute. What people disagreed about was how it had happened and how to handle it.

According to the Szyszko camp, infestations were eternally recurring, and they were best confronted head-on: All affected trees and any trees liable to be affected—in other words, the whole of the spruce population in the forest—would be cut down. Without anywhere to live or anything to feed on, the beetles would simply disappear. Oak, a symbol of the Polish people, more resilient and more beloved, would be planted in the spruces’ stead. It was a simple, routine operation that would produce immediate results.

According to the small but vocal opposition, however, this particular infestation was new, the result of a changing climate that was drying up the local swamps. Spruces fend off insects by crying—that’s how it looked to us—terpene-laden resin that was toxic to spruce bark beetles, not to mention sticky enough to trap smaller insects that might be trying to get inside their trunks.

But spruces can’t protect themselves this way if they’re dehydrated. By 2017, Białowieża was hotter and drier than it had been in ten thousand years. Thus, the opposition argued, the infestation. But according to them the solution wasn’t—couldn’t possibly be—to eradicate all spruces from the forest. The forest had always found a way to heal itself, but in order to do so, it had to have biodiversity: a variety of plants, animals, and fungi that only in cooperation with each other were able to perpetuate the cycle of life. No one species could do this on its own; no two or three species could, either. The opposition alleged that the government knew this, and knew that the only meaningful actions that could be taken were long-term—with nothing immediately resulting—like reducing dependence on energy derived from dead plants and animals that was slowly ending life on Earth.

The government claimed it knew no such thing, that like everybody else it was already working on sourcing sustainable energy, and that no one was buying spruce wood, which was too soft and too susceptible to rotting, and so the debate went around and around.

At approximately three p.m., we admitted we were starving, and we heaved ourselves downstairs. Bogdan had always overseen our meals, and there had always been three of them, with an afternoon tea. We did not yet feel authorized to make a meal, so we scrounged around Irena’s kitchen for the ingredients for tea. In the back of the pantry we found two packages of rice crackers, some pickled beets, and an enormous container of bright green powder we hoped was matcha. All along the counter there were tulip jars with grayish mushrooms floating in icy water–but where had she gotten the ice? We took the crackers and the pickles and put the kettle on.

Then we sat around the living room and waited, wilting in the wildly inappropriate late-September heat. The armor gleamed beside the fireplace, like the silver escutcheons on the giant wooden chests behind our barrel chairs that kept our arms stiff and extended, and the thick sheets of glass that every afternoon shielded the portraits of her ancestors from view.

Finally English, with her bracelets that glinted and clanged as she spoke, offered, “It’s so hot today, my God. I can’t believe no one has A/C here.”

Needless to say, it was the worst thing she could have said. Some of us had been affected by floods since the last time we’d met, some of us badly. German’s Datsche had been destroyed by a derecho. Serbian and Swedish had experienced earthquakes, Slovenian a drought followed by multiple mutations of a bird flu. Out of compassion—or so we believed—Irena had forbidden all talk about the weather months before.

It would have been odd for English to forget something like that, an outright ban. But it was too early in our fracturing to think it was deliberate, that she hadn’t forgotten it at all.

[I actually had forgotten, but honestly I don’t know which this author would consider worse (A.A., trans.).]

At seven, German said we couldn’t go on like this, and we needed to at least make dinner. Such was the speed of our early metamorphoses: In four hours, we had gone from deeming dinner completely and totally out of the question to believing it the least we could do, to even imagining it was what she would have wanted. Yet such changes were invisible to us: We were too turned around, too hot, like our true selves had melted and our molten selves were too preoccupied with finding a new form.

While Swedish rested, and English rested for some reason, too, German charged Serbian and Slovenian with slicing up the mushrooms from the counter while French made a sofrito and German and Ukrainian folded up German’s cot and spread a simple white cotton cloth over our dining table. I hovered and hesitated, unintelligent, helpless until German instructed me to set out the silverware.

Let the record show that we did not serve wine. We never drank alcohol in Białowieża because we found Our Author intoxicating enough, and because she herself did not drink, and we wanted to follow her in everything as best we could. She was a vegetarian, so when we were with her, we also ate no meat. We shared almost all of her opinions since it was mandatory not to disagree.

We scoured her spice rack for paprika. We hoped the aroma would reach her, making its way under her door, and when our plan worked, we got giddy. At eight we were serving her the socarrat, which was the only part of a risotto she would eat, even at restaurants, even when it meant Bogdan having to have words with the waiter, or the manager, or the chef. As we chattered merrily we noticed, despite being oblivious to our own alterations, that she seemed changed again: Her hair was still pulled back, but it was looser, and her cheeks were flushed. Her eyes didn’t seem to want to focus, and she ate with unusual appetite, like an animal, instead of elegantly absorbing her meal the way she always had before.

One by one we fell silent as she regaled us with gossip from the upper echelons of world culture: the feud between the famous painter and the famous dancer; the mind-numbing receptions; the cigarettes; the sycophants; the Polish snails they’d tried to serve her at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid. The Hungarian author of melancholy novels whose reputation for complexity would be ruined if the public ever got a glimpse of him guffawing in the greenroom, sniffing his schnapps and spitting pits into a portly woman’s palm; the skinny Egyptian violinist who tore off his clothes—every last scrap of fabric—and dove into the ice-cold Atlantic; the woman from Ham&High who followed Irena back to her hotel room one night after a gala, stroking Our Author’s lustrous black hair and trying to say something meaningful about Chernobyl, repeating words like “regrettable” and “doomed.”

Irena had never talked to us this way, so heedlessly, and on such mundane topics; although we felt uncomfortable, we hung upon her every word. She’d never asked us to go with her to any important ceremonies or other events—but what if, without Bogdan, she would want us to accompany her now? Bogdan hadn’t made a single appearance in her stories that evening, which made it seem like she might be in the process of erasing him from the living draft of her biography—unless he really hadn’t gone with her to London or Cartagena or Jaipur.

Over ice cream she and Swedish had a hushed conversation while the rest of us clanged our spoons against her heavy Bolesławiec stoneware, glaring at each other and the careening and convulsing shadows that overpopulated the winter garden’s panes but didn’t scathe her. Then Irena swiveled in her chair, announced she was going to give Swedish a tour of her office, and wished us all a good night.

We—all but Slovenian and Serbian—scrubbed the dishes, including the saucer, which disgusted us, and threw away the unused mushrooms, which had turned from white to black and gotten sticky on the cutting board. We scraped the chairs against the walls. Although French was my best friend, English put her manicured hand on French’s baby blue-swathed shoulder and whispered something—probably some kind of clue, something important, not that English generally had any idea about what was important—into her ear.

[I’d understand if the reader were to wonder why it was that I agreed to translate this story, given everything, but I can easily explain this, too: If I hadn’t, someone else would have. Any translator (including this author) will tell you that one of translation’s primary tenets is to keep friends close and enemies closer. By being the person to write the English version, I was able to reclaim my identity as not terrible, at least not 100 percent.

Maybe, as Robert Frost said, poetry is what gets lost in translation. People have interpreted that phrase to mean translation is necessarily flawed and flawing, but I understand it in a different way. To me, poetry is concision, refinement—the effect of considerable loss. Lose, from any page that’s filled with words, all the ones that do not matter, and you may find a kind of poem.

I’d like to think I’ve made at least a little of that contribution here. Not to say that this is poetry—it obviously isn’t—but I do believe or dare to hope I have improved it. Yes, I have cut lines and scenes in addition to rehabilitating syntax. But I have also shown so much restraint, and I think even she would be forced to acknowledge that, and to appreciate it (A.A., trans.).]

We’d never seen the inside of Our Author’s office. We dragged our feet. Some of us had jet lag. None of us could sleep.

At 2:37 a.m. we all got an email from Our Author with a subject line of “Do not open.” The message’s body was blank. Attached was a document ninety-three megabytes in size.

The following morning, Our Author was gone.


From The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft. Used with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2024 by Jennifer Croft.

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