Two of the Best Translators in the Business Are Married (to Each Other) and Up For the Same Literary Award
A Conversation with Jennifer Croft and Boris Dralyuk About Raising Twins and Winning Awards
Jennifer Croft and Boris Dralyuk are two of the best translators working today. Dralyuk’s renderings of Isaac Babel’s iconic stories have earned the highest praise, and Croft just happens to translate—to much acclaim—the 2019 Nobel Prize winner, Olga Tokarczuk. Also, they are married, and the parents of young twins.
Now they’re nominated for the same literary award, the NBCC’s Greg Barrios Book in Translation Prize, for their respective work on Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees (Dralyuk) and Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob (Croft). I emailed with them about what it’s like to share nominations, parent twins, and translate books, all at the same.
Jonny Diamond: Recognizing that you’re the parents of infant twins(!) and, as such, are probably still figuring out/abandoning the idea of a daily routine, how do you balance work schedules for what can often be an intensive, solitary vocation?
Jennifer Croft: One of my favorite things about literary translation has always been that unlike writing, you’re never really alone because you’re always working in tandem with an original and, by extension, with a writer you admire. But it’s true that having two babies at once makes me crave that company a little less.
I’m lucky that I have ample space outside our apartment where I can work: a studio provided by the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, and an office at the University of Tulsa, too. It’s taken us the full eight months of our children’s lives, but I think we’ve also settled into a rhythm now of childcare while we work followed by family rest.
Boris Dralyuk: Yes, I wholly agree, we’ve found a rhythm, though it’s a syncopated one, sometimes quite raucous. That suits me fine. There are other benefits to working with an original. For one, you’re never at a loss for ideas. And you also know, more or less, the lay of the land ahead. I’ve always worked slowly, steadily, producing no more than 500 words a day; I’ve been able to keep that up, largely. I never lose steam, since the original is always treating me to new stimulating challenges, and since the end is always in sight.
JD: How frequently do you bounce translation problems off each other?
JC: All the time! We actually just finished a translation that we did together of a Ukrainian children’s book for Elsewhere Editions, but in general we just ask each other (by text or email or by wandering into the other room) what sounds good and what doesn’t. I’ve been wrapping up the edits on my new novel Amadou (not a translation), and Boris has been very helpful to brainstorm with there, too. I try to help him with his original poetic work and often come up with ideas for new books that he doesn’t have time to write.Boris loves working with dead people, and I think that has to do with the fact that he most frequently translates from his mother tongue into his primary language.
BD: Yes, yes, we bounce without cease! One example comes to mind from our work on the Ukrainian children’s book. The protagonists are a family of moles, and the patriarch of this little clan runs a newspaper—The Daily Mole. He goes about searching for scoops, notebook in hand, and I desperately wanted to make the notebook a Moleskine… Of course, I knew it wasn’t appropriate—what is he, Hannibal Lecter? But I needed to share the idea with Jenny, because it was cute, and to have her talk me out of it for good…
JD: Who found out first about the double nomination?
JC: Me, but I didn’t say anything.
BD: Me, but I didn’t say anything.
JD: Do you have a friendly wager going about the prize?
JC: I think we agree that being finalists is such a major honor that we really don’t care who wins!
BD: The real prize is being a part of this duo.
JD: Your most recent projects are quite different, insofar they entail working with the living and the dead, respectively. How significant a difference is that, generally speaking, from translation to translation?
JC: Boris loves working with dead people, and I think that has to do with the fact that he most frequently translates from his mother tongue into his primary language, meaning he has such nuanced expertise in both that he can throw in a dash (or a lot) of period uncertainty involving careful research and considered decisions. How would a rich person swear in an informal context in 1917? What could you call this hat from 1922 that never existed in the US?
I learned my translation languages as an adult, so I feel like I’m already struggling without that chaos in the mix. If I translate what I know (kind of like writing what I know), what I’ve experienced myself in Argentina and Poland, I tend to feel like I’m on safer ground.
BD: That’s an exceedingly generous depiction of my process. I often joke that the best part of translating the dead is that they don’t complain, but in truth I feel every act of translation is a leap of faith—or rather, an expression of faith in the possibility of communication across all boundaries, including those of time. In order for me to translate a poem or a story by a long-deceased author, I have to believe that I’m able to understand not only that piece of writing, and not only its author, but also the world out of which it arose and to which it responds.
It may be a foolhardy mission, but I feel it’s a necessary one. And the pursuit of it entails hard work. I’ve immersed myself in the Russophone and Anglophone cultures of the past in the same way that Jenny has immersed herself in the present-day cultures of Poland and Argentina. Of course, she’s also delved into the deep past for The Books of Jacob and other projects, and I’ve also dwelled in the present for Grey Bees. See? No borders can contain us.
JD: How has your work as a translator affected your own writing?
JC: Everyone I’ve translated has taught me so much about writing. Amadou is a story set in Poland narrated by an Argentine translator. The style is a blend of Witold Gombrowicz, Pedro Mairal, Olga Tokarczuk, Sylwia Siedlecka, Natalka Sniadanko…
BD: I can hardly separate the two… I feel every poem I translate is, to a great extent, my own, and I learn something from each new translation. I’ll also add that my collaborations with my fellow translators, especially with Robert Chandler, have been the greatest ongoing writing workshop anyone could ask for.
JD: Do you have any favorites from your fellow nominees (to whom you are *not* married)?
JC: Korean translator Anton Hur was on the longlist—you really can’t go wrong with him. Every book I’ve read by him has been brilliant.
BD: I’ll second that. We respect them all!
JD: Does everything good in your life come in sets of two?
JC: It definitely seems to! Boris is the cat person in our relationship so I will let him talk about Nora and Pushkin.
BD: It’s always nice to have a friend in the world, isn’t it? Nora and Pushkin were littermates, adopted in West Covina as kittens. They don’t look like brother and sister—Pushkin is a Russian Blue, Nora a long-haired Tortie—but they’re as bonded as any two creatures can be. We intended to adopt just one kitty but ended up adopting two, because they were inseparable, and now it’s impossible to imagine our lives without them. We weren’t aiming for twins, either, but there’s never a moment that we aren’t grateful for the doubled wish come true.