Dueling Words in Jennifer Croft’s “The Extinction of Irena Rey”


Jennifer Croft’s debut novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey, begins with a warning from the translator—not from Croft herself, who is one of the most well-regarded translators in English today. Another translator, one Croft wrote into being, speaks: cautioning readers from proceeding. “Should you choose to keep reading,” notes this translator before the novel begins, “how uncomfortable this was for me to translate will be clear as crystal.” 

Croft’s translator and the author whose work is being translated squirm inside the holding structure of the novel, creating an interpersonal cacophony that crackles outward. The translator’s discomfort—we learn only by casting off her warning—stems not just from the author’s mother tongue haunting the Polish-language novel, the angry “spirit of Spanish” supposedly exorcized only through the translator’s English-language corrections. It stems from the novel’s vague proximity to “true events.” One character, the US-born Alexis, is based on the translator, who signs her translator’s note with “Alexis Archer, Ulaanbaatar.” Another character and the novel’s first-person narrator, the Argentinian Emilia Martini (Emi), is based on the author, whom Alexis only identifies as “the author” in her translator’s note and footnotes. In Croft’s dexterous hands, then, “the author” and “the translator” are nuanced characters and conceptual stand-ins.

These half-empty signifiers prepare us for a cleverly layered, multivocal novel that plays with our expectations of who is speaking and how meaning gets made in between authors, translators, and readers. In this regard, Croft puts particular pressure on the concept and character of “the author.” “The author” refers to the translator-turned-author of the novel Alexis translates, yes, but it also refers to Croft herself, another translator-turned author who translates from the Polish, is fluent in Spanish, and spent much of her life in Argentina. Although Croft and the author are not the same, Croft wants us to sit in the discomfort that authorship can be multiple and include the translator. They are all speaking at once, nestled inside each other like a Matryoshka doll that, at least from the outside, looks coherently, comfortingly singular.

But how comfortably are all those dolls nestled inside each other? Not very. While Alexis and Emi are both “Americans” and translators of the same critically acclaimed Polish author, Irena Rey, they are fundamentally at odds with each other. The animosity between Emi and Alexis seeps out of the diegesis, staining the relationship between the translator and the translator-turned-author of the book within Croft’s book. As Alexis confides in her translator’s note, “It was uncomfortable to read a version of myself I couldn’t recognize. But translation isn’t reading. Translation is being forced to write a book again. The Extinction of Irena Rey required me to re-create myself as the worst person in the narrator’s world, the monster who seems to want to ruin everything.” Based on Emi’s later reflections on artmaking, the implications of Alexis’ translation experience can be scaled. “Art,” Emi considers, “is the uniquely human impulse to relentlessly transform whatever we come into contact with, to undo in order to do or redo.” A destructive impulse is the foundation of creative work, both the author’s and the translator’s. 

Or, perhaps more accurately, a fungal impulse. Here, in the fictional translator’s note on the first page, is the theoretical heart of Croft’s novel and her ecological deconstruction of the translator/author binary. Through the novel’s setting on the edge of the Białowieża Forest, a primeval borderland straddling Poland and Belarus, Croft develops a countermodel to translation theories that sanctify “the original” over “the reproduction,” “the author” over “the translator.” If every human artistic creation is merely a substitute for what nature has given, as Emi posits, then focusing on how we’re connected and indebted to and even feasting upon each other (nonhumans included) is more useful, more ethical.

In order to deconstruct this binary, though, Croft must first set it up. Emi’s naïve worship of Irena Rey (“Our Author”) as literary immortal as well as queen and employer serves this purpose. The novel-within-the-novel opens with Irena Rey’s eight translators gathering at her house near Białowieża to translate her 600-page masterpiece, Grey Eminence. Emi and Alexis are among them, referred to initially as “Spanish” and “English,” respectively. Each of Irena Rey’s translators is called their target language until, that is, Irena Rey disappears and they begin to break her rules of engagement. 

Hesitantly, chaotically, the group of eight translators individuate. Even as they orient their days around searching for the presence and artistic intentions of “Our Author,” thereby failing a sort of translator’s Bechdel test, they gradually take over the narrative. They call each other by their names. They talk about the graphic novels and poetry they’ve written, other authors they’ve translated. Their biographies become known to each other and, like sunflowers finding light in an unexpected direction, they turn their curiosity from “Our Author” towards each other. Through this process of sharing their life stories, the plot transforms from a search for a cult-like figure into an examination of art, parasitism, and the ways we delude ourselves into believing in the one true original.

Emi, though, looks on with indignation, initially categorizing the translators’ alcohol-drinking and house-snooping as “disobedience.” She adheres to the long-gone Irena Rey’s rules even as the logic behind them falls apart or, more horrifyingly, reveals itself as absent from the beginning. Without “Our Author” asserting her worldview on her eight translators, Emi casts around for a new framework for what translation is and does. She finds this new framework in the final clue her departed author left: pouches of amadou, a flammable material derived from a fungus. As Emi learns more about fungi, she marvels that the translators form a fungal communications network like mycelium, the often-subterranean part of fungi which consists of fine white filaments: “But when we were together, we didn’t think of ourselves as individuals with histories—not yet. We had always been connected to each other by fine, feeling filaments that had no origin, and we had no stable hierarchies or particular ambitions beyond translating her work. It was as though we were a single organism—Irena’s entourage—whose sole purpose was to conquer eight new realms in her name.”

Emi’s fungal fantasy of translation withers when her understanding of fungi moves beyond the light, happy image of mycelium nurturing the forest community. Fungi are, in fact, a kind of parasite. Fungi are violent. Fungi eat the dead. And so, while translating Irena Rey’s novel grappling with art in an age of extinction, Emi and the other translators grapple with translation in an age of extinction. Is translation a kind of recycling that’s necessarily symbiotic, or is translation necessarily parasitic? Do translators have the potential to cause harm? Are translators an invasive species?

“We could be considered an invasive species,” posits the character Alexis. “It really depends on how we do our jobs. All books are inherently collaborative experiences… We take that collaboration and make it intercultural. We step in, and we expand the audience. We just have to make sure we’re not taking up too much space. We need to tread carefully, and not only out of respect for the author.” Emi disagrees: “Books are books. They’re written by authors. Not readers, not critics, not us.”

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It’s easy to imagine Croft laughing while writing that line from the perspective of an author who is writing from the perspective of a translator who is translated by another translator. Of course, books are written by translators! The translator’s notes throughout the novel make this point extremely clear. For example, when the author writes, “Then again, I was a translator. Wasn’t not being me what I spent every day trying to achieve?” the translator responds characteristically bluntly in a footnote, “No (Trans.).” The translator does not become the author when she translates. No. The translator remains herself. In Alexis’ translation praxis, that means trusting her own judgment to edit, amend, clarify, and excise. How much of the author’s voice we really have access to in Alexis’ translation is therefore a question throughout the novel; Alexis’ voice is arguably louder and more distinct. Whether to tell us an interesting fact about bees, disagree with the author’s view or telling of events, or contextualize why the author is wrong via translator-centered theories of language, the translator demonstrates how much control she has over the narrative. So, too, does Croft. 

We return, then, to the question of authorship and meaning making. With “Our Author” mysteriously absconded and potentially dead, Croft makes good on her title’s tongue-in-cheek reference to Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” and its exhortation to separate the work from the creator, the critique from the biography. Hear, hear, the author is dead, Croft winks at us: Now, let’s hear what her translators have to say! Croft—one of the most outspoken advocates of recognizing translators’ contributions to literature—cleverly enacts this unmuting of the translators at yet another level. In Alexis’ frequent translator’s footnotes, she references Croft’s English-language translations from Polish and Spanish, without using Croft’s name. The reader must apply their prior knowledge of Croft’s biography to get the joke. 

Again and again, the boundaries blur and send up sparks. By novel’s end, the low-level animosity between Alexis and Emi has escalated into a duel over the honor of words and concepts—but a duel that ultimately emphasizes to Emi how integral the other is to the self: “I was Alexis, or Alexis was as much a part of me as I was.” The author and the translator meet at the edge of the forest. They stand back-to-back, walk twenty paces, turn around. They look each other in the eye.

The Extinction of Irena Rey
by Jennifer Croft
Bloomsbury Publishing
Published March 5th, 2024


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