Review: Alice Whitmoreon Jennifer Croft

The Art of

Why is a literary translator like a mushroom?  

This is not a variation on the Mad Hatter’s riddle, or the setup to some obscure translation industry in-joke (though perhaps it should be). Rather, it is a question raised – gently, like the soft fist of a Boletus edulis – in Jennifer Croft’s new novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey.  

Croft is best known as the International Booker Prize-winning translator of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk. In the literary translation world, she is also admired as a staunch advocate for translators’ visibility: in 2021, she co-authored an open letter from the Society of Authors, and wrote a widely circulated op-ed for The Guardian calling for literary translators to be credited on the front covers of books. Recently, Croft has also established herself as a novelist and memoirist, cultivating a writing career that is anything but straightforward. She made her debut in 2019 with Homesick, a memoir that began its life as a novel written in Spanish (one of Croft’s many languages) titled Serpientes y escaleras. Neither, Croft insists, is a translation of the other.  

Croft’s serpentine path through genre and language continues with The Extinction of Irena Rey, a novel that playfully dismantles long-standing conceptions of literary translation. From page one, Croft makes it clear that she is interested in metaliterary games, and that the reader is invited along. The book opens with a ‘Warning’: a tongue-in-cheek translator’s note that positions the novel as the English translation of a work of foreign autofiction. The source text, we’re told, was written in Polish by an Argentinean woman, and originally bore a different title: Amadou. To complicate matters further, the English translator is herself a character in the novel – in fact, she is cast as the villain of the story. In an amusing display of editorial transgression, the slighted translator takes her revenge by continually interrupting the main text with footnotes, wielding them to undermine the author’s credibility, dispute her recollection of events, and criticise her inferior Polish. Both author and translator, it turns out, are unreliable narrators, and the tension between them effectively erases the already-blurry boundaries between truth and fiction; meanwhile, the translator’s extraordinary paratextual interventions hint at the undisclosed powers of translation as re-writing, further troubling the questions of authorship raised, intrinsically, by the fact of translation itself. 

The Extinction of Irena Rey takes place in the magnificent home of the eponymous Irena Rey, a world-renowned Polish author whose tremendous literary success has allowed her to build an architectural wonder – ‘a three-story masterpiece of undulating, unscathed oak’ – in Białowieża: a primeval forest (one of Europe’s last) straddling the border between Poland and Belarus. The novel’s narrator, Emi, is one of eight translators who have been summoned to Rey’s home to translate her mysterious magnum opus, Szara eminencja. Even before she has read it, Emi (perhaps the most fawning of Rey’s clutch of besotted translators) is convinced that Szara eminencja will prove to be ‘the Great Polish Novel’ – the one that will secure Rey’s long-awaited Nobel Prize. But the translation summit begins poorly: bad omens haunt the forest, and Rey’s behaviour, bizarre from the outset, grows more and more unsettling until, just a few days after the translators’ arrival, she disappears without explanation. From here madness, desire, jealousy, and revelation upon revelation gradually unspool, until the novel’s dramatic denouement in Berlin’s decommissioned Tempelhof Airport: a setting sedimented with layers of history and metaphor, offering a kind of urban mirror to the moist, ancient Polish forest (‘a palimpsest place’, as Croft has it, ‘that was in fact no less original than Białowieża’). Both places serve as apt canvases for the themes Croft looks to explore: creativity, erasure, originality, transformation.  

The shifting dynamics between Rey and her translators are equally rich with allegory. Early in the novel, Emi refers to Rey as ‘Our Author’, and her use of the possessive article is apposite. Rey, we learn, once issued her translators with an ethically dubious ultimatum: if they agreed to translate her work, they would be forbidden from translating any other Polish author, living or dead. Thus shackled, the eight translators begin their summit as a cohesive clique – practically a single organism. They adhere to established rhythms and rites, including the habit of referring to each another not by their names but by their target languages: Spanish, French, English, German, Serbian, Slovenian, Ukrainian, and Swedish. After Rey’s disappearance, however, many of their rituals fall apart, or are replaced with new ones – like the construction of a shrine, cobbled together from Rey’s abandoned books and belongings, in honour of ‘Our Lady of Literature’. But perhaps the most striking change catalysed by Rey’s absence is the return of her translators’ individual identities. Released from the shadow of their authoritarian Author, the once-domesticated translators turn feral. The first sign of their liberation is the communal decision to call each other by their given names. (‘I suppose it’s true,’ one translator notes with hesitation, ‘that without her here we could be more than just our languages.’) After this first symbolic breach of protocol, the translators begin breaking another of Rey’s edicts: ‘Our Author’s ban on weather-inspired conversation’. Their transgressions continue to mount – eating meat, having sex, breaking into Rey’s personal computer – until, by the end, there is nothing left of the structures that once housed them.  

In the midst of the chaos, the translators translate. Rey is gone, but her magnum opus remains, as does their task. Szara eminencja is a novel about ‘art and extinction’, themes that acquire a disturbingly concrete dimension in the context of this ill-fated translation summit. It is autumn, 2017 – the year in which the European court of justice ordered Poland to halt large-scale logging in Białowieża – and the weather is unseasonably warm and wild. Shortly before her disappearance, Rey lectures her translators on the myriad threats facing the forest, which is home to ‘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’, half of which are classified as being at risk, and two hundred of which are found nowhere else in Poland. ‘I am saying,’ Rey insists, ‘that there are two hundred different kinds of fungi here in Białowieża that are, everywhere else, probably already extinct.’ After Rey’s disappearance, the translators find themselves in a double predicament, faced with the task of translating ‘the (fictional) disintegration of the inhabited and uninhabited earth’ as they live through ‘the (real) violation of the earth’s most sacred corners’.  

One of those corners – sacred, at least, for the translators who worship her – is the site of Irena Rey herself. Of the many disruptions made possible by Rey’s absence, the most climactic is her own unseating from the throne of authorial genius. Far from the fountain of originality her translators earnestly believed her to be, Rey turns out to be a liar, a plagiarist, and a thief. Freed by the collapse (dare I say death?) of their Author, the translators embark on a messy, collaborative process of personal and professional discovery, closing in on a question that looms like a black hole in space: how to approach the task of translating – or, indeed, existing – in a world without rules, safety, or certainty? In less capable hands, the confusion and unease seeded by such a question could grow unwieldy, but Croft holds everything together with the aplomb of a more seasoned novelist. Is this an effect, I wonder, of the experience of translation itself – of having inhabited the minds and works of other writers for extended, utterly absorbing periods of time; of having not only consumed a number of great novels, but performed the minor miracle of recomposing them in other words? 

Which brings me back to my own question: why is a literary translator like a mushroom? In fact, the question is not quite right. As any fungi enthusiast will hasten to tell you, mushrooms are merely the fruiting bodies of fungi; in the words of Merlin Sheldrake, they are ‘the parts of fungi made visible, pungent, covetable, delicious, poisonous’. Translators are more like mycelium: the subterranean network of branching, fusing, tangled threads (or hyphae) that allow water, nutrients, and, in some species, waves of electrical activity to flow beneath the soil, forming connections and channels of communication between the roots of plants and the fungi themselves. Mycelium is the invisible, essential textile that underknits every forest. In a conversation with Sheldrake titled ‘The Understory of the Understory’, Andrew Adamatzky describes it as a great web of information transfer, positing that some mycelial fungi may even possess something like language. Fungi ‘understand the language of trees,’ Adamatzky says, ‘understand the language of insects, and then somehow manage to translate between the species’.  

In the fungi-thick world of Croft’s novel, the ready-made metaphor insinuates itself gently, but noticeably. When a fellow translator describes mycelium to Emi as a network of ‘little living threads’ stitching the plants and trees of the forest ‘into a united and communicating whole’, Emi senses that he is ‘on the verge of telling me some important secret, something that would actually lead us back to Our Author at last’. Rey, for her part, is suspicious of fungi: ‘I still remembered Irena saying that fungi were evil,’ Emi muses, ‘but the notion of an underground indissoluble bond that made life possible appealed to my translator’s view of the world and the circulatory system that was language.’  

The mycelial metaphor is not the only one raised in Croft’s novel; indeed, rather than labouring any one fungal comparison, Croft suggests that there are as many ways to look at translation as there are species in the fungus kingdom. For instance, translation might also have something in common with the three known species of fungi ‘that can turn radiation into food’. (‘Do you think that might be what we do?’ Emi wonders; ‘As translators?’) Or, in other ways, translation might resemble Fomes fomentarius, a species that ‘starts its life as a parasite’, but then ‘turns into a decomposer, helpful, converting the dead tree into life-giving soil’. ‘Helpful’ is certainly the word: even as it performs this crucial act of transformation, the fruiting body of Fomes fomentarius can be harvested to make Amadou, a material that has been used for millennia to start fires, fashion garments, and cauterise wounds. Alas, helpfulness is a trait that often goes unnoticed; the fact that most people (including Emi) have never heard of Amadou, much less the fungi that provide it, speaks to a general lack of curiosity about the fungus kingdom – an attitude just as prevalent when it comes to the world of translation.  

In her 2018 book The Allure of Fungi, Australian ecologist and environmental photographer Alison Pouliot examines the fungus kingdom’s ‘history of exclusion from what is valued’ in many Western cultures, noting in particular what she terms ‘English language speakers’ common aversion to fungi’. Pouliot posits two main reasons for this aversion: ‘public ignorance and misunderstanding’ and ‘negative press portrayals’. Replace the word fungi with translation, and you have a perfectly good summary of the chief grievances (long-standing and current) of most literary translators. Resistance to translated literature in Anglophone cultures is well documented, and has become known in translation circles as ‘the three per cent problem’ – the figure comes from a Bowker study showing that, in 2004, new translations accounted for about three percent of all new books published in English across the English-speaking world. The relative scarcity of literary translation is compounded by a widespread failure to acknowledge – on book covers, in book reviews, in press coverage of international authors – the translators whose labour brought those books and authors to the Anglophone world. In some cases, publishers seem intent on disguising the very fact that a book has been translated, presumably out of concern that it will discourage certain readers. Inevitably, omission breeds ignorance: if readers are barely aware of the concept of literary translation, let alone the intricacies of its processes, then we can hardly expect them to care about it.  

Despite important changes – such as the growing profile of the International Booker Prize, and the equal division of its prize money between author and translator – that stubborn three per cent figure has scarcely budged in almost two decades. Recent data from Nielsen suggests that young readers are less averse to translation than their elders: in 2022, sales of translated fiction in the UK increased by 22 per cent, with almost half of those readers under the age of 34. But even that much-celebrated bump failed to make much of a dent in the literary marketplace – translated fiction still accounted for just 3.3 per cent of overall fiction sales. Meanwhile, only two of the eight translated novels shortlisted for the 2023 International Booker Prize (Eva Baltasar’s Boulder, translated by Julia Sanches, and Maryse Condé’s The Gospel According to the New World, translated by Richard Philcox) featured the translator’s name on the front cover of the UK edition.  

How to change this? As strange as it sounds, translators might do well to turn to the fungal world for instruction. Thanks to the patient, dedicated work of a handful of science writers and fungi enthusiasts, the long-neglected field of mycology has recently been ushered into the mainstream. Sheldrake’s Entangled Life rightly takes a lot of the credit for this; as one New York Times reviewer gushed, ‘reading it left me not just moved but altered, eager to disseminate its message of what fungi can do’. The value of fungi has always been immense: 90 per cent of plants depend on mycorrhizal relationships for survival. All that has changed is the way people look at them. Similarly, individuals and collectives have been working for decades to change the way publishers, booksellers and readers look at literary translation. Their gains have been significant, thanks in large part to the advocacy of the PEN America Translation Committee, founded in the middle of last century. But there is still plenty of progress to be made. The Committee’s 1969 Manifesto on Translation opened with an impassioned Call for Action that, sadly, still resonates today: ‘For too long,’ it stated, translators ‘have been the lost children in the enchanted forest of literature.’ They have moved in the shadows, invisible and nameless: ‘Who knows the names of translators? Who cares? Yet the names deserve to be known, and it is necessary that we should care about them.’  

If literature is an enchanted forest, then surely translators are the mycelial fungi holding it all together – the ’connective tissue’, as Pouliot puts it. (The metaphor would have written itself, but in 1969 fungi had not yet emerged as a force for good in the western consciousness.) Every ecosystem, whether biological or literary, is a community; no tree, no novel would exist without a complex (and mostly invisible) web of connections working for mutual survival. (‘Białowieża isn’t a place!’ Irena Rey screams at her translators; ‘It’s a network!’) Put another way: in order for literature to thrive, translation – and translators – must thrive, too. Like the emerging field of fungal conservation, translation advocacy is entering a new phase: one in which translation’s elevation in the literary imaginary goes hand in hand with the pursuit of practical wins, such as better pay and working conditions. Translators will only be fairly rewarded when their labour is recognised for what it is: not just essential to the flourishing of art, but also in essence a form of art itself. 

Part of the work, as Pouliot teaches us, is storytelling. With her many books, articles and photo essays, Pouliot seeks to change the West’s historically hostile attitude towards fungi. Like Sheldrake, she writes with flair and passion, supplementing words with striking images (Pouliot turns to photography, while Sheldrake’s book is illustrated with the help of Coprinus comatus, shaggy ink cap mushrooms). Both wield art in the service of fungi, portraying them as fascinating, complex organisms that deserve both our recognition and, increasingly, our protection (environmental degradation, species extinction, natural disasters and climate change all have negative impacts on fungi, Pouliot writes, ‘but the effects are seldom noticed or documented’). In one photo essay, titled ‘de-composition’, Pouliot presents a series of cinematic close-ups capturing various species of fungi in all their bizarre, otherworldly glory. Some of the photographs resemble abstract paintings: a smattering of bright yellow pearls erupting from a wall of pockmarked, bone-like wood; a forest of tiny white spores, delicate as threads, fuzzing some vegetable surface; a landscape of lichen blooms (captioned ‘Fungal community, St Niklaus Forest, Switzerland’) in shades of orange, green-grey, purplish red. The photographs reframe fungi’s digestive function (a common source of mycophobia, encouraged by icky descriptors like ‘rot’ and ‘decay’) as a process that is not only useful – surely this is self-evident – but also captivating, even beautiful. ‘Fungi transform and configure their environments,’ Pouliot writes, ‘creating new life, indeed new places, by forming connections, recycling – decomposing and composing – and building soil architecture.’ The words she selects (‘composing’, ‘architecture’) evoke human creativity; there is an art, she seems to imply, to decomposition.  

Late in Croft’s novel, Irena Rey’s translators commit the ultimate act of betrayal, or perhaps the ultimate act of translation (there may be some truth, after all, to the old adage traduttore, traditore): with Rey missing and Białowieża in imminent danger of deforestation, they decide to advocate for its conservation by composing an op-ed in their Author’s name. This, they reason, is what Rey would have wanted – she was the one who first alerted them to the exquisite vulnerability of the forest, and, in her absence, this is the most effective action they can take to protect it. Gathered in the cellar beneath Rey’s spectacular home, surrounded by ‘all the ghosts who could be there with us’ (their presence felt as ‘cascades of deafening silence’), Emi’s seven colleagues sit in the soil and create something remarkable; Emi herself, horrified by the idea of putting words into her Author’s mouth, refuses to take part. ‘They went sentence by sentence,’ Emi recounts, shifting to the second person to address Rey directly: 

in your language, Irena, everyone offering ideas that they rapidly polished into words that really could have been yours – that were yours, that they stole from the stockpile we’d created out of [your novels], where you’d written of the first time in the history of Earth than an Ophiocordyceps had infected an ant. You’d described how that fungus forced the ant to climb a foot above the forest floor, forced it to face north, and then, at noon exactly, sprouted out of the top of its head to shower down millions of spores that would land on the next generation of ants. 

Emi’s horror should be taken with a grain of salt. In the cast of ciphers employed throughout Croft’s novel, Emi represents the now passé view of translation as derivative, inferior, and ultimately degrading to great works of literature. She (naively) sees the latter as products of Promethean genius – miracles of originality that spring mysteriously from some supernatural origin, indebted to nothing and no one; profound, prolific, mystical fruits, as mushrooms must have seemed before the discovery of mycelium.  

The truth is much closer to Octavio Paz’s famous characterisation of literature as a field of ‘intercrossings’, in which the ‘twin processes’ of translation and creation are entwined in a dynamic of constant cross-pollination:  

Critics study ‘influences’, but the term is not exact. It would be more sensible to consider Western literature as an integral whole in which the central protagonists are not national traditions – English, French, Portuguese, German poetry – but styles and trends. […] Styles are coalescent and pass from one language to another; the works, each rooted in its own verbal soil, are unique… unique but not isolated: each is born and lives in relation to other works composed in different languages. 

Emi’s approach to translation — conservative, grovelling, self-deprecating — is centred in Croft’s novel not because is it right, but because, in its wrongness, it helps to illuminate and contextualise the alternatives. The translators’ collaborative, multilingual composition of that fraudulent op-ed, so vividly portrayed by Emi as a kind of pathological zombification of Rey’s words, could, in another light, be considered a radically creative act. It might even be considered a kind of translational apotheosis: the translators are so versed in Rey’s voice, so steeped in her modes of storytelling, and have themselves already created (Emi’s word) such vast and specific stockpiles of language – Rey in German, Rey in French, etc. – that they are capable of inhabiting her completely. The contested boundaries between original/translation and author/translator are finally dissolved, leaving only the act of writing – always, to some degree, a process of consumption and transformation, of de- and re-composition.  

If we want to reveal the art, the complexity, the beautiful messiness of translation, we need more stories like Croft’s: stories that approach translation with humour and curiosity, wondering what translation is and what it does, how it works, or how it might work if given the space and freedom to expand. I am reminded of Sawako Nakayasu’s 2020 treatise on literary translation, a slender purple pamphlet titled Say Translation Is Art. ‘Say translation as breathing room,’ Nakayasu writes,  

say translation as breath, say translation as extension of life.  
Say translation as process, say translation as pedagogy, as pastime, translation as navel-gazing, translation as close reading, translation as language study, as therapy, as training, mouthing, wearing, playing, running, jumping, skipping… Say translation as destruction and reconstruction, translation as rehearsal site for reimagining the conditions of literature, say translation as architecture… Say the more time I spend writing and translating and making art, the more they all blend into each other. 

Say translation as de-composition, I hear Croft add. Say translation as re-creation. As re-building, re-wiring. As connection. Say translation as spore, as hyphae, as humus. As all of the above.  

Works Cited

  • Nakayasu, Sawako. Say Translation Is Art. Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020.  
  • Paz, Octavio. “Translation: Literature and Letters.” Translated by Irene del Corral. Theories of Translation. University of Chicago Press, 1992. 
  • Pouliot, Alison. The Allure of Fungi. CSIRO Publishing, 2018.  
  • Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. Bodley Head, 2020.