The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft review – eight translators lost in a forest

<span>‘The book resembles Białowieża forest in its wild and fertile proliferation of ideas.’</span><span>Photograph: Aleksander/Getty Images/iStockphoto</span>
‘The book resembles Białowieża forest in its wild and fertile proliferation of ideas.’Photograph: Aleksander/Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Translators are like ninjas,” the Israeli author Etgar Keret wrote in 2017. “If you notice them, they’re no good.” The literary translation community must have felt delighted at this upgrade to their image: no longer dictionary dorks, but lithe, black-clad assassins! The thrilling story of ninja translators is yet to be told, but Jennifer Croft, an eminent translator whose English version of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights won the International Booker prize in 2018, has put her own spin on the profession with this ambitious, fecund novel, her second after the autofictional Homesick (published in Spanish in 2014, then in English in 2019).

Croft has been fascinated by translation since she was a child, and this novel is a deep dive into the complexities and ambiguities of the role. A translator’s job is to render the original as faithfully as possible, yet they are also creating a new work of their own with every word they type. It’s an artistic paradox, the kind that can’t be represented straightforwardly in fiction. It needs something special – and Croft does not disappoint.

The book’s narrator is a translator, one of eight who gather periodically at the home of Irena Rey, a critically acclaimed Polish novelist, to write versions of her latest book in their mother tongues. They are so bound up by their work that they refer to each other by their languages, rather than names. Our narrator is called Spanish and she uses the collective “we” liberally, speaking for the group, especially with reference to Rey, whom they revere: “We were all in love with her.” Spanish wants us to think the translators are of one mind, like a Greek chorus.

Reading a translator translating a translator can’t fail to change the way you think about language

There’s a twist, though: the text we are reading, written by Spanish, has itself been translated by another of the eight, English – and Spanish and English do not get along. English makes it clear, in her prefatory Note from the Translator, that she has her suspicions about Spanish’s version of events, and has “corrected” a few things as she went along. So we are faced with a (possibly) unreliable narrator, translated by a (possibly) unreliable translator. It’s a hall of mirrors worthy of Nabokov, and indeed, there are echoes of his great work Pale Fire in the snide, funny footnotes English scatters through the text (“Here I have preserved her ridiculous word”).

Upon this complex scaffolding Croft hangs a vivid story about what happens to the eight translators when Rey goes missing, leaving them alone in her house on the edge of Poland’s Białowieża forest, a primal wilderness teeming with life. They search for her in its mossy undergrowth, but find only fungi – a central metaphor of the book, for what are translators if not symbionts, perhaps even parasites, using the raw materials of someone else’s creativity to produce a florescence of their own?

The group are lost until an email arrives with the text of Rey’s new novel, ready for translation, at which point they learn each other’s names and Spanish’s “we” falls away as each begins to assert their own identity. Drama ensues, secrets are spilt, characters couple up and the search for Rey becomes increasingly bizarre and unpredictable.

There’s a lot going on here; indeed, the book resembles Białowieża forest in its wild and fertile proliferation of ideas. Croft just about manages to keep it all together, although her fondness for themes and metaphors comes at the expense of character development. The warring English and Spanish are a marvellous double act, but others who could also have been interesting (Serbian and Slovenian, for instance) are neglected. And the ending, which unites the group once more, falls a little flat after the intense 300-page buildup that has gone before. But it is to Croft’s credit that she sustains her claustrophobic narrative so deftly, with plenty of plot twists.

What ultimately makes this book such a pleasure, though, is the uniqueness of its perspective. Reading a translator translating a translator is a brain-twister like no other, and it can’t fail to change the way you think about language. It feels like a privilege, too, to appreciate the passages that seem to have been written specifically to amuse her colleagues. Notably English’s version of a work by a Polish poet deemed untranslatable, which runs: “The world persists, but insecurely! / The rustling trees grow ultratreely!” You can picture translators gleefully texting it to each other with laughing-face emojis. It’s a glimpse into a profession that serves as a fascinating metaphor for our parasitic, multilingual, creatively prolific world.

• The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft is published by Scribe (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.