A close up of a blue lichen on a brown tree branch
Photo by Minna Autio / Unsplash


Translating lessons from a microscopic natural partnership

UNTIL THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY, lichens were understood as individual organisms. It was then suggested, controversially, that a lichen was, in fact, a partnership. The division between the partners might have been invisible at first, but underneath a microscope, it was plain as day: a lichen was a pact between a fungus and an alga. Scientists began to speak of symbiosis: not survival of the fittest, but cooperation, reciprocity, partnership.

In 2016, it was found that in addition to the fungal and the algal partners, a yeast made the duo a trio. Or maybe more: some lichens also seemed to incorporate bacteria, viruses, amoebas, even other microfungi and microalgae. It was a collective whose very interactivity enabled it to survive conditions that the individual organisms within could never survive on their own.

If, as French poet Antoine Émaz suggests, poetry is lichen, then literary translation is a kind of super-lichen, a collaboration that breathes new life into work and carries it into territories where it could never have survived on its own. But translation is controversial, perhaps because it too unveils the labor of interdependent individuals as they accumulate toward meaning. It unmakes, negotiates, compromises, repairs. It also opens a path from egocentrism to ecocentrism by rebalancing our relationships with the world.

Our contemporary notion of authority depends upon the existence—still—of a single trustworthy individual. In literature, this figure is the author, the inimitable person who chooses and disposes words. We think we know an author. We feel comfortable in their company. We crave familiarity, hence celebrity, because it turns what we see into eternal, nonnegotiable truth.

“Collaboration, whatever the subject, whatever the agenda, becomes a political act.”

In this mystical-commercial understanding of literature, translators are necessarily suspect. They adulterate the truth, making it impossible to trust. When translators are truly necessary, they’re ideally neither seen nor heard. That way we can tell ourselves that the Original has remained mostly unscathed on its journey into English, despite our language’s different rules, different grammar, different tastes, different colloquial expressions, different lexical associations, different cultural references, and different just about everything else.

In an era that is beginning to recognize identity as experience, that wishes to oppose the drowning out of lively voices by a strident white monotone, concealing the identity of a work’s cocreator is a bewildering anachronism. Translators must keep copyright and earn royalties, and their names must appear on all book covers, yet too often none of this occurs.

“Collaboration, whatever the subject, whatever the agenda, becomes a political act,” write Helen Cafferty and Jeanette Clauson. As we let go of postmodernism and begin to wonder what’s next, we would be wise to emulate the lichen, forming and re-forming partnerships as new obstacles and opportunities arise—not clinging to egos but sustaining healthy and diverse ecosystems, systems of oikos, the ancient Greek word for “home.” The more we expand our notion of home, the less we destroy all that falls outside its walls: the other, the foreign, and the environment, too.

Jennifer Croft is the author of the memoir Homesick. Her translations from Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian have appeared in the New York Times, n+1, Electric Literature, BOMB, Guernica, and The New Republic. She won a Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Olga Tokarczuk.