Interview with Awarding-Winning Translator Sandra Smith

Translation feels like a magical blend of decoding, transmogrification, intuition, and mastery of the original and “target” languages. It’s a balancing act that requires diligence and limitless patience, fueled by an unshakable love of the task at hand, even if the text itself is not always thrilling or well crafted. However, love is not enough. The truly gifted translator knows how to disappear without a trace. These are the magicians who transport* both meaning and voice from the original text to the target text in a manner undetectable by the average reader, who rarely – if ever – considers the presence of the translator’s mind on the page.

Among the most gifted translators of French-to-English in our contemporary world is New York native Sandra Smith, winner of numerous awards, including the French-American Foundation and Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize in 2006 for her translation of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française (published in English by Chatto & Windus in the U.K. and Alfred A. Knopf in North America), the PEN Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize, and the Independent British Bookseller Book of the Year prize. In 2017, her translation of Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ But You Did Not Come Back: A Memoir (Grove Press) won the National Jewish Book Award and Anne Sinclair’s In the Shadows of Paris: The Nazi Concentration Camp that Dimmed the City of Light (Kales Press, 2021) was a finalist this year for the same award.

When did Sandra Smith decide to become a translator? Does she believe living in Paris influenced her choice and her ability to translate so well? Here, in her own words, is her story:

Beth Gersh-Nesic: Hello, Sandra, thank you so much for graciously agreeing to an interview right now. You are incredibly busy these days with all your projects and promoting your last three publications: Simone de Beauvoir’s Inseparable: A Never-Before-Published Novel (Ecco Press, 2021), Irène Némirovsky’s The Prodigal Child (Kales Press, 2021) and Anne Sinclair’s In the Shadows of Paris: The Nazi Concentration Camp that Dimmed the City of Light (Kales Press, 2021). And you recently moved from New York to Minnesota! However, when you began to translate, you lived in the U.K. So please tell us a bit about your life leading up to your great breakout moment with Suite Française.

Sandra Smith: I was born in the Bronx then moved to Rockland County where I went to high school. After my B.A. at C.W. Post College (Long Island University), I immediately did an M.A. at NYU in conjunction with the Sorbonne, then moved to Cambridge to do a Ph.D. I was working on the Surrealist theater between the two World Wars and doing some teaching at Cambridge, mainly in translation, but later also taught French literature as well. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I got interested in other things and never finished the Ph.D.!

BGN: You became a rockstar sensation with your translation of Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, listed as the Book of the Year, The Times of London, and among the 100 Most Notable Books of 2006 in the New York Times, and also a major draw during the book’s promotional tour with Némirovsky’s oldest daughter Denise Epstein. How did the publisher find you? Had you been publishing translations before?

Sandra Smith: I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a rock star but thank you for the compliment! The publisher didn’t find me – I found them. It was Chatto & Windus in London who had bought the U.K. rights along with Knopf in N.Y.

I was listening to BBC Radio 4 and heard Rebecca Carter of Chatto & Windus talking about Suite Française. I was immediately fascinated by the similarities between Irène Némirovsky’s family history and my own. More importantly, however, I was certain that a translation of Camus’ Lettres à un ami allemand – a book I had always wanted to translate – would make an excellent “accompaniment” to the English publication of Suite Française. It was a sign: I looked up Chatto & Windus on the internet and phoned Rebecca Carter. (Amazingly, she was available when I called.) During our conversation, I stressed how well the two translations would work together and Rebecca told me to send her my sample translation. We then began discussing the similarities between my own background and Némirovsky’s. I am Jewish, my grandparents had left Europe due to the pogroms and I was an immigrant myself in England. By the end of the conversation, Rebecca asked me if I would be interested in submitting a sample translation for Suite Française, with the understanding that it was highly unlikely I would be offered the contract. She was gathering samples from established translators, but they all were men. She wanted some samples from women as well.

I had no experience whatsoever in translating fiction. My published translations at the time consisted of four chapters of a Cambridge University Press book on medieval French history, an art catalogue and some reports for the European Union. Rebecca explained that all the translators would be submitting the same chapter. (I subsequently learned that this process is known in the trade by the unfortunate label of a “Beauty Contest”…) One month later, I was short-listed as one of the final three candidates and asked to translate an additional few pages. I realized that the publishers would be taking an enormous risk offering this work to me when so many other experienced translators were in the running. To my great surprise, Rebecca told me I had been awarded the contract: they were prepared to take the risk.

BGN: Did you ever publish Camus’ Letters to a German Friend?

Sandra Smith: No – unfortunately! I’ve been kept busy with other work, but I’d love to do it some day.

BGN: You have already published two translations of Camus’ The Stranger, which was published in the U.K. as The Outsider for the Penguin translation (2012) and kept as The Stranger for the graphic novel by Jacques Ferrandez, Pegasus USA (2016). Why did you decide on two different titles for the same book?

Sandra Smith: It was not my decision. When the book was first translated, the U.S. and U.K. publishers were planning on a joint publication under the title of The Stranger. But shortly before it was meant to come out, another book of the same title appeared in the U.K. so they called it The Outsider. The U.S. edition had already gone to press so since then the same book has traditionally had two different titles.

BGN: Obviously, you do not shy away from major challenges. Among the books you have translated, most have been tough narratives. Besides Suite Française, about France under the Occupation during World War II, which other books have discussed disturbing content?

Sandra Smith: Marceline Loridan-Ivens, But You Did Not Come Back, which was very harrowing. It’s basically a 105-page letter to her father, who did not come back from French internment camp Drancy and then Auschwitz – hence the title. I also translated a biography of the publisher Jacques Schiffrin by Amos Reichman – Jacques Schiffrin, A Publisher in Exile, from Pléiade to Pantheon – some of which was very upsetting, and I translated another book under a pseudonym, because the author had received death threats, which was quite frightening.

Last year, I also translated “Sigrand et Sip’tit,” two short stories by Jacques Lederer, published in The Hudson Review (Spring 2021) about the author’s experiences as a Jewish boy during the Occupation of France. They too were very hard-hitting.

BGN: How do you work on such painful experiences in print? Does it affect you after you leave your desk? What is the most difficult aspect of translating descriptions of suffering and cruelty?

Sandra Smith: I just keep telling myself that it’s important work. People need to know this. If these people could live it, I could translate it.

BGN: Do these revelations affect your feelings for France today?

Sandra Smith: Not really. Every country has something in its past it can’t be proud of, including the United States, but we won’t go into that here…. Yes, France was occupied and collaborated, but 75% of French Jews survived, which was not the case in most other European countries. And they did eventually accept responsibility for their part in the more horrible parts of living under occupation.

One of the courses I taught at Cambridge was about Vichy France. The historians chose it as a special subject (like an elective subject here) and I worked with them translating documents that didn’t exist in English. So I learned a lot about the subject. Much of it was extremely upsetting. The basic text we used was written by Robert O. Paxton (Columbia University Press, revised 2001), who is internationally acknowledged as an expert in that period of history. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Museum of Jewish Heritage when they had an exhibition about Némirovsky’s life and works. I came to interpret for Némirovsky’s daughter Denise Epstein and interview her at one of the events. We met again when he helped the author, Amos Reichman, edit a book I translated about Jacques Schiffrin, a Jewish publisher who managed to flee France with the help of a few very famous French authors – Roger Martin du Gard and André Gide – who were his friends.

I remember when Suite Française came out in English, Max Hastings wrote an article in a London newspaper entitled “We would have done the same.” He recognized that people do whatever they have to in order to survive, and will resist as best they can. I don’t think the British liked that article very much as they pride themselves on their resistance – as well they should, they took a terrible battering – but Hastings understood what Némirovsky was describing.

BGN: Your feeling for French is remarkably intuitive and authentic. Do you remember your first French teacher? How old were you then? Was it love at “bonjour”?

Sandra Smith: My introduction to French happened when I first started high school, thanks to an amazing teacher, Miss Shapiro (later Mrs. Carroll). She really inspired my love of the language and culture, and I knew then that I wanted to be a French teacher. I was 18 when I first went to Paris to study. Yes, it was definitely a coup de foudre – and not the last!

BGN: After you completed your undergraduate and graduate studies in French at New York University and the Sorbonne, you moved to the U.K. to teach French. Why?

Sandra Smith: I actually went to Cambridge to do a Ph.D., but as part of the program, doctoral candidates were given some teaching to do. I mainly taught historians who then had to pass a translation exam at the end of their first year, in two languages. But I also managed to get some supervising (that’s what it’s called in Cambridge) at Jesus College, teaching 20th-century French drama. It was quite intimidating because, at the time, there were only three colleges that took women, so I was teaching young men who were not that much older than me and quite a bit taller! Coming from New York, I found it amusing that they would stand up when I came into the room and only sit down when I invited them to! I loved the British manners and Cambridge is a place where there is endless intellectual and cultural stimulation, though it was far more conservative than I thought it would be.

BGN: How long did you live in Cambridge?

Sandra Smith: More than 35 years – basically my entire adult life

BGN: You did more than teach French. What was your other career in the U.K.?

Sandra Smith: As a child, I absolutely adored ballet and was determined to be a professional dancer. I auditioned for the [Fiorello H. LaGuardia] High School of Music and Art, and the Performing Arts but was told I’d never grow tall enough to be a ballet dancer – I’m barely 5’ tall – so I gave it up completely. In Cambridge, however, I wanted to do some dancing for fun and found a fantastic dance school (the King Slocombe School of Dance) that taught adult ballet, jazz, contemporary and ballroom, so I started going there for lessons. My former love returned very quickly, and after a year, I took a leave of absence from my Ph.D. to see if I could qualify to teach professionally. I worked hard and thanks to my brilliant teachers, I got accepted at the Royal Academy of Dance teacher training course. The rest was history – sort of… I danced with a small contemporary company for a while (still not tall enough for ballet…) then worked with several theater companies doing choreography and dancing and acting as well. I performed at the Edinburgh Festival two years running and choreographed professional productions of Carmen and The Cherry Orchard. I even belonged to the Cambridge University Ballroom Dancing Team one year, competing with them in the “offbeat” section. It was so much fun – we did a dance to Tom Lehrer’s “Masochism Tango” complete with fake roses in our teeth!

King Slocombe hired me to teach ballet, jazz and contemporary (and some tap, which I never really enjoyed!) but all the time I was dancing, I kept my ties with the university and several colleges hired me as an external supervisor. That was a good move because after I had my son, I had to stop dancing and I went back to my original career teaching French.

So, translating is, actually, my third career, but I honestly think that both dancing and teaching has helped me become a better translator.

BGN: You were teaching, translating, and married with a son. How did you navigate all these demanding roles?

Sandra Smith: With the help of a very patient husband! I didn’t start translating though until my son was about 15, in 2004, so he didn’t need as much of my time as before.

BGN: Do you think that having lived in Paris helps your translation skills?

Sandra Smith: Without a doubt. I don’t know any translator who has learned to be truly fluent without living in the country of their chosen language, or at least studying or visiting the country often. Because it’s not just about vocabulary: it’s about understanding the culture.

BGN: What was your first impression of Paris as a student? Did you feel differently when you returned as a graduate student?

Sandra Smith: When I went for my junior year abroad, I’d never been on a plane or been out of the country. It was August and very hot in NY and we were sitting on the runway at JFK for a long time. I remember being so “green” that I actually asked the stewardess (they were called that then!) if she could open the window! Talk about embarrassing… I also thought I spoke French and realized quite quickly that I didn’t really! It’s essential to live in a country to really learn the language.

Of course, I felt completely differently when I returned. I had far more confidence and couldn’t wait to get back to Paris. My mother was not terribly keen on the idea but my father understood. He’d been in the army and had been stationed in Russia and the Philippines. I remember him often humming “How you gonna’ keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Par-ee”!!

BGN: What are your favorite destinations in Paris?

Sandra Smith: I love the Rodin Museum and spent many Sunday afternoons in the gardens there when I was a student. I also love walking around the Marais and staying with friends in the 20th arrondissement and in Vincennes. It’s so different being a tourist and actually living somewhere like the natives!

BGN: What advice can you offer young people who are considering translation as a career?

Sandra Smith: Find courses that teach translation. NYU has a terrific program for both translating and interpreting. But there are also lots of institutions that give courses and training for commercial work, like the American Translators Association, and mentorship programs like the ones sponsored by ALTA (the American Literary Translators Association). And the Alliance Française, of course, has schools all over the country.

The wonderful thing about becoming a translator is the opportunity of meeting other translators, whether it’s at conferences or being on committees. As a member of PEN and the PEN Translation Committee, The Authors Guild the ATA and ALTA, you get to meet such fascinating people with similar interests. Most people don’t truly understand what’s involved in translation, so networking with other translators gives you an opportunity to talk to people who share your experiences and, often, we can learn so much from each other and help each other. In my network of translators, I’ve met the most amazing people and we often give each other help and advice – even to the extent of passing on work if one of us is too busy to take on a commission. And the best part is that translators tend to be fun!

BGN: And you invited me to join the PEN Translation Committee, which has opened the door to such wonderful friendships, albeit mainly by email and Zoom these days, since I joined just before the pandemic lockdown. You and I met through Alliance Française de Westchester in New York, and you were so kind to talk to me after your presentation that evening. Then we kept the conversation going by meeting in Westchester, Manhattan, and now on Zoom. Are you keeping up with French culture through the local AF in Minneapolis?

Sandra Smith: I contacted them when we got here and were settled, and then I went to their Open Day. They offered me a teaching job, but I had too many other commitments. I did give a lecture for them, though, on their “Journée littéraire” about translation.

BGN: You and I are scheduled for an interview on Zoom sponsored by the Federation of Alliance Françaises USA on March 1, 2022, at 7 pm (EST). We said we would focus on your 2021 publications and the experience of translating three different voices. As a kind of “preview,” would you like to briefly weigh in on the experience of translating de Beauvoir, Némirovsky, and Sinclair? Which was the easiest and/or most pleasant to translate among these three?

Sandra Smith: I adore Némirovsky so she’s always a pleasure to translate, though quite difficult at times because of her amazing lyricism. I also enjoyed the Simone de Beauvoir for its content and all the women’s issues it brought to the surface. The Anne Sinclair was tough because of the subject matter, but it’s an important book and I felt I had a responsibility to the author for adding to the history of the Shoah.

BGN: Thank you so much for sharing your life story as a professor of French, an accomplished ballet dancer and teacher, and a stellar translator of important books in French, most notably Némirovsky’s prolific body of work that remains relatively unknown in the U.S. There is so much more to discuss, and we hope our readers will join us for our conversation on Tuesday, March 1st at 7 pm (EST), hosted by the Federation of Alliance Françaises USA. To register, please click here.

Sandra Smith’s Books, Awards, and Oral Translations

Selected Bibliography:

Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, UK, Knopf/Vintage 2006

David Golder, Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, UK, Knopf/Vintage 2007

Chaleur du sang, (Fire in the Blood), Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, Knopf/Vintage UK, 2007

Le Bal and Les Mouches d’automne (Snow in Autumn), Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, UK, Knopf/Vintage 2007

A Woman of Letters: Irène Némirovsky and Suite Française, (Contributor) Five Ties, New York, 2008

L’Affaire Courilof (The Courilof Affair), Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, UK, Knopf/Vintage 2008

Les Biens de ce monde (All Our Worldly Goods), Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, UK, Knopf/Vintage 2008

Les Chiens et les loups (The Dogs and the Wolves), Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, UK 2009

La Vie d’Irène Némirovsky (The Life of Irène Némirovsky), Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt, trans. by Euan Cameron (Contributor), Chatto & Windus, 2010

Jezebel, Irène Némirovsky, Vintage, UK, Alfred A. Knopf, USA, 2010

The Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski, (Contributor), Penguin UK, 2011

Le Vin de Solitude (The Wine of Solitude), Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, Vintage, UK, Alfred A. Knopf, USA 2011

L’Amour éternal, Eiffel (film script for Manuel Munz, Paris), 2011

L’Étranger (The Outsider), Albert Camus, Penguin UK, 2012

Le Malentendu, (The Misunderstanding), Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, UK, 2012

Les feux d’automne (The Fires of Autumn), Irène Némirovsky, Chatto & Windus, UK, 2014; Knopf/Vintage, USA, 2015

L’Esprit en fête (A Taste for Happiness), Michel David-Weil, CreateSpace, 2015

The Necklace and Other stories: Maupassant for Modern Times, Liveright, USA, 2015; Norton Critical Edition, 2016

Et tu n’es pas revenue (But You Did Not Come Back) by Marceline Loridan-Ivens, Grove Atlantic, USA, 2016

Les Gens heureux lisent et boivent du café (Happy People Read and Drink Coffee) by Agnès Martin-Lugand, Weinstein Books, USA 2016

L’Etranger (The Stranger), by Albert Camus, adapted as a graphic novel by Jacques Ferrandez, Pegasus, USA, 2016

Une affaire de chien (The Dangerous Dog), a short story by Netonon Noel Ndkekery, in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, USA 2016

Une Vendetta (A Vendetta), a short story by Guy de Maupassant, in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, USA 2016

Pocahontas a Graphic Novel by Loïc Locatelli-Kournwsky, Pegasus, USA, 2016

La Vie Facile (Don’t Worry, Life is Easy) by Agnès Martin-Lugand, Weinstein Books, USA, 2017

Music and Literature Magazine: Articles on Eric Chevillard: Introduction by Olivier Bessard-Banquy and Pierre Jourde, and Chevillard Lecteur by Anne Roche, 2017

A Very French Christmas, (Contributor) “Noël” by Irène Némirovsky, New Vessel Press, USA, October 2017

Jacques Schiffrin: A Publisher in Exile by Amos Reichman, Columbia Univ. Press, 2019

Found in Translation, (Contributor) We Once Were Happy by Irène Némirovsky, Apollo, UK 2018

The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories: From Hans Christian Andersen to Angela Carter (Contributor) “Noël” by Irène Némirovsky, Penguin Classics, 2019

Create Dangerously by Albert Camus, Knopf/Vintage, 2019

Alice Asks the Big Questions, (published in French under the title: Et tu trouveras le trésor qui dort en toi) by Laurent Gounelle, Little Brown, 2020

Appeal to Doctors Fighting the Plague (Exhortation aux médecins) by Albert Camus, The Times of London, 2020

From Chicago to New Orleans by Philippe Besson, (Contributor) in America, edited by F. Busnel, Grove Atlantic, 2020

Sigrand et Sip’tit by Jacques Lederer; The Hudson Review, Spring Issue 2021

Les Inséparables (Inseparable) by Simone de Beauvoir, Ecco Publications, 2021

L’Enfant génial (The Prodigal Child) by Irène Némirovsky, Kales Press, 2021

La Rafle des Notables (In the Shadow of Paris) by Anne Sinclair, Kales Press, 2021

Literary/Translation Prizes:

Suite Française

Winner: Independent British Booksellers Book of the Year 2006

Winner: The PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize (for a full-length work translated from any language into English) 2007

Winner: The French-American Foundation and the Florence Gould Foundation Translation Prize (Fiction category) 2007

Independent Newspaper Foreign Fiction Prize: only open to living authors, so ineligible, but awarded a ‘Special Commendation’ by the panel, 19 January 2006 Winner: Book of the Year, The Times of London, 16 December 2006

Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize for Fiction 2006. Shortlisted.

British Book Awards: Border’s Book of the Year 2006. Shortlisted.

The Oxford Weidenfeld Prize for French Translation 2006. Shortlisted.

The Quill Award, USA, Book of the Year 2006, General Fiction category. (The only book in translation shortlisted.)

But you did not come back

2016 Jewish Book Awards: Best Biography/Autobiography/Memoire category

La Rafle des Notables (In the Shadow of Paris) by Anne Sinclair, Kales Press, 2021

2021 Jewish Book Awards: Finalist, Best Biography/Autobiography/Memoire category

Dramatizations of Translations (BBC Radio)

Suite Française (Némirovsky) – Radio play 2007

Fire in the Blood (Némirovsky) – 2009

David Golder (Némirovsky) – 2011

The Dogs and the Wolves (Némirovsky) – 2013

The Outsider (Camus) – 2013

But You did not come back (Loridan-Ivens) – 2016

Jezebel (Némirovsky) – 2016 and 2021

The Misunderstanding (Némirovsky) – 2019