Sandra Smith on Becoming a Literary Translator

Despite fleeing first Tsarist Russia and then Nazi-occupied France, Jacques Schiffrin succeeded in being a major literary influence on two continents, establishing first the best edition of French classics and then a key publishing house in New York which would flourish still more under his son. It is splendid that we now at last have a lively and informative biography of this remarkable man.

~ Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

Our exploration of life-writing in translation continues today with a guest post by Sandra Smith who reflects on her experience on becoming a literary translator. Smith’s most recent project was our newly released biography Jacques Schiffrin: A Publisher in Exile, from Pléiade to Pantheon, by Amos Reichman. Schiffrin himself was a major publisher of translated literature who first established a  publishing house, Les Éditions de la Pléiade, in Paris after fleeing Russia and later founded, Pantheon Books, in New York after leaving Nazi-occpied France.

Enter this week’s National Translation Month drawing for a chance to win a free copy of this book!

•  •  •  •  •  •

As an academic teaching French language and literature at Cambridge, I had always been involved with translation in a practical sense. With the historians, to whom I taught grammar and translation, my goal was to prepare them to be competent enough to use their language skills to research original sources and documents written in French. One of my favorite texts to use for those classes was Camus’ Lettres à un ami allemand. A little-known work written during the Occupation, it is a brilliant combination of literature, philosophy, history, rhetoric and propaganda. I decided I wanted to translate the work into English and approached a publisher. After a few months, they said they thought the work was “too academic” for their list, so I set the project aside.

Nearly two years later, I heard Rebecca Carter of Chatto & Windus talking about Suite française on the radio. 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 would make an excellent “companion piece” to the English publication of Suite française. It was a sign: I looked up Chatto & Windus on the internet and phoned Rebecca Carter. 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 was Jewish, my grandparents had left Europe due to the pogroms and, as an American living in England, I was an immigrant myself. 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 the majority 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 catalog 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 among 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.

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.

Irène Némirovsky’s exquisite writing combined with her personal story made Suite française an immediate success when published posthumously in France in 2004. Her background was widely discussed and celebrated: her family’s flight from Russia during the Revolution, her success as a writer in France in the 1930s and her subsequent deportation and murder at Auschwitz.

In my mind, the similarities between Némirovsky’s experiences and my own created a bond of empathy that was crucial in translating her works: both women, mothers, immigrants, secular Jews, forever foreigners. Although English is my native language and I lived in England most of my adult life, my American accent meant that others still regarded me as foreign. Némirovsky, who spoke French fluently, wrote in French and lived in France most of her adult life, was never granted French citizenship and died a “stateless person”. (Ironically, it is only since 2004 that she is being hailed as a great “French” writer.)

To any translator, the most obvious given is that the translation process is inevitably subjective. Even reading in one’s own language involves a translation process, as individuals react subjectively to the written word. An essential part of the reading process is the individual’s interpretation—translation—of the writer’s words and its transformation into an emotional or intellectual response. This process occurs continually in everyday life: we “translate” whenever we read each other’s tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, etc., and draw subconscious conclusions as to the meanings of those elements. The same process applies to other arts: painting, music, dance. We are all translators in the sense that we interpret sensory symbols and react with either a rational or emotional response that must, by definition, be subjective.

To any translator, the most obvious given is that the translation process is inevitably subjective.

In terms of style, however, I realized that I could use my experience in teaching literature to analyze and reproduce an equivalent style between the French and the English. Stylistic elements can be more objectively analyzed and quantified than subtleties of tone and subtext. Translating fiction first requires analysis: understanding a literary, cultural and historical context, sensitivity to tone, plays on words, lyricism, alliteration, assonance, register, idiom, an ability to grasp the psychology of characters and the skill to aptly analyze dialogue and dialect. I felt it essential to focus on each of these factors in order to do justice to Némirovsky’s works.

The success of Suite française allowed me to truly become a literary translator. I subsequently translated eleven more novels by Némirovsky, a new version of Camus’ L’Etranger (published in the UK as The Outsider in 2012), The Necklace and Other Stories: Maupassant for Modern Times, Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoire But You did not Come Back and the graphic novel of Camus’ The Stranger, amongst others. I have been extremely fortunate to be able to continue in a career I dearly love.

Working on the Jacques Schiffrin biography was something of a new experience for me, but a very interesting and educational one. In the past, I had translated mainly literary novels, very rarely non-fiction. (The closest I had come was Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ memoire But You did not Come Back, although that was more or less a straightforward literary piece.) The Schiffrin biography, on the other hand, began life as a Master’s thesis written by Amos Reichmann, a student at the prestigious Science Politique in Paris.

I found working on this book very gratifying. It is import as it provides a wealth of information about life during the Occupation, the publishing industry (Gallimard, in particular), the literature of the time and Jacques Schiffrin’s enormous influence on the world of publishing in the United States during and after the war.

Stylistic elements can be more objectively analyzed and quantified than subtleties of tone and subtext.

I was also struck by the similarities between Schiffrin’s life and Némirovsky’s. (In fact, I couldn’t help wondering if they knew each other and feel they must have.) Schiffrin arrived in Paris around 1920 at the age of 28; Némirovsky’s family fled Russia in 1917 due to the Russian Revolution and finally settled in Paris at about the same time, though Némirovsky was younger. However, her first novel was published in 1929 by Grasset and made her an overnight sensation. Schiffrin had been working on the Editions de la Pléiade for several years by then and joined Gallimard in 1933, by which time Némirovsky was an established novelist and writer of short stories. Both were Jewish immigrants who spoke many languages: Schiffrin spoke Russian, German, French and Italian; Némirovsky spoke French, Russian, English, Finnish and Swedish. Both considered themselves secular Jews but were nonetheless forced out of their professions by 1940 when the first laws against the Jews came into force in France. Thanks to Schiffrin’s close friends—André Gide, in particular—who had a great deal of influence, he and his family were finally able to escape France and begin a new life in New York. Némirovsky was not so fortunate: both she and her husband were murdered at Auschwitz, though their two daughters, Denise (13) and Elisabeth (5), were helped by family friends and the Resistance, so managed to survive the war.

The first step of this project was to translate Amos Reichmann’s thesis – including over 500 footnotes!—in its entirety. I then had to turn my hand to serious editing. In the past, I have always had excellent editors, which was very fortunate, as I learned a lot from them. Working with the author and Anya Schiffrin, we shaped the thesis into a biography. This took a great deal of time and effort, as it was most important to me that the author be happy with the resulting text. Fortunately, Amos speaks good English, which was a huge help to me. We were all delighted when Columbia University Press expressed an interest in publishing the book. The excellent editors at CUP also worked their magic and Robert O. Paxton – the definitive expert on Vichy France – was generous enough to write the Introduction.

I am very grateful to everyone for the privilege of having worked on this project.


If you’re interested in reading more about occupied Europe, read last week’s interview with historian Olivier Wieviorka, author of The Resistance in Western Europe, 1940–1945.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment