In Conversation: Stephanie Smee

As her translator, I have had the opportunity to sit quietly with her as she pondered the inhumanity of the Nazi regime when she was forced to flee

The Spring 2018 issue launch is just around the corner (stay tuned…) and it is full of amazing writing from around the world. This season we approach the question of family. Texts explore exiles, adulterers, and a levitating aspirin in our Korean Fiction Feature, headlined by acclaimed filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. Amid exciting new writing and art from twenty-nine countries, gathering together such literary stars as Mario Vargas Llosa and Robert Walser, discover “tiny shards” of childhood on the verge of experience as remembered by Jon Fosse—a giant of Norwegian letters in his own right—or not remembered by Brazilian author Jacques Fux à la Joe Brainard.

Although “unhappiness is other people,” according to Dubravka Ugrešić, we’re just as likely to be imprisoned in our own family, a predicament brought to light in Dylan Suher’s review of Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions. In a generously personal essay, Ottilie Mulzet reveals how she turned to Gábor Schein’s “father-novel” to unlock the secret of her intransigent birth mother, whose refusal to speak to her had “stood in [Mulzet’s] life like a monumental cliff.” Schein’s poetry also graces this issue, and in a timely echo of Spring and past horrors, he takes up the refrain of Dayeinu of the Passover Haggadah—it would have been enough for us: “Enough, if you or I still / hoped for something. Enough, if we forgot to remember…”

For some, family remains a hall of mirrors, leaving the outlook bleak for human brother- and sisterhood: “My path doesn’t lead to you. Your path doesn’t lead to me,” writes the Libyan poet Ashur Etwebi. At times, language cuts as deep as our common mortality, that kinship beyond all social roles, as in the poignant drama, The Last Scene. Echoing the resignation of Alain Foix’s death-row prisoner, poet Esther Tellermann laments, “breathe me / sister in death.” Others, like Cairo-based artist Amira Hanafi, strive to knit together connections between strangers. Her recently concluded installation, A Dictionary of the Revolution, deployed a vocabulary box of 160 words to generate conversations with more than two hundred people across Egypt.

As a special treat for our blog readers, we bring you a special interview conducted with this new issue in mind. As she prepared her enlightening criticism, Brigette Manion sat down with translator Stephanie Smee to talk about her translation of No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel. As Brigette explains in her review, “No Place to Lay One’s Head looks back over Frenkel’s life, from her youth as a bibliophile and her establishment of a bookstore in Berlin, to her journey across France and final passage into Switzerland. Frenkel presents a story of survival and resilience dedicated in her foreword to the memory of the ‘MEN AND WOMEN OF GOOD WILL’ who, with great courage and often at considerable risk to their own lives, helped and inspired her along the journey.” Happy reading!

Brigette Manion (BM): How did you first come across Françoise Frenkel’s memoir, and do you remember your initial response to it? 

Stephanie Smee (SS): I first came across Frenkel’s memoir after reading a review in Lire magazine. I had the good fortune to be in Paris when I read it for the first time, and many of the images she described, particularly of her early years in Paris, felt incredibly poignant. Perhaps my response to her very moving story was tempered by that. I also found her descriptions of different places so detailed and lyrical that they evoked a visceral response in me. I remember, too, being terribly affected by the immediacy of her writing, a characteristic of her memoir which truly sets it apart, in my view, from many other memoirs that are often written several years after the events that are the subject of the work.

BM: Your translation work has taken in a range of genres and periods. How did translating this memoir compare with previous writers and translations you’ve worked on?  

SS: Translating a work such as Frenkel’s memoir is different to translating a nineteenth-century French children’s book, a Swedish children’s book from the 1930s, or a Jules Verne classic. However, in many ways the fundamental nature of the task remains the same, namely trying to find the voice of the characters or the author or the narrator, as the case may be. It obviously involves a deep reading of the work and familiarisation with the rhythm of the sentences and the author’s habits, which often only disclose themselves as you become more immersed. I remember once comparing the task to that of describing a scent or a perfume: sometimes you have the almost sensory experience that you recognise the “scent,” that is, the meaning, and understand what the author is trying to say, but of course that is only half the job. You then have to try to describe the scent accurately, all the while retaining the mood created by the words, in much the same way a scent will enhance one’s impression of a room or a place. I hope I have managed to find Frenkel’s voice in my translation. Despite the fact that her style changes throughout the memoir, I do think her “voice” was a constant—perceptive, strong, shot through with bleak humour, and ultimately optimistic. Evidently, translating Frenkel’s memoir also involved historical research of a different kind to that required for some of the children’s literature I have translated. But those works, too, always require more of that sort of work than one might imagine.

BM: Frenkel’s great passion for literature is evident throughout the text. How would you describe her writing style in French? Are there any other authors her writing recalls for you? 

SS: You’re right that her appreciation and love of French literature—both the classics and the contemporary literature of her time—is indeed evident throughout the work. She clearly read broadly. It’s curious to ponder that French would have been just one of at least three other languages she would have spoken, along with her native tongue, Polish, and, one imagines, German, after all the years spent in Berlin. Her French was very particular—almost formal, perhaps, but I think her style changed throughout the text, alternating between an often very poetic, descriptive style (usually associated with her accounts of some of the places she found herself), and then a quite matter-of-fact reportage of the practical day–to–day difficulties that she and so many millions of others were encountering. I’m thinking here of her descriptions, for example, of the difficulties of sourcing provisions when she found herself in Nice. I couldn’t truthfully say that any other authors were called to mind as I read and translated Frenkel’s work, but I would be curious to know if other readers have enjoyed recognising any similarities to other texts Frenkel might have been reading herself.

BM: Are there any passages in the book that stand out in your mind? Perhaps those you found especially moving or maybe even technically challenging? 

SS: There were many passages I found compelling—her descriptions of Kristallnacht in Berlin, her narrow escape from being rounded up in Nice, her account of her first attempted escape on foot across the Alps. These, and many other scenes, made for compelling reading and I suspect many of the most moving images remain imprinted in my mind as a result of having to translate them, as well as just having read them. It goes without saying that one is forced to read those passages and consider the text more closely.

There were a couple of scenes I found truly moving—so much so that every time I came to re-read the text or proof read it, I found myself moved to tears. The one which immediately springs to mind is when Frenkel is finally released from detention and finds herself overwhelmed/too exhausted even to cross the square to the restaurant on the other side of the square. It was a quiet moment, in many ways, but there was something in that scene that just went to the utter indecency of all she had had to endure. Similarly moving were her descriptions of having to cower in the forest not far from the château where she was supposed to have been sheltered, and M. Marius’ indignant response at finding her in that situation. Somehow it just felt very easy suddenly to picture the way in which her world and that of so many others had been turned upside down. What would never have been considered acceptable was suddenly falling within the bounds of the “normal.” I suspect this is what makes Frenkel’s work so valuable—it gives us real insight into how the banalities of everyday interactions not only between people but people and their environment and circumstances had been rendered incomprehensibly complex and impossible to navigate.

As a final point, one of my favourite scenes, perhaps because of its construction, is that where Frenkel is ambushed by the Italian soldier on her second unsuccessful attempt to cross the border into Switzerland on foot. The way in which she does not immediately reveal that the solider in question is Italian, but rather only as she is then “saved” by him as other guards approach and he does not turn her in was, again, a particularly moving scene which not only underscored yet again the extent to which her fate hung on such terribly arbitrary circumstances, but also somehow underlined our common humanity.

BM: What were your impressions of Patrick Modiano’s preface? How do the two writers correspond, in your view? 

SS: What a privilege it was to be able to translate the words of a Nobel laureate in the Preface to Frenkel’s work. His register, indeed his sentence structure is, I find, quite particular. It’s as if he is musing, pondering the implications of Frenkel’s work and our collective response to it, the “abrupt intimacy” of our encounter with her which he describes, conjuring up the image of a chance encounter in an overnight train compartment which has “the privacy of a confessional.” I suspect Gallimard could not have chosen anybody more apposite to write a preface, both in respect of the subject matter of Modiano’s own work and the connections with No Place to Lay One’s Head, which he has woven into his pages, and also by the way in which he captures much of the underlying mystery of Frenkel’s life, preferring, as he says, “not to know the twists and turns of her life after the war, nor the date of her death.”

BM: What do you think makes a good translator (and translation)? Are there any others you particularly admire? 

SS: Recently, I read and loved Adriana Hunter’s translation of Véronique Olmi’s “Beside the Sea” (Peirene Press) and, of course, all of Ann Goldstein’s masterful work translating Elena Ferrante’s novels. I have also admired Anthea Bell simply for as long as I can remember and love Edith Grossman’s work and particularly her essay “Why Translation matters” (Yale University Press). There has been much written about what makes a good translator and translation. I think the short point is, we know it when we read it. Personally, when I am reading a work in translation (especially from a language with which I’m familiar), I quite like the sensation of recognising that it is indeed a work which was written in a language other than English. I like the shadow of recognition that flits across your mind as you scan the text that reminds you of its origins, whether that’s a sentence structure where you can see what the translator has done with the original or perhaps the odd word that is left in the original language, like Goldstein’s retention of the Italian word “stradone” in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. As she has said, there is no good equivalent in English. But somehow it is incredibly effective in bringing us straight onto the streets of Naples. Of course, I don’t always have that insight when reading literature from many other languages, but I do think a good translation will leave the reader with a sense of the “otherness” of the original text while still rendering it seamless and accessible to its new audience.

BM: I would be interested to hear what you feel contemporary readers learn from Frenkel’s memoir. How do you view the work in the context of the current political climate and what are your hopes for publishing a translation of this nature today? 

SS: There are too many unfortunate parallels between stories such as Frenkel’s and those of so many refugees the world over. Her descriptions of mercenary people smugglers, of being forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, of being subjected to arbitrary laws and regulations that turn neighbours upon each other and render the business of every day living a complex maze of uncertainty and fear. There is a terrible, persistent universality to Frenkel’s story. But the fact that her story resonates so powerfully is exactly what makes its publication so vital. We cannot hope to understand and empathise with the circumstances of our fellow humans who continue to suffer persecution and deprivation in so many countries if we cannot understand their stories. These stories need to continue to be told, to be heard, to be translated and distributed.

BM: In your view, how does translating a memoir like this differ from being a reader of it? How do you think translating adds to / colours your response to Frenkel’s life story? 

SS: Translating a text is a different task to reading it, although the process of translation forces a deeper reading, a deeper familiarisation. Translating Frenkel’s memoir has certainly enhanced my ability to empathise with Frenkel and the millions of other souls who suffered so appallingly and that, I suspect, is largely as a result of hearing her voice in my head for longer than if I had simply read the text through and left it at that. As her translator, I have had the opportunity to sit quietly with her as she pondered the inhumanity of the Nazi regime when she was forced to flee Berlin, I have watched as she navigated the administrative labyrinth of securing safe-conduct passes and visas, I have witnessed both her bewilderment at man’s inhumanity to man and her gratitude for human compassion and I have had the chance to appreciate her stoicism, her wit and her black humour. But if I have done my job well, then a whole new Anglophone audience will have the opportunity to sit quietly with Frenkel, too.

Brigette Manion is a reviewer based in London. She is taking an M.A. in European culture and thought, focusing on French, German, and Austrian authors. Her work explores the relationship between literature, photography, and autofiction, and she has a particular interest in the writing of W. G. Sebald, Patrick Modiano, and Annie Ernaux.

Stephanie Smee is a translator into English of all things literary and French.


Read other interviews from the Asymptote blog here: