Interview with Awarding-Winning Translator Sandra Smith

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?

Lead photo credit : Sandra Smith at Paris Camus Conference November 2017

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Beth S. Gersh-Nešić, Ph.D. is an art historian and the director of the New York Arts Exchange, an arts education service that offers tours and lectures in the New York tristate area. She specializes in the study of Cubism and has published on the art criticism of Apollinaire’s close friend, poet/art critic/journalist André Salmon. She teaches art history at Mercy College in Westchester, New York. She published a book with French poet/literary critic Jean-Luc Pouliquen called "Transatlantic Conversation: About Poetry and Art." Her most recent book is a translation and annotation of "Pablo Picasso, André Salmon and 'Young French Painting,'" with an introduction by Jacqueline Gojard.