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Where the sweet French language meets bitter French history

Sandra Smith’s path from Spring Valley High to literary translation

Sandra Smith
Sandra Smith

If you enjoy reading “The Prodigal Child,” the new translation of Irene Nemirovsky’s 1927 “L’enfant Génial,” you have Miss Shapiro of Spring Valley High to thank.

It was Marilyn Shapiro who introduced young Sandra Smith to the love of the French language; a love that, in a roundabout way, led Ms. Smith to become the official translator for Ms. Nemirovsky, more than 60 years after the latter’s death at Auschwitz.

Ms. Nemirovsky was born in 1903, in Kiev, to a rich banker’s family. Her father hired a French governess to help raise her and to teach her French. This proved helpful when the family left Russia in the wake of the revolution, settling in France when Irene was 16. When she was 18, she entered the Sorbonne; she wrote “The Prodigal Child” when she was 20, but its publication followed that of her first published novel “David Golder,” published in 1929 and adapted as a movie the following year.

“The Prodigal Child” is Sandra Smith’s 12th translation of Ms. Nemirovsky’s work. The first work of hers that Ms. Smith translated was Ms. Nemirovsky’s last — a posthumously published work that brought Ms. Nemirovsky to a whole new audience, in France and around the world, more than a century after her birth.

That final work was “Suite Française,” two books of a projected but never finished series of five novels, written in a cramped hand in a single notebook. It was written between the fall of France and the Nazi invasion in June, 1940, and her arrest and deportation as a foreign Jew by French police in July, 1942. (She was arrested although she had converted to Catholicism in 1938.) She was sent to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus a month later.

She left the notebook behind. Her daughter Denise Epstein couldn’t bear to open it; she assumed it was her mother’s private diary. But as she prepared to donate it to an archive in the 1990s, she began transcribing it — and discovered that it was a novel. It was published in France in 2004 and it became a best seller.

And that’s when Ms. Nemirovsky’s path crossed Ms. Smith’s.

“I really feel I identify with Nemirovsky,” Ms. Smith said. “My family history is the same — except without the tragic ending.” Ms. Smith, like Ms. Nemirovsky, is the descendant of Russian Jews, although her ancestors fled pogroms, not revolution.

But back up.

Some of Irene Nemirovsky’s many books.

Ms. Smith had moved to Rockland County with her family when she was 14. After graduating from Spring Valley High School, she majored in French at New York University, inspired by Miss Shapiro’s class.

“All of my success and love of French is thanks to her,” Ms. Smith said. “I knew I wanted to teach French in high school because of her.”

During her junior year, Ms. Smith lived in Paris and studied at the Sorbonne.

“I loved it,” she said. “I had never been on a plane, never been out of the country. We lived with French families and we learned French.

“You go thinking you speak French and you realize you don’t speak French. You understand it maybe, you can read it, but you basically need to live in the country to learn how to speak any language fluently”

When she graduated from NYU, she went back to Paris for a master’s program at the Sorbonne. Then she moved to Cambridge to study for a Ph.D. that she never finished — but she stayed in England.

“England was like the perfect halfway house, both linguistically and culturally,” she said. “It was kind of European but it wasn’t in a foreign language and it was really close to France so I could go there whenever I wanted to. Living in Cambridge was great. Being involved in the university” — where she taught French literature and translation — “was good. And I really liked it there.”

She speaks of England in the past tense because several years ago, when her son moved to America (where he had citizenship but had never lived), she and her husband followed him across the Atlantic, settling again in Rockland County. Just this last year, with their son married and settled with a mortgage, they moved to join him in Minneapolis.

Sandra Smith found her way to become Ms. Nemirovsky’s translator through a mixture of luck and a novice’s ignorance of the ways of the publishing world.

“Un enfant prodige” is a 21st century retitling of “L’enfant Génial,” translated as “The Prodigal Child.”

She was teaching a course in translation for history majors at Cambridge and had found a short work by Albert Camus that she enjoyed teaching. She translated it and sent it off to a publisher, who “after hemming and hawing said it was too academic.”

The work, called “Letters to a German Friend,” were four letters written during the time of the occupation. “They’re basically a combination of history, propaganda, and philosophy,” she said. “I think they’re fabulous.”

Although she didn’t know it then, they also were all in copyright, with Penguin already holding their English translation rights.

Ms. Smith’s education in copyright law came after she heard British book editor Rebecca Carter on the radio talking about “Suite Française,” whose English rights her publishing company, Chatto & Windus, had just acquired.

“I thought the Camus would go so well with this. I have to do something about it again,” she said.

So she looked up Chatto & Windus, called, and asked to speak to Ms. Carter.

Ms. Smith used her Cambridge credentials to start the conversation — “something I don’t like doing” — and then it became a game of Jewish geography, when Ms. Carter said she was from Cambridge and it turned out that Ms. Smith had known her father, a bookbinder.

“It broke the ice.”

Ms. Carter gently told Ms. Smith that Penguin owned the copyright to Camus — she offered to send Ms. Smith’s translation to a friend who worked there.

And then Ms. Carter said: “I hate to ask this, but I have six translators lined up to translate this novel, but they all are men. Would you be interested in doing a sample translation?”

Ms. Smith translated one chapter, was asked for a second, did it, and then got the commission.

“It was really a miracle,” Ms. Smith said.

When the book launched in England, Ms. Smith got to meet Ms. Nemirovsky’s daughter Denise Epstein — and interpret for her. “She didn’t speak much English,” Ms. Smith said. “She was in her mid-70s then.

“We became very close.

“She was an amazing person. I remember her saying at the book launch that she couldn’t accept that her mother had died until she could see her reborn through the publication of her works. Even in her 70s she hoped her mother would still come back. She couldn’t accept that her mother had died. That was kind of sad,” Ms. Smith said.

Ms. Epstein had kept the suitcase that contained the notebook ever since her mother was taken away.

“There was a flood in her apartment and she nearly lost the manuscript,” Ms. Smith said. “She was an archivist, so she decided she would transcribe it — she thought it was a diary — for the family. She discovered it was a novel.

“Her sister, Elizabeth” — Elizabeth Gille — “didn’t want to publish it, because it was unfinished. When Elizabeth died, Denise showed it to another writer, who said it’s too important not to publish. Denise agreed, and told the publisher that the only requirement was that they didn’t change a single word.

Irene Nemirovsky at 25.

“I wrote a short introduction explaining that Irene was writing this under German occupation, with very little pen and ink and paper and no reference books. There were things that were inconsistent because the book wasn’t edited and wasn’t finished.

“It was supposed to be five books. She wanted it to be the French ‘War and Peace.’ She called it “Suite Française” because she wanted it to be based on a musical suite with five movements. The first book is ‘Storm in June.’ It’s all over the place,” with many characters trying to flee Paris as the Germans invade. “The second, ‘Dolce,’ meaning calm, is about living under occupation.”

Ms. Nemirovsky had outlined a third book, to be called “Captivity”; in her notebook, she had titles for two more — “Battles” and “Peace” — but she marked them with a question mark.

As translated by Ms. Smith, “Suite Française” was widely acclaimed. The New York Times said it ranks with “the greatest, most humane and incisive fiction that conflict has produced.” The Times of London ranked it the fifth best book of the 2000s.

The success of “Suite Française” in English launched a second career as literary translator for Ms. Smith. Her work has included a growing library of Ms. Nemirovsky’s works, and, coming out next year, a posthumous novel by Simone de Beauvoir. “After becoming more or less Ms. Nemirovsky’s official translator, other editors and publishers started coming to me for World War II stuff,” she said.

Ms. Smith describes Ms. Nemirovsky’s “Prodigal Child” as “a beautifully written allegory and fairy tale. You can tell she’s only 20. She’s experimenting with different genres.”

It’s the story of a Russian Jewish child, growing up in poverty in the shadow of pogroms. It begins:

“Ishmael Baruch was born on a very snowy day in March, in a large trading port on the Black Sea in southern Russia. His father lived in the Jewish part of town, not far from the Market Square, where he sold old clothes and scrap metal. He still wore a threadbare caftan, Oriental slippers, and the short side curls called payos, as was ordained. His wife helped him with his work and bore his children… She remembered the happier times of the past, for her father had been a rich moneylender before they burned down his house during a pogrom, on the Easter Sunday after the assassination of Emperor Alexander II.”

But Ms. Nemirovsky’s youthful descriptions of impoverished Jews in this novel echo passages in other works that have raised questions about possible Jewish self-hatred. One could not imagine publishing this passage today:

“Her family grew larger every year, for children multiplied like insects in the Jewish quarter. They grew up in the streets. They begged, argued, swore at passers-by, rolled around half-naked in the mud, ate vegetable peelings, stole, threw rocks at dogs, fought, filled the street with an ungodly clamor that never ceased.”

In 2016, Ms. Smith’s translation of Marceline Loridan-Ivens’s memoir, “But You Did Not Come Back,” won a National Jewish Book Award.

“I had the privilege of meeting Marceline,” Ms. Smith said. “She was 91 when she died in 2018. She had been deported to Auschwitz when she was 15, with her father. He did not survive. The title comes from him telling her, you’re strong and will be coming back. It’s a memoir, a 105 page letter to her father.”

She has another translation out now: “In the Shadows of Paris: The Nazi Concentration Camp that Dimmed the City of Light” by Anne Sinclair.

“Anne Sinclair is very interesting. She’s known in France as a journalist and TV presenter, but is best known for being the ex-wife of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund who was accused of raping a hotel maid; the charges later were dropped.

Ms. Sinclair “knew that her paternal grandfather had been in a concentration camp. She found out that there had been a roundup of Jews in December 1941. They rounded up a thousand Jewish men. Most of them were in the top professions — business owners, doctors, lawyers, people in theater, anyone influential in a high position. The German sent them to a concentration camp only 50 miles from Paris. The whole purpose of this concentration camp was basically to kill them. They starved them to death.

“If they got very, very sick, they were sent to a hospital as a prisoner. Anne’s grandmother managed to get her grandfather out of the hospital and that’s why he survived, and only just — he died shortly after the war from his time there.” Most of his fellow inmates who did not die in the Compiegne-Royallieu concentration camp were sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed.

“Most people have never heard of this concentration camp,” Ms. Smith said. “There have only been a couple of books about it.

“The whole idea of getting the most notable, most influential Jewish men out of Paris so they couldn’t have any influence on society — it’s pretty grim.”

Ms. Smith has reflected on the inherent grimness of translating works about the Holocaust.

“Before the pandemic, I was invited to speak at a translator’s conference in London, on a panel called ‘Translating Trauma.’ How do you deal with it?

“You do a little bit at a time. You cry. You do de-stressing things. You can’t do a lot at a time.

“I just keep saying that it’s important work. People need to know this. If these people could live it, I could translate it.

“I would like to translate a comedy at some point in my life. Or a thriller. But publishers don’t seem to come to me for that.”

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