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Behind the Book: Stephanie Smee

Posted 1st Feb 2018

The brilliant No Place to Lay One’s Head is BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. To mark the occasion, we caught up with translator Stephanie Smee to ask her about her translating routine, her favourite words and what first drew her to Françoise Frenkel’s story.

Do you have a particular translating routine?

I once heard a translator say that the best thing you could do for your translating routine was to have a dog … walking it provided welcome breaks and allowed your mind to relax and ponder thorny sentences. And I confess my own translating day always starts and finishes with taking my Schnauzer, Lotta, for a walk in our local park. It’s a routine that also offers welcome community during a working day which can sometimes be quite solitary.

What is your favourite word and why?

Ugh! An impossible question, but a fun one to consider. Having just returned from a wonderful visit to a snowy Munich, I was reminded of the fun you can have with German words, even though I work these days primarily in French. I’ve settled on “gemütlich”, although if asked tomorrow I will probably wish I had chosen another … in any event, “gemütlich” conjures up very fond memories of a year spent in Germany consolidating my German after school. I think the reason I love it is because I’ve always thought it’s one of those words that can seem like it requires a whole paragraph of translation. Yes, one might translate it as “cosy” or “comfortable”, but somehow these words don’t do the feeling of the word justice; it might be the cosiness of a chat with a girlfriend over a shared hot chocolate while it’s snowing outside, or the atmosphere created at a dinner party by a generous and hospitable host. When I returned home to Australia after that year in Germany, I often found myself wanting to use the German “gemütlich” because there was no better word in English that summed up the particular feeling I wanted to describe. German really does have a knack for words that can do that.

What first drew you to Frenkel’s story?

I think it was the very immediacy of Frenkel’s story of survival that drew me to it and which set it apart from many other accounts and narratives written about those devastating years. That, and her almost painterly rendering of the people and places she encounters. Somehow, too, she was able to maintain a sharp sense of humour which seemed only to underscore the tragedy of the circumstances in which she and so many others found themselves. The parallels to be drawn between Frenkel’s story and the plight of refugees today the world over render her story more poignant still.

If you could ask Frenkel one question, what would it be and why?

I would find it hard to resist the impulse to ask her about the terms upon which she and her husband parted in Berlin when he returned to Paris, leaving her to run her beloved bookstore alone. I feel her answer might just help to explain the persistent silence she maintains in her narrative regarding his very existence. But in asking, I can’t help but think we would be breaching some implied confidence, undermining the integrity of her story and the way she has chosen to tell it.

What does being a translator mean to you?

At the risk of sounding overly earnest, I do think that literary translation offers us the possibility of some insight into our common humanity because we can’t hope to understand each other if we can’t read or listen to each other’s stories. I love Anthea Bell’s translation of Stefan Zweig describing the task of translation as “quiet rather unappreciated work” which nonetheless made him feel like he was doing something particularly meaningful that justified his existence. I suppose I share that sentiment; I think the endeavour is significant and I love nothing better than burying myself in the pages and phrases of another author in another language and trying to render them accessible to a new Anglophone audience.

Want more from Stephanie? Treat yourself to her translation of Françoise Frenkel’s unmissable No Place to Lay One’s Head here >

Or listen to the first episodes of BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week here >