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Françoise Frenkel’s iconic story comes to Canberra

HerCanberra Team

‘The poet moves from life to language, the translator moves from language to life; both like the immigrant, try to identify the invisible, what’s between the lines, the mysterious implications.’

So says Anne Michaels in the wonderful Fugitive Pieces. But what of a real translator, faced with the true history of a mostly unknown woman, writing about her life during one of the most written about periods of near-recent history? How does a modern Australian translate the words of a Polish Jewish refugee in Vichy France? Et voilà Stephanie Smee.

We sat down with the author ahead of her appearance at Muse Canberra on Sunday 25 June.

HerCanberra: How did you come across Françoise Frenkel’s story?

Stephanie: I am constantly trying to keep up with new releases in the French publishing world, looking for exciting new projects that will resonate with an Anglophone market. I discovered Françoise Frenkel’s memoir when I was reading my latest copy of Lire magazine, a French monthly literary magazine to which I subscribe.

I was very fortunate to be in Paris, so I was able to head straight out to the nearest bookstore to buy it and, having started it, I couldn’t put it down. It felt particularly resonant, especially reading those parts of her memoir which deal with the years when she was studying in Paris and working in a bookstore on the Rue Gay Lussac. Her descriptions are so vivid, and it is very easy to picture the carefree university student scenes she is describing … which makes it all the more confronting, of course, when we are forced to envisage the almost unimaginably oppressive and dangerous years that were to follow for Frenkel, as a Polish Jewish woman.

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How well known to you was the time period No Place to Rest One’s Head is set in (WWII France) and did that help with your translation?

Like so many others, I have read a great deal of literature – much of it fiction, rather than non-fiction – set in and around World War Two. That said, the French experience of those years was not an area of particular focus at university and my French studies concentrated more on other areas of literature … and film.

One is always required to do research around the subject of a translation, whether it is fictional or, like Frenkel’s memoir, non-fictional. And certainly, the task of a translator has been made considerably easier having access at one’s fingertips to so much primary source material through the internet. There is no question that the more you read around a topic, the more comfortable you become with relevant vocabulary and references and I’ve found this to be the case for all of my translations. Working on my translation of Jules Verne’s historical adventure novel Mikhail Strogoff, for example, which was the first new translation of this work in one hundred years or so, required an enormous amount of research on the subject of Siberian customs and geography, right down to descriptions of the sort of carriages being used by the hero in his odyssey adventure across Russia.

Similarly, my work on Frenkel also called for background research into and consideration of not only the historical events taking place around her but also the many fascinating references to the literary characters to which she refers. I confess I also found it helpful to be able to call up a mental image – gathered over a couple of decades! – of so many of the places she was describing, from Paris, to Berlin, to Avignon, Nice and Annecy.

Why do you think this book resonates with such a diverse readership so many years on from its first publication?

Frenkel’s memoir is an unusual work. As you have said, it was first published in 1945, very much in the immediate aftermath of her attempts to extricate herself from the persecutions of the Jewish population in France and Europe as a whole. What sets it apart is the very immediacy of her observations as she bears witness to the challenges, both moral and practical, confronting the French population. It is as though she had written it yesterday … and unfortunately, those challenges continue to exist for so many in our world today. Frenkel’s story, the story of millions of people fleeing terror during the years that spanned World War Two, is no different to the stories that continue to be told today by refugees the world over.

The arbitrary nature in which an ordinary life can be turned upside down, the manner in which moral parameters can slip from one day to the next, all of which Frenkel describes through the lens of her very personal experiences with those who tried to help and harbour her and those who would sooner have turned her in … all of these issues, Frenkel’s quiet, dignified desperation, are horribly relevant still to so many people finding themselves on the run from the mental and physical violence of arbitrary measures that threaten the ability of individual citizens to continue living a reasoned and reasonable existence.

Stephanie Smee

Stephanie Smee

You used to work as a lawyer. Are there any similarities between that job and being a translator?

I think it’s fair to say many lawyers enjoy dealing with words, but of course, that love of language doesn’t always extend to foreign languages! A good lawyer will have an eye for detail, though, and that is definitely a skill which is useful, no, necessary, as a translator. Lawyers can often be accused of being pedantic – not necessarily an attractive attribute, but a useful one in the field of translation! Also, I think lawyers are encouraged to use or at least appreciate a degree of subtlety in language and that is something which is always coming into play with every decision one makes when translating.

You’ve also just translated some kids books from an iconic Swedish author. Tell us a bit about that experience?

Yes! I’ve just been lucky enough to work with my Swedish mother on the first translation into English of Gösta Knutsson’s wonderful Pelle No-Tail series of children’s books. Knutsson started writing this series of a dozen or so books in 1939 and continued writing them – amongst other works – until his death in 1973. Pelle No-Tail, the little cat who had his tail bitten off by a rat when he was a kitten, is a beloved character in Sweden and the books have sold millions of copies in Sweden alone, and yet this is the first time they have been translated into English.

It was tremendous fun, collaborating with my mother – we laughed a lot as we worked together – and it made the usually very solitary task of translation much more entertaining. It was a very different task to that of translating Frenkel’s memoirs in a number of ways, quite aside from the different language. Knutsson was a master at playful language and the books are peppered with wordplays and puns and even little poems. And while much of the language conveying the story is, I suppose, simpler than the language Frenkel was obviously using, there is a skill, too, in rendering that simplicity and honouring the humour in another language. It’s often been said that translating a joke is nigh on impossible – and sometimes one has to think a little more flexibly, retreat from the text, allow your brain to roam a little more freely until you hopefully come up with a good solution.

What is on your bedside table or TBR list right now?

Too many books! I have just finished reading Anthea Bell’s wonderful translation of Stefan Zweig’s memoir, The World of Yesterday. There are so many similar themes to Frenkel’s own memoir, and it also contains some telling insights into his own work as a translator.

I’m loving Elizabeth Strout’s latest, Anything is Possible. She is an exquisite writer, and there are frequently sentences in the quiet framework of her prose that cause a sharp intake of breath on my part. My husband is imploring me to read George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo which he loved and I’m also looking forward to reading Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses and John Williams’ Stoner … neither of them new books but they come thoroughly recommended. And that doesn’t even account for the French books I always have on the go. There are a couple in particular, including a young adult series, that I’m very much hoping I might be able to translate. As I said, too many books!

You can see Stephanie in person on Sunday 25 June from 3-4pm at Muse Canberra, inside East Hotel, 69 Canberra Avenue, Kingston. Tickets are $10 and include a glass of house wine or soft drink and can be purchased here

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Her Canberra

Sometimes a story is bigger than one person…that’s when the HerCanberra Team puts its collective head together to come up with the goods. Enjoy!

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