Suite Francaise translator, Sandra Smith

Headmaster Brennan's introduction:

Those of us concerned with designing a school’s curriculum are often persuaded of the importance of including in what is studied works written in languages other than English. For example, those of you who have read The Odyssey ascribed to Homer are really the beneficiaries of the skillful, even poetic, translation of Robert Fagles or Robert Fitzgerald. French students also, while reading Moliere’s plays in the original French, may also be charmed or enlightened as a result of beautiful translations by the likes of Richard Wilbur. Increasingly colleges and high schools are acknowledging the value of reading literature from various traditions and cultures; of course, these works for us English-speakers can usually be accessed only as a result of their reliable, moving, entertaining translations. Today we welcome to RL Sandra Smith, a noted French scholar who has made a major part of her life’s work the translation from French to English of the works of Irene Nemirovsky. Mme. Nemirovsky was a greatly appreciated novelist during the middle of the 20th century. She is, thanks to Professor Smith, especially well known now for their collaboration, long after Mme. Némirovsky’s persecution and death as a result of the Nazis’ systematic extermination of European Jews. In their work, Suite Française, Professor Smith gives voice to Mme. Nemirovsky’s revelatory account of what she and other Jews experienced.

Sandra Smith was born and raised in New York City. She received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York University. While an undergraduate, she spent a year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, and fell in love with the City of Lights and all things French. Ever since, Professor Smith has maintained a professional life marked by healthy doses of scholarship, translation, and teaching. Associated with Cambridge University for the past twenty years, she is a Fellow of Robinson College and supervises the study of 20th century French Literature and Modern French Drama and Translation University-wide. Already Sandra Smith has translated all the works of Irène Némirovsky that have appeared in English. Two new translations will be released this fall, and four more will follow over the next few years. Her translation of Suite Française won various prizes upon its publication in 2007, and The Times of London named it the Book of the Year. We are grateful to Ariella Rosengard, mother of Michael (Class III), for her assistance in bringing her good friend and our guest to Roxbury Latin.


In her own words Sandra Smith told the story of Irène Némirovsky, who chronicles the events in France from June 1940 to July 1941 during the German occupation in her posthumously published novel, Suite Française. Penning her account even as the events that inspired it unfolded, Mme. Némirovsky could not have known that her own life would end long before the story she envisioned. The novel was first published in France in 2004, and the award-winning English translation by Prof. Smith appeared in 2006.

Born in Kiev in 1903, Irène Némirovsky was in her mid-teens (the age of much of the Hall audience) when she and her family fled the Russian Revolution. Ultimately settling in Paris in 1919, she established herself in her adopted country's literary community, publishing nine novels and a biography of Chekhov, and enjoying two decades of peace and prosperity. When in 1939 the German invasion of Paris was imminent, she, her husband Michel Epstein, and their two young daughters fled to the village of Issy-l'Evêque in the Burgundy countryside southeast of Paris. There she composed Suite Française. On July 13, 1942, French policemen, enforcing the German race laws, arrested Mme. Némirovsky as "a stateless person of Jewish descent." She was transported to Auschwitz, where she died five weeks later. Shortly thereafter her husband was arrested, transported to Auschwitz, and immediately consigned to the gas chamber. Their orphaned daughters, Denise and Elizabeth, went into hiding with the only remaining trace of their mother, a suitcase of her papers and a leather-bound diary.

Denise was unable to bring herself to probe what was sure to contain painful memories, and let the “diary” lie unopened for more than 50 years. It was only when she felt the need to make it available to her children that she opened it and discovered it was not a diary, but a manuscript comprised of two novellas written in minute script (evidently to save paper, which would have been scarce), as well as some notes. Prof. Smith explained that “suite” in the book's title refers to the musical form that has five movements. The first novella (“Tempête”) takes place against the backdrop of the German invasion of Paris, and the second (“Dolce”) describes how, as the characters bitterly adapt to the new reality, they yearn for a return to normalcy and familiar daily patterns. The notes suggest she was planning three more novellas—"Captivity", "Battles?", and Peace?"— the question marks underscoring the fact that she was trying to write a historical novel while the outcome of that history was yet unknown. This is what sets Suite Française apart from so many historical novels. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell describes the difference between history written contemporaneous with the events themselves and history written when time, distance, and hindsight come into play: "The significances belonging to fiction are attainable only as 'diary' or annals move toward the mode of memoir, for it is only the ex post facto view of an action that generates coherence or makes irony possible." This fact played into Prof. Smith’s translation into English of the story. Describing the moment when the police arrested Mme. Némirovsky on that July day in 1942, Ms. Smith translated “She left” in the original French to “She was taken” in English, a semantic decision shaped by Prof. Smith’s knowledge of the outcome of the actual events—and, as she confessed in her talk, an error. By contrast, she pointed out, Mme. Némirovsky was likely to have believed that this leave-taking in the company of the French police was optional—something that in retrospect we can be almost certain was not the case.

The book has received much acclaim, both in its original French and now in English translation; Prof. Smith noted that after its publication in France, President Jacques Chirac wrote to Denise and expressed deep gratitude for the moving and relevant account that will help France to finally face its own history with regard to the Nazi occupation. Prof. Smith went further and compelled her audience never to dismiss as innocuous even the least degree of human prejudice, since history shows us that prejudice of any kind, in any form, bears the potential for causing great suffering.

Previous Page