Working with Words: Stephanie Smee

Stephanie Smee left a career in law to work as a literary translator. Recent translations include Hannelore Cayre’s The Inheritors and The Godmother and Joseph Ponthus’ prize-winning work On the Line. The Rome Zoo is her latest translation and is out now through Black Inc. In honour of Women in Translation month, we spoke to her about the affecting alchemy of literary translation and why you need ‘bum glue’ to make it as a writer.  

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

Photograph of Stephanie Smee

I think the first pieces of writing I had officially published were a couple of restaurant reviews which appeared in one of the food guides doing the rounds in the mid 1990s. I was – and remain – a bit food obsessed, so I just loved being asked to seek out these restaurants in places I wouldn’t normally frequent and then write up the experience.

What’s the best part of your job? 

Frankly, I almost have to pinch myself every time I start a new translation. Unlike authors who are faced with a blank page staring back at them, I have a fully-formed, edited piece of writing before me, and even though I always find I need to rework those first pages more as I find the voices of the narrator, the characters, the author, it is perhaps a different sort of challenge to that very blank page. 

Perhaps it helps to think about the grammatical structures of a language as the nuts and bolts, as layers of wooden veneer, one piece glued onto the other, and then somehow it is moulded, shaped, and you end up with something like Saarinen’s 'Grasshopper' chair, and you can’t explain why it moves you, why it’s so affecting. Maybe literary translation is the written form of something akin to this aesthetic alchemy?

... somehow it is moulded, shaped, and you end up with something like Saarinen’s 'Grasshopper' chair, and you can’t explain why it moves you, why it’s so affecting.

What’s the worst part of your job? 

Literary translation is a solitary task and I miss the collegiality of working in a law firm. I made some of my closest friends when working as a solicitor and there was something comforting about having like-minded people to bounce ideas off, to share the stress. After all these years, I miss not having people to talk to about the specifics of my work. It has been difficult, especially in Australia, to establish and maintain a network of translator colleagues, but I am getting better at that and now count some wonderful writers among my friends with whom I can have nerdy conversations about word order and grammar!

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Perhaps the most enjoyable and significant times have been seeing books which I have succeeded in persuading publishers to publish in translation – books with which I have fallen in love – find their new audience in English. Knowing that there is a whole new set of readers, some of whom take the time to contact you and share their enthusiasm, and most of whom would not otherwise have had access to the book in its original language … that is always significant.

I confess it was particularly gratifying to see my translation of Hannelore Cayre’s The Godmother make the New York Times list of 100 Notable Books in 2019! And it also felt important to see Françoise Frenkel’s incredibly powerful WWII memoir No Place to Lay One’s Head win the JQ-Wingate Prize.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing? 

I will riff off some advice given by Bryce Courtenay to my son when he won a writing competition in primary school run by one of our local bookstores. When the prize was awarded, Mr Courtenay gave a little pep talk to all the young writers, saying the most important thing to remember if you wanted to be a writer was to apply 'bum glue'. I have never forgotten it and I think it applies equally to translating. You just have to knuckle down and keep typing, keep writing.

Mr Courtenay gave a little pep talk to all the young writers, saying the most important thing to remember if you wanted to be a writer was to apply 'bum glue'.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself? 

I did enjoy the comments of one author who I think was surprised that they had ended up with an Australian translator somehow – it felt so far removed from their world – and they wrote to me saying: 'I picture you working under some gumtrees, surrounded by wombats, but perhaps that isn’t the case! In any event, thank you!'

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead? 

I would very much like to have a place in a beautiful part of the world that provides space and opportunity for artists, musicians, writers to gather, to eat around a table at night and to be able to offer concerts and exhibitions etc. to a small public audience. One day perhaps.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view? 

I do think I agree with Jhumpa Lahiri and Stefan Zweig when they suggest there is no better way for an author to improve their skills in their own language than for them to translate from another, as it is only then that you become aware of the complexity, the subtlety, the possibilities offered by your own native tongue.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

They would have to be somebody from somewhere else, another country, another era … anybody who brings a different experience to my everyday. Perhaps Elena and Lila from Elena Ferrante’s marvellous quartet. At either end of the table. In Naples. Fierce, strong, intelligent women. And maybe the food would be fabulous.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I think perhaps I have to say the works of Astrid Lindgren which I read as a child. They opened up new worlds, which felt somehow familiar in their foreignness as my mother is Swedish. I think my favourite was The Brothers Lionheart. I just loved that book, even more than Pippi Longstocking. But, most importantly, these books, along with all the other translated literature I read as a young person – and I read a lot - showed me how translation could allow you access to another whole reality. I loved that I could be walking down a snowy street, in a foreign city, eating different food, in a different time … so much more interesting than my daily life growing up in Sydney’s Parramatta and then in Adelaide!

Portrait of Stephanie Smee

Stephanie Smee left a career in law to work as a literary translator. Recent translations include Hannelore Cayre’s The Inheritors and The Godmother (winner of the CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger award), Françoise Frenkel’s rediscovered World War II memoir No Place to Lay One’s Head, which was awarded the JQ–Wingate Prize, and Joseph Ponthus’ prize-winning work On the LineThe Rome Zoo is her latest translation and is out now through Black Inc.

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