is having something of a rebirth in France, thanks to independent publishers and to translators such as Jean-Baptiste Naudy.
Naudy is the
French translator of McKay’s novel Amiable with Big Teeth (Les Brebis
noires de Dieu), one of two translations that have hit bookstores in 2021,
generating renewed interest in the work of the Jamaican-born writer (1890-1948).
McKay was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a "cultural nomad" who spent
time in Europe during the 1920s and 30s, and the author of the famous poem “If
We Must Die”.
The first of
the two recent translations - Romance in Marseille (Héliotropismes) - was
published under its English title last spring, while Naudy’s Les Brebis
Noires de Dieu came out at the end of summer during the so called rentrée,
the return to routine after the holidays. A third McKay novel, Home to
Harlem (Retour à Harlem, Nada Éditions), has meanwhile been newly translated and is scheduled for
publication in early 2022.
This feast of
McKay’s work has resulted in profiles of the writer in French newspapers such as Libération, with Naudy’s expert translation receiving particular
attention because of the intriguing story behind Amiable with Big Teeth.
The celebrated “forgotten” work - a “colourful, dramatic novel” that “centres
on the efforts by Harlem intelligentsia to organize support for the liberation
of fascist-controlled Ethiopia,” as Penguin Books describes it - was discovered
only in 2009 by then graduate student Jean-Christophe Cloutier while doing
research. His discovery came 40 years after McKay had completed the manuscript.
his advisor Brent Hayes Edwards went on to confirm the authenticity of the
work, and it was published by Penguin in 2017. Fully aware of this history,
Naudy said it was “mind-blowing” to translate the novel, and he drew upon his
own background for the rendering into French.
Born in Paris,
Naudy studied Francophone literature at the Sorbonne University and design at
the Jan van Eyck Academy in the Netherlands. He describes himself as a
publisher, translator and “text experimentalist”, and he coordinates
"Déborder", a book series published by independent publishing house
Nouvelles Éditions Place. Within this series, he has translated African
Journey by Eslanda Goode Robeson (2020) and now the McKay novel.
As a writer,
Naudy, under the name of Société Réaliste, has himself published two books, in addition to essays and experimental texts in journals and reviews; and as an artist he
has exhibited work in both solo and group shows internationally. One
can find examples of his public art pieces around Paris.
edited interview with Naudy, conducted by email and in person, is part of SWAN’s
series about translators of Caribbean literature, done in collaboration with
the Caribbean Translation Project.
did the translating of Aimable with Big Teeth come about?
Naudy: In 2019, Sarah
Frioux-Salgas and I were invited by Cyrille Zola-Place, director of Nouvelles
Éditions Place in Paris, to curate a book series dealing with unclassifiable
texts, overreaching genres, intertwining topics. Our common interest for the
internationalisation of political and poetical scopes in the 20th century, via
the publication of books largely ignored by the classical Western frame of
reference, gave birth to this book series, entitled Déborder (To overflow). The
first book to be included was a reprint of Negro Anthology, edited by
Nancy Cunard in 1934, a massive collection of poetry, fiction and essays about
the Black Atlantic, for which she collaborated with paramount artists and
scholars of those years, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, George Padmore
and dozens of others.
Since then, we have published five more books in this
frame, like the first French translation of Eslanda Robeson’s African
Journey, or Sismographie des luttes (Seismography of Struggles),
a kind of world history of anticolonial journals, amazingly edited by art
historian and writer Zahia Rahmani.
At the beginning of 2020, Sarah told me the
story of a newfound book by Claude McKay, Amiable with Big Teeth, edited
by Brent Hayes Edwards and Jean-Christophe Cloutier for Penguin Books in 2017.
Searching the archives of a rather obscure New York publisher, Cloutier had
found the complete and ready-to-be-published manuscript of a completely unknown
novel by McKay. The very fact that such a story was possible - to find out of
the blue a full book by a major writer of the 20th century - was unfathomable
to me. Nouvelles Éditions Place immediately agreed to the idea of publishing
the book in French.
Including your translation, there will be three novels by McKay published in French this
year and next. Can you explain this surge of international interest in his work?
JBN: The renewed interest in Claude McKay’s
oeuvre is global for sure, but also at times pretty local.
The critical deconstruction of the Western ideological frame of thought has
called for the exposure of another cultural grounding, a counter-narrative of modernity,
other stories and histories encompassing the plurality and complexity of dominated
voices, visions, sensibilities, positions on their path to liberation. To that extent,
McKay is an immense writer, whose very life was bound to this intertwining. Like
most of the key figures of the Black Atlantic, he has been largely ignored or under-appreciated
by the 20th century literary canon. More than ever, he is a lighthouse for
those interested in the interwoven problematics of race, gender, sexuality, and
class. But he is as well a singular figure of displacement, a critically productive
internationalist, being at first a Jamaican in New York, then a Caribbean from Harlem in
Europe, then a Black writer from France in Morocco, and finally back to the United
States, a Black Atlantic wanderer.
Which is also
the point of his renewed presence in the French contemporary cultural landscape.
The very fact that one of the most preeminent actors of the Harlem Renaissance
was, first, a Jamaican, and second, writing from France about the Americas and
the global Black diaspora is irresistibly intriguing. Another important factor
is the crucial influence that McKay’s writings had on a number of Francophone literary
figures of the 1930s, including the founders of the Négritude movement, the Nardal
sisters, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, Léon Gontran Damas, René Ménil, and many
In a nutshell,
I would argue that McKay captivates nowadays for all those reasons at the same
time. He epitomizes the Black international radical current that rose in the 1920s
and 1930s, his critical scope is extremely contemporary, and he is representative
of a certain blend of political and cultural cosmopolitanism that happened to
exist in the French imperial metropole during the interwar years. It is
interesting to notice that the three books being published now in France deal
with different periods of his life: Home to Harlem, his 1928 bestseller
(translated Retour à Harlem in the new French translation to be
published by Nada Éditions) is a luxurious portrait of Harlem in the 1920s,
written while he was in France. Romance in Marseille, released last
April by Héliotropismes, another previously unpublished novel from the
early 1930s, revolves around the central themes of his most famous novel also
set in Marseilles, Banjo. And thus, Amiable with Big Teeth, dating from 1941,
being his last fiction and only novel ever written in the United States.
addition to your native French, you speak English and Spanish. Where and how
did you begin learning other languages?
JBN: Where I grew up, English and Spanish
were mandatory at school. So, I grasped some elements there, quite poorly. Then
I had to travel. So, I learned most of my English with Ukrainian artists in
Lisbon and bits of Spanish with Brazilian anarchists in Athens. How romantic…
did your interest in translation start?
JBN: My first encounter with the need to
translate something happened I guess when I went to London
for the first time, in 1997. Following a totally random move - because I liked
his name - I bought a washed-out copy of Kamau Brathwaite’s Middle Passages.
I had never read anything like that. For sure it sounded like street music to
me, half a drunkard rant, half an esoteric psalmody, but the polyphony at work
in this single text, the sound and visual poetics of patwa mesmerized me.
the last 25 years, I have been trying to translate exactly that, the very
sensation I had in front of this palimpsest of languages. A rant that would be
a psalmody, at times unintelligible, at times neat as a scalpel slice. How
language can be haunted by the spectre of the past while echoing potentially
emancipated futures. What Rimbaud called “the long, immense, rational
derangement of the senses”, inscribed on a
page where words are sounds are signs are ciphers are colours are noises are
tastes are notes and nevertheless, never more than words.
you tell us more about other works that you’ve translated and how you selected
JBN: Last year, I translated African
Journey by Eslanda Goode Robeson, and it was a delight. I have an intense
admiration for Eslanda Robeson, an amazing transnational feminist
networker and anticolonial advocate. This book was a great success in the USA
when it was published in 1945, the first popular book about Africa written by
an African American writer. It is a travel diary, at the same time complex and
honest, but I particularly liked how Robeson used this genre to create
commonality between Africans and Americans. For the
anecdote, Eslanda Robeson and Claude McKay really disliked each other, their
writing styles are almost opposite, as well as their social backgrounds and cultural
framings; however, I think they were aiming at the same liberation and I love them
important is translation for today’s world, especially for publishing underrepresented
communities? In the Caribbean, as in other regions, it sometimes feels as if
countries are divided by language. How can people in the literary and education
spheres help to bridge these linguistic "borders"?
JBN: When I was a student, I had the
opportunity to study what we call in my country “Francophone
literature”, so literature written by former and present subjects of the French
colonial project. Or raised in the postcolonial remains of the French empire. What
was interesting for me was to try to understand or feel what the colonial condition
was doing to the language itself. How writing or expressing oneself in a foreign
language, an imperial language imposed upon a great variety of cultures, was
transforming the language in return.
At its core, Francophone literature has a poetical
abundance and a political tumult that always seemed to me in synchronization
with the modern condition. Whatever be the scale and the observation point.
What people from my neighbourhood in Paris, coming from all corners of the
world, were doing via the vernacular popular French slang we were talking every
day, the “Francophone” writers were doing the same to literature itself.
Upgrading it to a world-scale. As any other imperial language, French does not belong
to French people, fortunately, and that is the main source of its current
literary potency as well as the only sound reason to continue to use it.
side effects of this linguistic colonial and then postcolonial condition astonished me
as well: how this shared imperial language allowed Caribbean peoples, Arabs,
Africans, Indochinese, Indians, Guyanese, to relate and elaborate a common ground. This
tremendous poetic force and its radical cosmopolitan perspective bound me to
translation, especially when I experimentally realized that the situation was
exactly the same with all the other imperial languages, English, Spanish, etc. Suzanne
Césaire was maybe one of the first poets to see the Caribbean not so much as
separated islands (divided by bodies of water, empires, languages, political status)
but as an archipelago, an extremely complex panorama whose unity is undersea
and underseen. I consider that my task as a literary translator working on the
Atlantic world is to help languages undersee each other. I aim to be a pidginizer.
are your next projects?
JBN: I am working on several translation
projects. First of all, an amazingly powerful collection of
short stories by South African wonder writer Stacy Hardy. Then, a beautiful and
crucial book by Annette Joseph-Gabriel, Reimagining Liberation, dealing with
the key role played by Black women in the decolonization of the French empire.
Finally, I will work on the first French translation of The Practice of
Diaspora, an essential book by Brent Hayes Edwards, focusing on Paris as a
node of the Black Atlantic culture in the interwar years. Its subtitle says it
all: Literature, translation and the rise of Black internationalism.
This masterwork constructs an analytical frame to relate together René Maran,
Alain Locke, Paulette Nardal, Claude McKay, Lamine Senghor, George Padmore,
Jessie Fauset, Langston Hughes, C.L.R. James, Tiemoko Garan Kouyaté, and so
many more. As you can easily imagine, it is a mind-blowing book, and I am
extremely proud to work on it. - AM /SWAN
Photos: top to
bottom: the cover of Les Brebis noires de Dieu; Jean-Baptiste Naudy in Paris (photo by AM); Voyage Africain by Eslanda Robeson; the Libération article on the translation of Claude McKay’s work; Middle Passages by Kamau Brathwaite (New Directions); Aimable with Big Teeth (Penguin).