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FRANCE: Translating a Harlem Renaissance Writer

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PARIS, Nov 2 2021 (IPS) - Claude McKay 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.

Cloutier and 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.


Jean-Baptiste Naudy in Paris (photo by AM)

Jean-Baptiste Naudy in Paris (photo by AM)


The following 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.

SWAN: How did the translating of Aimable with Big Teeth come about?

Jean-Baptiste 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.

SWAN: 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.

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

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 others.

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.

SWAN: In 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…

SWAN: How 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.

So, for 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.

SWAN: Can you tell us more about other works that you’ve translated and how you selected these?

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 both!

SWAN: How 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.

The political 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.

SWAN: What 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


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