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Interview with Amin Erfani, Valère Novarina's Translator

Amin Erfani is a scholar and doctoral lecturer of French language and literature at Lehman College, City University of New York. He received his PhD in French literature, with certificates in Comparative Literature and Psychoanalytic Studies at Emory University, Atlanta, in 2011. His work focuses primarily on avant-garde European theater, writing, and critical theory. His publications extend across genres of poetry, novel, theater, theory, and translation, on authors from the 19th century to the present, with a particular attention paid to the work of Bernard-Marie Koltès. He is a published translator of Bernard-Marie Koltès (The Night Just Before the Forests) and Valère Novarina (An Incomprehensible Mother TongueThe Animal of Time). Since 2009, he has initiated theatrical projects around his translations of those authors, leading to stage productions in the United States and in France.

Nicole Birmann Bloom (N.B.B.): How did you come across Novarina’s literature? 

Amin Erfani (A.E.): In very early teenage-hood, only a few years after arriving in France and starting to learn the language, my big brother, little sister, and I, still quite young, used to watch on TV almost religiously literary programs such as Bernard Pivot’s Bouillon de Culture. Although we were still deficient in French, we had been instilled by our parents with an inclination toward all things literary. Those programs were our first open door into French literature, and among authors whose books were lying around in our Lorraine apartment were Samuel Beckett, Bernard-Marie Koltès, and Valère Novarina. Even though I understood next to nothing of those books back then (and of Novarina’s certainly less than to others’), all three became authors on whom I spent a great deal of time writing, decades later, in my doctoral dissertation at Emory University, in Atlanta. It was also then that I invited Novarina on campus, in 2009. Coincidentally, it was in Atlanta that he finished writing “An Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,” a short text dedicated to his mother and to translation, which opens the upcoming volume of my translations. On the occasion of Valère Novarina’s trip to Atlanta, I invited stage director Valéry Warnotte and actor Chris Kayser to collaborate on a series of theatrical performances of his work. Since then, our collaboration has endured. For the Animal of Time, we workshopped the first half of the translation and did a staged reading at the University of Chicago back in 2013. Warnotte later did a full performance of the play with Kayser and live music on stage, and toured the play in France, including at the DSN Dieppe, in 2014. Which brings us here, in 2015, to NYC, at the Martin E. Segal Theater, with a one-night performance on May 4th, accompanied by the publication of my translations.

N.B.B.: What led you to translate L'animal du temps (The Animal of Time)? Could you tell us more about the text and its position in Novarina' s body of work?

A.E.: The Animal of Time (l’Animal du temps - 1993) is the author’s stage adaptation of the first part of his epic Words to Animals (Discours aux animaux - 1987). Novarina’s writings are generally divided in three categories. There are first the “theatrical” texts, intended for the stage, like the Animal of Time. There are also texts which, Novarina claims, belong to a “utopian theater,” monological or polyphonic, sometimes composed of thousands of voices, and therefore impossible to put on stage for practical reasons. The original Words to Animals was a “utopian theater,” which is why the author had to adapt it for the actual stage. The third category is generally referred to as his “theoretical” writings. “An Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,” which opens the upcoming volume, belongs to this third category, where Novarina speaks with more clarity about the notion of translation, and the autobiographical origins of his writing. These “theoretical” writings, however, are not deprived of “theatricality,” which makes Novarina’s style so idiosyncratic. Valéry Warnotte, Chris Kayser, and I had previously collaborated on a bilingual (French-English) stage adaptation of various excerpts from Novarina’s entire corpus, entitled the Sacrificing Actor, for which I first began translating. This time, we decided to work on a single text that had not been previously translated, and stage it entirely in English, with live music.

N.B.B.: Could you tell us more about author and painter Valère Novarina’s place in French Literature and Drama?

A.E.: Novarina’s writing, and his theater, fall in direct lineage with the writings of Antonin Artaud and his “Theater of Cruelty.” It is also quite explicitly in dialogue with the works of François Rabelais. Because of the singularity of their “mystical” and “incantatory” relationships with language - which both Artaud and Novarina call “theater” beyond the very restricted form of “drama” - we face here an unequivocally French tradition of avant-garde writing. In the past half century, this particular tradition may loosely resonate with texts by such authors as Sarah Kane or Heiner Müller. Although the singularity of each author remains unmistakable, they all share a rare understanding that writing and speech must be pushed beyond the realm of transparent communication. By doing so, these authors open up with language something of the very fabric of “existence.” For Novarina, as for Artaud, writing is a form of living, which is bound neither by genre (plot, characters, verisimilitude, or what we in the US call “drama” or “fiction”), nor by the loose and generic category of “literature.”

This form of experimentation in “ theatrical” writing - labeled “post-dramatic” only for academic purposes - crosses over a number of borders in Europe, but it remains virtually ignored by the American and more generally the dominant part of the Anglophone literary and theatrical traditions. There is therefore a true urgency in translating such writers as Novarina into American (a challenge only taken, since the 90’s, by Allen Weiss and Guy Bennett), as far as these writers question the very basics of genre-specific theater and literature, as overwhelmingly practiced and taught in universities, here in the US.

These fundamental principles also hold true for Novarina’s paintings, which may look more familiar to the American public because of their similarities to works by some abstract impressionists to the likes of Jackson Pollock. Novarina often expresses his belief that the written medium has systematically and historically fallen behind the visual arts, and that it’s about time to catch up. He defines himself as an admirer and follower of Jean Dubuffet’s “Art Brut,” which may be a visual translation of Artaud’s Cruelty, as far as both denounce the limitations of the rules of representation, and call for a more incomprehensible, unpredictable agent to guide their work.

N.B.B.: You are a specialist of French contemporary Theater, and you have also translated some plays by Bernard-Marie Koltès. What were the challenges particular to translating Novarina?

A.E.: The quasi-totality of Novarina’s “theatrical” work is composed of logorrhea, which re-invents syntactic and lexical forms ex nihilo, or works hard to pervert existing ones often to the point of non-recognition. In this writing, not one sentence complies with any conventional usage of language, no matter the genre or the register. The recurring question I get from people familiar with Novarina is, quite simply put: Is it possible to translate Novarina at all? My answer is often: No, not if one follows the established schools, which equivocate translation to transference of meanings, or of syntactic structures between languages, or worse still, to a practice of clarification or linguistic embellishment across languages. Novarina’s texts resist transparency as much in translation as on stage. But as he writes in “An Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,” “we must rejoice when we stumble upon what cannot be translated,” and so must the translator. Because of this, my translations of Novarina have been the most “joyful” experiences, even more so than those I did of Koltès, though both authors are equally important to me. To an extent, one translates the joy itself, rather than the meaning. The joy is one of exploring language, finding in American English a resistance, a rhythm, a beat, resonating with the author’s original act of writing in French, rather than what he wrote. That “resonance” may in fact easily, often inevitably, come out as non-literal. English is a much more compact and malleable language than French, and I am quite certain that Novarina, were he to write in English, would find a lot of “joy” in it, although in radically different forms. For writers such as Novarina and Koltès - this being the reason why I found the previous English translations of Koltès’ The Night Just Before the Forests lacking - the rhythm and the music come first, and often trump discursive realism, characters’ psychology, or plot. Novarina’s writing, however, - and more the “theatrical” ones than the “theoretical” ones - immediately cures the translator of any confusion. To me, that explains why, contrary to most English translators I have read of Koltès, Weiss and Bennett, have done such incredible jobs with Novarina, demonstrating a full grasp of the challenge, and have been a guiding light on my own work on this author.

N.B.B.: So The Animal Of Time is a theatrical adaptation of Le Discours aux animaux. How was your translation adapted to the stage? What was your process with director Valery Warnotte and American actor Chris Kayser?

A.E.: My translation was intended for the actor Chris Kayser. Because our project first began to take root in Atlanta, GA, it was important to me to work with the particular sounds and musicality of the Southern accent, (the same way Novarina has drawn from the Savoy dialect and accent to give rhythm to his writing). Warnotte was always very sensitive to this matter and sought to treat Kayser’s rendering of Novarina’s words and rhythm (in translation) almost as a musical instrument, accompanied by drums and electric guitar, drawing from the tradition of Blues which also finds its roots in the South. Warnotte asked me to make sections of my translation available to the musicians and the actor as I moved forward, and the three of us, Warnotte, Kayser, and I, would make a reading of the text on Skype, from Paris, Atlanta, and New York.

N.B.B.: I understood that the plan is to publish this translation through the Martin Segal Theater publishing house. Could you tell us more about it?

A.E.: I am very grateful to Frank Hentschker for his enthusiasm and willingness to publish this translation here in the US. As I have mentioned, it is rare to meet someone here who grasps the nature and measure of the impact of Novarina’s work on theater and writing in general. Hentschker’s depth of knowledge of world theater, and particularly of European traditions, and his commitment to import them in this country and into American language, is something rare and valuable.

The volume, entitled “An Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,” will be out in print by May 4th, with Martin E. Segal Theater Publication, and will be already available for sale to the public attending the performance of the Animal of Time. The volume opens with a short “theoretical” text by Novarina, called “The Incomprehensible Mother Tongue,” where he speaks about the task of translation, and what it means with regard to his singular writing. He also speaks about his mother, who he says was once proposed to by a young Hungarian man who later died in Auschwitz. He explains his fascination since childhood with Hungarian, which he does not understand, and how his relationship with this foreign language also shaped his relationship with his native language and with language in general. This text is followed by the long “theatrical” monologue the Animal of Time, the stage adaptation of the first part of Words to Animals. The juxtaposition of these two texts gives the American reader a good grasp of Novarina’s various styles, reflections on language, and his unique approach to “theatrical” writing.

Interview by Nicole Birmann Bloom (March 2015)