RAMBERT’S DEVOTION TO TRANSLATION ALLOWS PANG OF LOVE’S END TO BE FELT BEYOND FRANCE
Crossing the Line Festival 2012 // FIAF
by Joanna Spinks
French playwright and director Pascal Rambert discusses his new piece, Love’s End, which headlined 2012’s Crossing the Line festival. Rambert is artistic director of the Théâtre Gennevilliers, located in a northern suburb of Paris. I spoke with him at Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side on closing night of the run. The previous night, Rambert’s actors, Jim Fletcher and Kate Moran, joined him in a post-show discussion entitled “Translating for the Theater: How to Trans-late a French Play for the American Stage?” We learned that the three artists spent months translating the play together. The text was originally written for two particular French actors; Rambert “wrote as if sewing with a needle on their bodies.” So the translation to English was a matter of “finding language for Jim and Kate’s bodies.” The French title, Clôture de l’amour, has been translated as Bound of Love, Closure of Love, Limit of Lov, and Ultimate Love. But this American premier brutally depicted life at the precise moment of love’s end. The play addresses both a separation of lovers, and, on some intangible level, life as an artist. Kate and Jim, whose characters assume their real names, remain standing at a hard diagonal. She speaks as a woman; he as a man. Each hits on truth, and is magnetic. Rambert uses language as artillery, “born from the dry power of the body.” He questions the assumed meaning of language, examining individual words “as if they were dead fish, to see if they are real living words.” These notions may sound lofty, but I learned quickly not to refer to Rambert’s work as “avant-garde.” He stresses, too, that he does not want the play, which took the Grand Prix for dramatic French literature in 2012, to be perceived as “French.” The show has now had a successful run in thirteen countries. In these productions, certain usages of the French language are betrayed, as is the inevitable tragedy of translation; even in this New York production with a brilliant, bilingual cast. Despite itself, the piece is French at heart. But as Rambert finds skilled actors worldwide to embody his work, he proves that a successful translation lies not exclusively in the text, but also in the actors’ ability to articulate thought through the body. As actors worldwide convey their Love’s End, the play is freed from its Frenchness. Whatever was lost in translation becomes irrelevant; we’ve gained access to a rare experience.
Signals: This is a very busy time for you. Where else is the show being performed?
Rambert: Yes, we’re opening next in Italy in fifteen days.
S: What is the title in Italian, or did you keep the original French title?
R: We didn’t translate it. Even in English, “Love’s End” is not quite right. Because “clôture” is such a French word and such a beautiful word. We didn’t translate it in Italian and we also didn’t translate it in Russian. Right after Italy, I go back to Moscow. The play is going to open at the Moscow Art Theatre in November.
S: You were saying last night that the actors of the Moscow Art Theatre are trained for realism, and on stage they want to stand up, sit down, take a drink. Is this style of acting suited for your piece?
R: That’s what I wanted. I did the show partially before the official opening in November. I was also in Croatia ten days ago for the opening at Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. In the Croatian version, it’s not like the American version at all. They move a lot, they sweat a lot, they scream a lot, they touch. They’re Croatian, you know? But it’s the same diagonal; it’s the same thing. The girl, the actress––she’s maybe 43––she has a kid. She’s a huge Croatian actress. In Russian she’s small, full-figured. She’s very well known. She’s a cinema star. And Kate, you’ve seen Kate?
R: In the French version the actress is very tiny, very skinny. In the Italian version she looks like Kate a lot. She’s a beautiful Italian girl, very tall and very, like, FACE––very beautiful.
S: How do you choose your actors?
R: In Italy we did two days of––not exactly auditions––but we did a kind of an audition. In Moscow I saw everybody; I mean I saw all the actors of the Moscow Art Theater. Because I wanted to see people from 28, 30 to 45, or 50. A nice range, so I could decide. And I saw this actress. She came and she was not even really nice to me; she was really kind of rough. But I looked at her and she looked at me. So after I saw 50 people, I said I wanted to work with her. And she wanted to work with me also.
S: Do your actors always play a major role in translating your plays?
R: Not always, but this time there was no other way to do it. It’s so complicated, it’s so difficult to find the equivalencies. And sometimes the way I write ––Kate’s right ––I do this kind of stupid weird thing and you don’t know what the subject is in the sentence, so you don’t know what the subject is of five, six, seven, eight sentences, and there are so many options. The starting point of the show ––“Je voulais te voir pour te dire que ça s’arrête” ––even translating that, there are so many options. “I wanted to see you to tell you that it’s going to stop.” Now I’m going to work on the Japanese translation with a Japanese translator. And I’ve been working this summer with the German translator because it’s going to be published first in Germany, then in Croatia, then in Japan. It really takes a long time, because in German the grammatical form commands that the verb is always at the end of the sentence. In Japanese it’s also complicated. In Italian it’s pretty much okay. The Croatian translation I can’t tell because I can’t read Croatian. I can’t. I did Spanish when I was in school. I did English, German, I learned Japanese, I learned Arabic.
R: Yes, because I was working a lot in Japan and in Arabic countries, too, so I wanted to be able to speak to people at the market. When you buy a fish or you buy something for lunch, it’s important to be able to speak with the people. Anyway, so for every single word, every single expression with every single actor, we did it around the table for like 10 days. For example, when we were in Russia, it was complicated because I had an interpreter. The actors don’t speak French and don’t speak English, so you can’t have a direct communication with the actor. Here, we have total communication between Kate, Jim and me. Kate speaks French…
S: Does Jim speak French? He must if he helped with the translation.
R: He does, yeah. He at least understands perfectly, and he’s good with languages. But I could see on stage, and I can still see, that there are moments even in this translation where the actors don’t get the thing. And I’ve been working a lot with them saying, like, “I see when you say that, at this moment, something is blurry.” And you see that immediately in the body. It’s impossible to translate something very precisely. Don’t think it’s like poetry or blah blah blah, because for an actor it’s bloody.
S: Your other plays that have been translated to English, did you translate them?
R: No, it’s Kate. She did one that was called Le Début de l’A, (The Beginning of Love).
S: Have all of your plays been translated to English?
R: No, not all. I mean I have 30, 35 plays.
S: And last night at the talkback, you said anyone, anywhere can stage your plays.
R: Yeah! Yes, of course, of course. It’s fun. People send me a little email saying they want to do something, asking permission. I say, okay. Those texts are made to be done by other people. They aren’t just for me, you know. I wrote them so they can be performed. When I’m dead my son will take care of those inquiries, or something like that!
S: People will ask him permission and he’ll be like, “No!”
S: Are there any major influences on your work?
R: No, less and less. I was thinking about that recently. Pina Bausch and maybe Claude Régy in France. I’ve been doing theatre for, what, 35 years. I started when I was sixteen, forming my own company with my friends. I would be like, “I just wrote this, can you read it? No, don’t read it like that, read it like that. Maybe you can go in that space over there?” I’m really thinking about this thing: how to make theatre without theatre. The theatre, it’s a very basic back and forth. What’s nice is to preserve the character of contradictory things. I think the beauty is in contradictions. If you saw some of my other shows, they’re always with fluorescent light. They’re all very similar, but quite different. The next show I’m going to do here in a year [for Crossing the Line, October 2013], there are going to be fifty people onstage. There is going to be a lot of movement in real time with some people who are non-professional. There is a philosopher on stage, there is Kate, and all the actors from my company. I still don’t know if it’s going to be at the Kitchen, La Mama or where.
S: Besides running the Théâtre Gennevilliers, you were also a professor at NYU, right?
R: I taught there twice, yes.
S: From what I can tell, most contemporary work in Paris is created collaboratively, and there aren’t many new playwrights. Are there any French playwrights working today that you really like?
R: Yes, you’re right. Basically, the people that I produce at Gennevilliers. For instance, next week you will see some French people, Les Chiens de Navarre. They are going to be at the Invisible Dog [in Brooklyn as part of the Walls & Bridge festival]. They are going to be dumb and they are going to play dumb because that’s their way. They did two or three shows at Gennevilliers; I invited them a lot at the beginning. They are working like playwrights––they work in real time, they work through improvisation and they are very good. I’m not necessarily interested in playwrights. I think to be just a playwright, I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in people who are, at the same time, playwright and director of their own work, as I am. People who are also visual artists, who are doing their own work, so all the people who I invite to Gennevilliers––Nature Theatre of Oklahoma or Young Jean Lee. I’m not a big fan of “the writer,” writing their little masterpiece in Paris and being all romantic writing a play. The theatre is bodies, it’s people on stage, it’s something active.
S: I agree that the theatre is bodies, but for people here in the U.S. it’s difficult to reproduce and engage with international work without a text. Aside from a few festivals like Crossing the Line, very little good French performance comes through New York.
R: Well, when you speak about French performance, the problem in France is that there is Joël––my friend Joël Pommerat––my friend Olivier Py, me. It’s this generation of people between 45 and 50, and we’re starting to…decline. Well, Joël is going to come and do something here in 2014. People are developing the work, and it’s something that really takes time. It’s really years before we kind of arrive at a form, and where everything, all the energies, all arrive in place.
S: Do you have an idea for your next show? How will you move beyond this form you’ve created that is literally just two people talking to each other about real things. And at the same time, the play is somehow about the theatre––it’s so beautiful. The profundity that springs from this simple, specific form makes the work seem more radical than any multimedia show being billed as very avant-garde.
R: Yes, I have always been doing that. What you saw yesterday is really my work. Come and see the Micro Histoire next year in October. You will see it’s something, which is very much ah, I don’t know how to say it. It’s the same; it’s about economics, but it has nothing to do with that. But there is the same way of taking the space. In 2005 we performed at Dance Theater Workshop and all the actors were naked on stage; it was called Paradis. It has been very well reviewed here, by the way. But forget this word ‘avant-garde.’ Maybe you say that in America, but we speak more about théâtre contemporain, tu vois? In France, we all laugh about this concept of avant-garde.
Love’s End ran at the Abrons Arts Center, NYC, October 10-13, 2012.
Joanna Spinks is a Masters of Arts student in French at Brooklyn College writing her thesis on Artaud, Foucault and Lotringer. She is translating Sylvère Lotringer’s Fous D’Artaud for Univocal Publishing and curates the series TROPISMES at JACK, in Brooklyn. As well, she will be performing in Pascal Rambert’s Micro Histoire and assisting Fanny de Chaillé on her production of La Bibliothèque: both events will be presented as part of the Crossing the Line Festival 2014.