This roundtable was inspired by Matt Thornās essay “On Translation.” Anjali Singh (translator of Marjane Satrapiās Persepolis 2), Helge Dascher (translator of Michel Rabagliatiās Paul books), Camellia Nieh (translator of Osamu Tezukaās Ode to Kirihito) and Kim Thompson (my boss, who is currently translating Jacques Tardi books) graciously agreed to take part in this discussion; it turns out they were just as curious as I was to learn about what strategies their peers employ to tackle questions of faithfulness to the text, the challenges specific to working with the medium of comics, censorship, authorial and editorial give-and-take, etc. The following conversation, conducted April 18, 2010, goes a long way to explaining the brass tacks of something that, when done well, is fairly transparent to the reader. ā Kristy Valenti
Participants: Anjali Singh, Kim Thompson, Camellia Nieh and Helge Dascher; Moderator: Kristy Valenti; Transcription: (The Amazing) Jenna Allen
INTRODUCTIONS; BREAKING IN
ANJALI SINGH: Iām Anjali Singh. I speak French, and Iāve translated from the French, and I was previously an editor in-house at Vintage/Pantheon, and then Houghton Mifflin and now Iām freelancing. I was Marjane Satrapiās editor at Pantheon and I translated ā not Persepolis ā but all the books that came after Persepolis: Persepolis 2, Embroideries and Chicken with Plums. I was the co-translator on The Rabbiās Cat; I was Kim [Thompson]ās editor on Epileptic; and I translated Frederik Peteers’ Blue Pills at Houghton Mifflin. And Iām in the process of translating a book, Marzi, by Marzena Sowa and Sylvain Savoia, for Vertigo.
CAMELLIA NIEH: I am a Japanese translator. I do a lot of manga and novels, anime (which is Japanese cartoons), as well as non-entertainment translation, so business and technical and so forth. And some of the comic books that Iāve done: I did some Tezuka titles for Vertical, including Ode to Kirihito and four of the Blackjack series, MW and Apolloās Song. I did Gogo Monster last year for Viz ā which is one of my favorite books that Iāve translated ā and just a ton of other manga series. Those are just some of my favorites. Iām doing about six different series right now for Viz, and Iāve done a few for Dark Horse, some of the Blood Plus and Ghost in the Shell titles. Thatās all.
HELGE DASCHER: Iām based in Montreal, I translate from German and from French and have been doing comics since 1994, when Chris Oliveros from Drawn & Quarterly was just looking for someone to translate a small blurb in connection with The War of the Trenches, for which he had just, I think, commissioned the translation of one or two installments. I started translating for Chris, and I think early on we were serializing Dupuy and Berberian and Baru, and some stories by Loustal: and itās just gone on from there. Iāve done work for Dark Horse, a lot of work for Drawn & Quarterly: including stuff by Stanislas and more Dupuy and Berberian; Michel Rabagliatiās beautiful Paul books; the Aya books by Abouet and Oubrerie; some local talent here, Guy Delisle; really a lot of stuff this year. We have Pascal Girardās The Bigfoot, and I think another book by Guy Delisle about Jerusalem, and Iāve just had the real pleasure of working in collaboration with another writer, John Kadlecek for Fantagraphics, doing King of the Flies, by Mezzo and Pirus, with Kim working on that as an editor. And so alongside that, I also translate museum catalogs and other kind of art and literature-related work, and Iām also a generalist, like Camellia.
KIM THOMPSON: Iām Kim Thompson, co-publisher of Fantagraphics Books. I translate pretty much every Western-European language comic book that we publish because we canāt afford translators. I speak fluently Danish and French and I can read quite fluently Spanish, German, Norwegian and Swedish and I can work my way through Dutch and Italian when I have to. So, as a result, I have a big pile of stuff Iām always working on. Iāve actually worked from all those eight different languages at one point or another, rather miraculously. Right at the moment Iām doing a lot of the translation for Jacques Tardi since weāre doing a book of his every season, every six months. Iām doing Nicholas Mahlerās strips for Mome from the German. We just got an Eisner nomination for a story I co-translated from the Danish by Nikoline Werdelin, which is pretty cool. And I do all the Ignatz series, which is several different languages, although mostly Italian. And Iām working my way through the complete Joost Swarte from the Dutch.
I havenāt done a whole lot of stuff outside of just working for Fantagraphics, but I did do Epileptic for Pantheon, working with Anjali, and a couple of other things: little things here and there. Iāve done almost exclusively comics. If Iāve done actual text pieces, itās usually been as integrated into comics, as for instance, a couple of short text pieces in The War of the Trenches. Although I did translate an entire book, an interview with HergĆ©, which has not been published yet, but is owned by the HergĆ© people and Iām hoping that they will release it at some point when the Tintin movie comes out. And thatās my story.
KRISTY VALENTI: Are any of you formally educated in translation?
SINGH: No, no, I wasnāt formally educated in translation at all.
NIEH: I was. I started being interested in translation in college and did my minorās thesis in translation. At that point, I did some translation during my first job working in Japan after college, and then did a translation/interpreting correspondence course. I eventually came back to the U.S. and did a two-year Masterās degree at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in translation and interpreting, so I also work as an interpreter, too; I didnāt mention that.
DASCHER: I had been getting some occasional translation work. I was working as a journalist, and I was teaching writing, and had begun doing the work for Drawn & Quarterly. And the first big book, really, was Road to America by Baru, and it brought up all kinds of issues and I realized that those were things that I wanted to look more closely at. I ended up doing a two-year certificate in translation here, a graduate certificate, and so that was the formal training.
THOMPSON: And Iām not professionally trained in anything whatsoever. [Laughter.]
VALENTI: Do any of you make a living as a translator, solely?
NIEH: I do.
THOMPSON: I donāt get paid, so I donāt.
SINGH: I get paid, but I would never try to make a living at it. I do freelance editing and literary critique, which I was also editing before. It remains to be seen whether Iām going to make a living at any of this, but for now, it works.
THOMPSON: I did get paid very nicely by Pantheon, I should say. Youāre probably gonna be asking: āWhen did you realize that translating could be a job?ā I realized that pretty early on, because my father, who was working in Europe at the time, did a lot of translating himself, and he subscribed to a newsletter of translators. He one day brought home that newsletter to me, because there was an article in there, this was in the ā70s, about translating AstĆ©rix and comparing all the different translations of AstĆ©rix in European languages. And at that point there, it dawned on me, that people actually did that.
VALENTI: How did you all come to translate comics, specifically?
SINGH: Iāll start. I was working with Marjane. Iād fallen in love with Persepolis, at the point that I got involved in editing it, LāAssociation, her French publisher, had already commissioned a translator, so I was handed the translation, which I then edited. But Marjane and I worked really well together, so when it came time to publish Persepolis 2, she asked me if I would do it, and I just would never have had the guts to think that I could do it. But because she asked me to do it, and we worked really well together, and she spoke perfect English, it just happened really organically.
And I would say, even now, I feel like Iām still feeling my way as a translator, and I feel more comfortable in my role as an editor. I really loved that collaboration because when youāre editing something and you know the language, itās a really fun process. And I feel much more at sea when Iām translating for someone who doesnāt speak French, then itās really up to me and my personal resources to make sure I got everything right.
But anyway, thatās my answer. Itās really something that I fell into. Itās a really fun challenge. As an editor, you donāt get to be creative in this way very often. Anyone will tell you, translating, it is a very creative act; and I loved having that component to my job.
THOMPSON: I should also mention that it is a huge benefit to any translator to be actually able to work with the person being translated, to have them check it and double-check it. Thatās always been very enjoyable.
NIEH: Iāve never had that opportunity, and Iāve translated so many things. Thatās never happened. Those of you in the publishing industry, does that happen more often?
SINGH: I think it just depends on the language that youāre translating. I only translate from French and the authors Iāve worked with all spoke English. It feels like a safety net, because you are their voice in America, in English. And itās really nice to know theyāve read it and signed off on it.
THOMPSON: And that way, I figure, if I blow it, then, well at least I checked with them first. But I was working on the Rocky series with Martin Kellerman and he was very involved in it, he was very careful about tweaking language, sometimes rewriting jokes so they worked better. The only one I donāt really work with is Tardi, who is just too busy for one thing, and I think whose English isnāt that great. I mean, Helge can certainly say that we got a lot of feedback from Michel Pirus working on King of the Flies.
DASCHER: Absolutely. You know what, I work with a number of artists who live here in Montreal, and actually most of the artists I work with do speak English, and some are very hands-off, and others really have ideas and some actually are already anticipating some of the issues that are going to be coming up as theyāre working on their books and will have some things that they come to me with, either potential solutions or pre-identified problems. So I think Iām pretty lucky that way, that thereās often an opportunity for me to talk to the authors about the work.
There was still that open question how people got into translation and Camellia, Iām not sure that you answered that question.
NEIH: Oh, no, I hadnāt yet. I worked in translation, translating other literary material, before I did manga. I did magazines and some novels and I did a novel for Vertical, and they were really happy with my work, and thatās when they decided to give me my first Tezuka comic that I got to do. But I think getting into that kind of work was, to some degree, a matter of really just looking out there and seeing who I wanted to work with. I wanted to work with Vertical; before that there was a magazine that Iād seen on shelves in shops in Japan and thought was really beautiful, and saw that it was published bilingually, and so just approaching the people I wanted to work for and submitting samples, coming up with a sample if I didnāt have any published work yet ā but translating a short story and sending it to them and doing my first project for not very much pay and that sort of thing. And then they entrusted me with one of their flagship projects, so it took a little sacrifice, initially, to earn their trust and get my foot in the door.
VALENTI: So youāve never worked with the person who created the comics, then?
NIEH: No: never. And every now and then ā through my editor at the American publisher, they have contact with the publisher in Japan that holds the rights. I imagine it comes through that loop ā Iāll hear something from the editor that the Japanese original creator wants a certain word to be used for the name, or a certain spelling, or something like that: but not very often. And I donāt very often hear any feedback from what the author thought of it, or if they even saw it, and I have no idea what their intentions were, so I often wish that I could dialogue with them directly and ask them questions about ā especially when theyāre setting a work outside of Japan and theyāre coming up with names for the characters and stuff ā what sort of spellings they had in mind, or places, imaginary places: that sort of thing.
THE MAGIC OF NAMES
VALENTI: Do you think proper names should be translated?
THOMPSON: I guess my response would be that that depends. When I was translating the Lewis Trondheim Lapinot material, I thought it was real important that the characters have really easy, accessible, quick-to-read names, so I moved away from his original names, including for that matter Lapinot, I changed him to McConey, just because I figured no American could figure out how to pronounce Lapinot. āLa-pee-not? Whatās that?ā I also wanted to keep the rabbit in the title. In other cases, sometimes you want something else because I think itās important to not confuse the reader. One thing I did, for instance, is in the last Tardi book: The guy was called Georges, spelled the French way with an āSā at the end. I just lopped off the āSā because I figured that that it would just annoy Americans to keep on having references to āGeorges, Georgesā over and over again. In most cases, though, I would say just probably stick with the original names, even though there are references, then, that you donāt get. I mean, Tardiās names, for instance, have a lot of references, like all of scientists have the name of God in them, for instance. [Laughter.] It just becomes too complicated. So I guess the answer to the question is yes, no and maybe.
DASCHER: I think thatās the answer to a lot of the questions. [Laughter.]
SINGH: Yeah, I play it case by case.
NIEH: Has anyone read some of the translations of the Harry Potter novels in other languages?
NIEH: No? Well, that springs to mind, with regard to translating names because Iāve read some of the ones in Spanish and in French, and the Spanish ones all have all the characters and everything in their world has magical names, or whatever. Those, in the Spanish editions, theyāre just the same as the English ones, and in the French ones, the translator did an amazing job of coming up with French, different, new names for all the characters that embody the same sort of nuances, I think, as the original ones do in English. Because, while theyāre made-up words, a characterās name will sound sinister or silly or something like that, and I was really impressed by that and I thought it was really inspiring the way it was handled in that book.
At first, I wasnāt sure about the question of translating the names. I come from a language that has a completely different alphabet, so the names have to be transcribed, definitely, into English, but I think that if itās something like that, like the example of the Harry Potter book where they all carry strong nuances that wouldnāt be felt, the effects wouldnāt be felt if they were just used. It would just sound like a foreign name. Then I think itās admirable if the translator can come up with something that corresponds. It takes a lot of creativity.
THOMPSON: Iāve read a number of the translations of AstĆ©rix and Tintin and one thing Iāve noticed is the temptation to go a little too on-the-nose, and that sometimes then the English version is too literal: something like Professor Calculus. I mean the original French is Tournesol, which has nothing to do with science or calculating or anything. And somehow thatās a little bit more evocative and interesting that just the blunt āCalculus.ā Or for that matter some of the AstĆ©rix names. Although theyāre brilliantly done, in fact Iāve always been amazed that theyāre able to translate āIdĆ©fixā into āDogmatix,ā use the exact same idea and get a dog pun in there. I think anyone whoās ever read the English translations of AstĆ©rix, realize that those are the gold standard.
SINGH: Yeah, they are.
EDITORS AND TRANSLATORS
DASCHER: Iām wondering to what extent any of you end up dealing also with editorial input on how to deal with questions like those. Do you get direction from your editors in terms of how they want a title treated, that they want it to be more localized or they want you to stay closer to the source language or the feeling of the source culture?
THOMPSON: I guess thatās not a question for me.
SINGH: Thatās not a question for me either, ācause I was my own editor for most of the work. Now Iām working with an editor that doesnāt speak French, so itāll be interesting to see what response I do get to the translation and if thereāre comments.
NIEH: Yeah, Helge, I do a lot. And I check. They donāt, necessarily, in the beginning, tell me, but I check if I donāt have instruction from them about certain things we have in Japanese. How to deal with the honorific suffixes on the end of names: Some translations retain them and some donāt, and so thereās no standard practice. Something like that, for each comic, each is decided based on whoās the target audience and the tone of that.
And I want to get it right from the beginning so the editors donāt have to edit it too heavy-handedly and Iāll recognize it when it goes to print. And also an important thing with the manga is theyāll be rated, and sometimes theyāll tell me from the beginning, āWe want a Teen rating for this, so you canāt use any swear words,ā and that can be very difficult when theyāre swearing all over the place in Japanese and Iām not even allowed to say ācrapā or ācrud.ā They have to say āAckā or āGackā instead. So I try to clear those things up in the beginning, especially if weāre going to do 17 volumes or something, so that it doesnāt have to be cleaned up too much afterwards.
SINGH: And do your editors always speak Japanese?
NIEH: No [laughs]. They donāt always. [Laughter.]
SINGH: Has there been a difference, working with an editor that speaks Japanese versus working with one who doesnāt?
NIEH: Itās a relief if they speak Japanese, too, because itās not entirely…
SINGH: Right, up to you.
NIEH: Yeah. Sometimes if I have doubts about something, then Iāll get their input on it as well.
SINGH: Itās really, really nice to be able to consult, to get a second opinion, because there are so many questions that come up and I think this has already been said, but there are often no right answers.
NIEH: Or they might have more experience or more perspective on the audience or that sort of thing.
Those of you who work in publishing, does it seem like thatās the norm for the editors to speak the language that theyāre working with?
SINGH: I would say itās unusual, because I think that thereās only a small percentage of books that get translated to begin with. As an editor, choosing a book, I always felt much more comfortable having read it, and you can be much more convincing in terms of being allowed to acquire it if you read it. So I never edited a book I hadnāt read myself, but that also means I never got a book that wasnāt in French or English, you know, a language that I could read, which I think is also a shame…
And if you look around at the literary editors who are out there, not that many of them are bilingual, so I think that has a lot to do with why, more so than the fact that maybe the American readership isnāt interested in books in translation. I think itās pragmatic: you have to be able to read the book yourself to evaluate it and be passionate about it. We donāt really have a culture set up of really having these full translators to turn to, to trust and to come to you with projects. Which is how European editors often work, and European editors tend to be more bilingual than we are. [Laughter.] Kim of course is the exception to every rule.
NIEH: Helge, do your editors give you points on how they want you to approach a translation?
THOMPSON: I know at least one whoās a real pain in the ass. [Laughter.]
DASCHER: Working with Kim was really great, actually: There was something I wanted to bring in. Maybe Iāll answer the first question first. Sometimes the direction comes from the editors, often I need to bring the issues, hoping for some input from the editors, but sometimes the input comes from the writers themselves.
So for instance, we did this series, the Aya series, Drawn & Quarterly, which is about life in the Ivory Coast in the 1980s. And those are youth titles, and at some point it became clear that the authors really wanted to see as much of the Ivorian flavor that they really go to great effort to put into the French editions come through in the English editions as well. So they actually ended up hiring on an Ivorian to help me understand, for example, the rhythm of the language in French, thereās certain Ivorian interjections that we decided to keep in English and to understand where to place them, how they set up the rhythm of the language. We decided to keep a number of Ivorian terms, thereās a glossary in the back and so that was something that evolved as our understanding of how the book was going to take shape evolved as well. So that instead of, for instance, having a very American or localized version, it actually became a series with this very strong sense, I hope, of certain features of Ivory Coast culture coming through.
So it varies, it really varies from project to project. And like Camellia said, it also depends on what kind of audience, what kind of readership youāre working for.
DASCHER: I always think the comparison with subtitling is interesting, where youāre dealing with that same issue of the potential for constricted space, and yet you have to drop in effects where they occur, you donāt have the freedom you have with literary translation, where you might potentially move an effect elsewhere, or you could take more time setting it up, and at the same time, you just donāt want to be using heavy instruments like footnotes or whatever to explain things. And so you have to decide, are you going to put more information, are you going to add some end matter or some front matter, some kind of an introduction to help orient the reader? Those kinds of issues become really interesting. And then unlike subtitling, the text is integrated into the page. The person receiving the book is really… I think when youāre watching a subtitled film, your expectations of the subtitles are lower than a readerās expectation of text in a comic, so the text really has to be able to stand firm, and yet there are so many things you have to compensate for.
THOMPSON: Does that drive anyone else crazy? To watch a film where you know the language and to have the subtitles there as well?
SINGH: Oh yes, because you have to read the subtitles. [Laughter.] Itās impossible to ignore them.
THOMPSON: Thatās another blessing of the 21st century: DVDs with removable subtitles. [Laughter.]
NIEH: I like the subtitles. But maybe itās because I do subtitling work sometimes. So Iām always studying them.
SINGH: Yeah, or the impulse to compare. You know, what youāre understanding from them and how… it makes the experience a little bit of work, itās hard to focus on one or the other.
THOMPSON: You know what the greatest movie about translation ever made is? You ever see Contempt? [No one has.] Rent Contempt, because a lot of the characters donāt speak each othersā languages, and thereās an interpreter… And theyāll say something and the interpreter will translate it, and the other person will respond, and itās funny, particularly if you know all the languages, you can see all the nuances are skewing one way or the other as they go. Itās a great movie anyway, but for a translator itās one of the great language movies of all time: that and Inglourious Basterds.