Translation Roundtable (Part One of Three)

Posted by on June 2nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

This roundtable was inspired by Matt Thorn’s essay “On Translation.” Anjali Singh (translator of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis 2), Helge Dascher (translator of Michel Rabagliati’s Paul books), Camellia Nieh (translator of Osamu Tezuka’s 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. — Kristy Valenti

Participants: Anjali Singh, Kim Thompson, Camellia Nieh and Helge Dascher; Moderator: Kristy Valenti; Transcription: (The Amazing) Jenna Allen


ANJALI SINGH: I’m Anjali Singh. I speak French, and I’ve translated from the French, and I was previously an editor in-house at Vintage/Pantheon, and then Houghton Mifflin and now I’m freelancing. I was Marjane Satrapi’s editor at Pantheon and I translated — not Persepolis — but all the books that came after Persepolis: Persepolis 2, Embroideries and Chicken with Plums. I was the co-translator on The Rabbi’s Cat; I was Kim [Thompson]’s editor on Epileptic; and I translated Frederik Peteers’ Blue Pills at Houghton Mifflin. And I’m 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 I’ve done: I did some Tezuka titles for Vertical, including Ode to Kirihito and four of the Blackjack series, MW and Apollo’s Song. I did Gogo Monster last year for Viz — which is one of my favorite books that I’ve translated — and just a ton of other manga series. Those are just some of my favorites. I’m doing about six different series right now for Viz, and I’ve done a few for Dark Horse, some of the Blood Plus and Ghost in the Shell titles. That’s all.

HELGE DASCHER: I’m 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 it’s just gone on from there. I’ve done work for Dark Horse, a lot of work for Drawn & Quarterly: including stuff by Stanislas and more Dupuy and Berberian; Michel Rabagliati’s 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 Girard’s The Bigfoot, and I think another book by Guy Delisle about Jerusalem, and I’ve 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 I’m also a generalist, like Camellia.

KIM THOMPSON: I’m Kim Thompson, co-publisher of Fantagraphics Books. I translate pretty much every Western-European language comic book that we publish because we can’t 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 I’m always working on. I’ve actually worked from all those eight different languages at one point or another, rather miraculously. Right at the moment I’m doing a lot of the translation for Jacques Tardi since we’re doing a book of his every season, every six months. I’m doing Nicholas Mahler’s 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 I’m working my way through the complete Joost Swarte from the Dutch.

I haven’t 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. I’ve done almost exclusively comics. If I’ve done actual text pieces, it’s 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 Hergé, which has not been published yet, but is owned by the Hergé people and I’m hoping that they will release it at some point when the Tintin movie comes out. And that’s my story.

KRISTY VALENTI: Are any of you formally educated in translation?

SINGH: No, no, I wasn’t formally educated in translation at all.

NIEH: I was. I started being interested in translation in college and did my minor’s 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 Master’s degree at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in translation and interpreting, so I also work as an interpreter, too; I didn’t 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 I’m not professionally trained in anything whatsoever. [Laughter.]

VALENTI: Do any of you make a living as a translator, solely?

NIEH: I do.

DASCHER: Absolutely.

THOMPSON: I don’t get paid, so I don’t.

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 I’m 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. You’re probably gonna be asking: “When did you realize that translating could be a job?” 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 ’70s, about translating Astérix and comparing all the different translations of Astérix 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: I’ll start. I was working with Marjane. I’d fallen in love with Persepolis, at the point that I got involved in editing it, L’Association, 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 I’m 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 you’re editing something and you know the language, it’s a really fun process. And I feel much more at sea when I’m translating for someone who doesn’t speak French, then it’s really up to me and my personal resources to make sure I got everything right.

But anyway, that’s my answer. It’s really something that I fell into. It’s a really fun challenge. As an editor, you don’t 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. That’s always been very enjoyable.

NIEH: I’ve never had that opportunity, and I’ve translated so many things. That’s never happened. Those of you in the publishing industry, does that happen more often?

SINGH: I think it just depends on the language that you’re translating. I only translate from French and the authors I’ve worked with all spoke English. It feels like a safety net, because you are their voice in America, in English. And it’s really nice to know they’ve 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 don’t really work with is Tardi, who is just too busy for one thing, and I think whose English isn’t 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 they’re 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 I’m pretty lucky that way, that there’s 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, I’m not sure that you answered that question.

NEIH: Oh, no, I hadn’t 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 that’s 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 I’d 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 didn’t have any published work yet — 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 you’ve never worked with the person who created the comics, then?

NIEH: No: never. And every now and then — 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 — I’ll 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 don’t 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 — especially when they’re setting a work outside of Japan and they’re coming up with names for the characters and stuff — what sort of spellings they had in mind, or places, imaginary places: that sort of thing.


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. “La-pee-not? What’s that?” I also wanted to keep the rabbit in the title. In other cases, sometimes you want something else because I think it’s 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 “S” at the end. I just lopped off the “S” because I figured that that it would just annoy Americans to keep on having references to “Georges, Georges” 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 don’t get. I mean, Tardi’s 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 that’s 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 I’ve 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, they’re 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 they’re made-up words, a character’s 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 wasn’t 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 it’s something like that, like the example of the Harry Potter book where they all carry strong nuances that wouldn’t be felt, the effects wouldn’t be felt if they were just used. It would just sound like a foreign name. Then I think it’s admirable if the translator can come up with something that corresponds. It takes a lot of creativity.

THOMPSON: I’ve read a number of the translations of Astérix and Tintin and one thing I’ve 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 that’s a little bit more evocative and interesting that just the blunt “Calculus.” Or for that matter some of the Astérix names. Although they’re brilliantly done, in fact I’ve always been amazed that they’re able to translate “Idéfix” into “Dogmatix,” use the exact same idea and get a dog pun in there. I think anyone who’s ever read the English translations of Astérix, realize that those are the gold standard.

SINGH: Yeah, they are.


DASCHER: I’m 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 that’s not a question for me.

SINGH: That’s not a question for me either, ’cause I was my own editor for most of the work. Now I’m working with an editor that doesn’t speak French, so it’ll be interesting to see what response I do get to the translation and if there’re comments.

NIEH: Yeah, Helge, I do a lot. And I check. They don’t, necessarily, in the beginning, tell me, but I check if I don’t 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 don’t, and so there’s no standard practice. Something like that, for each comic, each is decided based on who’s the target audience and the tone of that.

And I want to get it right from the beginning so the editors don’t have to edit it too heavy-handedly and I’ll recognize it when it goes to print. And also an important thing with the manga is they’ll be rated, and sometimes they’ll tell me from the beginning, “We want a Teen rating for this, so you can’t use any swear words,” and that can be very difficult when they’re swearing all over the place in Japanese and I’m not even allowed to say “crap” or “crud.” They have to say “Ack” or “Gack” instead. So I try to clear those things up in the beginning, especially if we’re going to do 17 volumes or something, so that it doesn’t have to be cleaned up too much afterwards.

SINGH: And do your editors always speak Japanese?

NIEH: No [laughs]. They don’t always. [Laughter.]

SINGH: Has there been a difference, working with an editor that speaks Japanese versus working with one who doesn’t?

NIEH: It’s a relief if they speak Japanese, too, because it’s not entirely…

SINGH: Right, up to you.

NIEH: Yeah. Sometimes if I have doubts about something, then I’ll get their input on it as well.

SINGH: It’s 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 that’s the norm for the editors to speak the language that they’re working with?

SINGH: I would say it’s unusual, because I think that there’s 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 hadn’t read myself, but that also means I never got a book that wasn’t 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 isn’t interested in books in translation. I think it’s pragmatic: you have to be able to read the book yourself to evaluate it and be passionate about it. We don’t 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 who’s a real pain in the ass. [Laughter.]

DASCHER: Working with Kim was really great, actually: There was something I wanted to bring in. Maybe I’ll 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, there’s 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, there’s 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 you’re working for.


DASCHER: I always think the comparison with subtitling is interesting, where you’re dealing with that same issue of the potential for constricted space, and yet you have to drop in effects where they occur, you don’t 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 don’t 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 you’re watching a subtitled film, your expectations of the subtitles are lower than a reader’s 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.] It’s impossible to ignore them.

THOMPSON: That’s another blessing of the 21st century: DVDs with removable subtitles. [Laughter.]

NIEH: I like the subtitles. But maybe it’s because I do subtitling work sometimes. So I’m always studying them.

SINGH: Yeah, or the impulse to compare. You know, what you’re understanding from them and how… it makes the experience a little bit of work, it’s 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 don’t speak each others’ languages, and there’s an interpreter… And they’ll say something and the interpreter will translate it, and the other person will respond, and it’s funny, particularly if you know all the languages, you can see all the nuances are skewing one way or the other as they go. It’s a great movie anyway, but for a translator it’s one of the great language movies of all time: that and Inglourious Basterds.

Next time: “Faithfulness,” the temptation to improve upon the source text, sound effects, accents, working with word balloons and much more.

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3 Responses to “Translation Roundtable (Part One of Three)”

  1. RWB says:

    Great roundtable on an important subject. When I worked for ADV (during its brief and mostly awful manga-publishing phase), we had a whole room of translators continuously churning out copy. I always suspected that a good translator is a good writer, and our translators were just people we found who happened to be able to read Japanese or Korean. The light editing they got (due to the editorial workload) meant that there was some really basic, indifferent translation coming out of that shop.

    (Obviously this is quite a different level of translation from the kind you all have done.)

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by kai-ming cha, THE COMICS JOURNAL. THE COMICS JOURNAL said: Part One of our TRANSLATION ROUNDTABLE @ […]

  3. Noah Berlatsky says:

    This is really fascinating. Thanks Kristy, and all involved for putting it together.