Translation Roundtable (Part Three of Three)

Posted by on June 4th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two.


VALENTI: Have any of you had to deal with censorship because of cultural taboos or…


VALENTI: [Laughs.] Not you, Kim: but everybody who’s not Kim.

NIEH: I think there’s some of the things in the books that I’m translating now that will probably be censored or somehow…. Like I said, I’m translating something, and we’re going for a Teen rating, and there’s mentions of pubic hair and I think it has to be changed armpit hair or something like that. Which is too bad, because armpit hair isn’t as funny. [Laughter.]

THOMPSON: I’d like to retract my “no censorship,” because there are actually works that I would like to do —particularly French works — and I know that because of the cultural differences, it’ll be a really tough row to hoe, and I’ll get into all sorts of trouble: particularly the use of the visual racial stereotyping, which is a lot more accepted in French comics. And there’s some brilliant works that are done using that, I think… In particular there’s a series by a couple of guys called Yann and Conrad called Les Innommables which is basically this riff on Terry and the Pirates-style, and it’s satirical, so it just goes absolutely full-throttle on the racial stereotypes of the characters. And it’s not done with the intent of being racist, but with the intent of being funny and satirical. But Americans are so scared of the racial imagery that you almost see them recoil from it. The guy Conrad was actually trying to sell it in the West to absolutely no success. And he took about the first dozen pages and made an English-language version. And I showed it to Gary [Groth] and Gary said, “My God, that’s the most racist thing I’ve ever seen. Good Lord.” And I said, it’s actually funny, and you have to read the whole context. So that will be one case where it’s a series I would love to do, and I’d have to gird myself for a big fight.

SINGH: So you were censored by Gary [laughter].

THOMPSON: I was censored by myself. There’s another one by a cartoonist called — I don’t know if you’re familiar —Reiser, who’s one of my favorites, and he did a wonderful series, strips about basically African tribesmen and their dealings with animals. And they’re really funny: I don’t think they’re racist per se, but he’s so extremely cartoony, the racial characteristics are extremely so as well. And I realize that if I try to put that out there, that I would have all sorts of problems. So there are definitely cultural differences. Well, then the fact that when we translate our Japanese porn we have to leave out the characters where the characters look like they’re 12. [Laughter.] That’s less a cultural thing than a we’d-like-to-stay-out-of-jail thing. [Laughter.]

NIEH: I have Japanese comics where the underage characters engage in sexual acts that are going to have to be censored. And it is cultural, because that’s way more accepted in a mainstream publication in Japan.


VALENTI: Have any of you worked with something that had previously been translated into English, and how did that influence your approach?

THOMPSON: In my case, yes, and I usually just try to ignore them. A lot of the Tardi stuff, the Adèle material, I was totally ignoring the original for a number of reasons. Mostly because I’m changing the tone pretty drastically from what the original was. That’s a bit more complicated. In the case of the Tardi book West Coast Blues, it was actually already translated as a prose novel. And I translated it without looking at the prose novel because I was scared that, this was a real translator working on the book and it would be so good that I would find myself sucked into the vortex of his brilliant translation, and then what would I do? But actually, when I finished translating, I looked at it, and I was horrified because it was a very clunky, very literal translation that I thought didn’t work at all, so I was relieved there.

But generally, when that has happened, I just ignore it and then go back, double-check, and I feel confident. Also, when I did War of the Trenches, there were three chapters done by Drawn & Quarterly and I just deliberately didn’t look at them. Although in that case it wasn’t because I thought it would be bad, in fact they weren’t, I went back and checked — they were perfectly good. I mean, as an editor I’d have nothing to complain about them. It’s just my tone for it was slightly different, for instance, so I was pleased to have done it my way. So that’s my answer to that. Have any of you other guys had that experience, with retranslating or…?


NIEH: I have. For Black Jack, with Vertical, the first two volumes, not in full, but most of the stories have been translated and published in an earlier edition by Viz. And when my editor at Vertical gave me the assignment, he said, “Just make sure your translation is better than theirs.” And I said, “Oh, oh no!” So I got the editions and I looked at them and the translation was fantastic. [Laughs.] So I was like, “Oh no, what am I going to do? It has to be different and he wants it to be better ,but this is really good…” But that was done 10 or longer — I don’t know how many — years ago, a long time ago.

And so I just tried to take a different approach. It was a very, very localized approach and I felt like maybe the manga audience has grown up a little bit to where some of the foreignness of the text could come through a little bit more. There were things where they had even erased some bubbles or left the lines out and so forth. So in that way, I just tried to come from a slightly different angle so I could bring something new and of value to the translation. But I couldn’t claim for certain that my translation was better because I thought they did a fantastic job.

THOMPSON: Actually, Helge and I kinda had that, because I know there were floating around several chapters of King of the Flies that had been translated in Heavy Metal. And I literally just never had the chance to dig them up. I’m sort of curious…

DASCHER: I didn’t look them up either, I was wondering if you had.

THOMPSON: No, I never found them.

VALENTI: I’m actually curious, do the people who translate French have to deal with fan translations at all?


SINGH: No. It hasn’t come up….


THOMPSON: I think it’s an exclusive manga thing.

NIEH: Yeah…

VALENTI: So how about puns? [Laughter.]

THOMPSON: A challenge, if you want to be polite about it: or a pain in the ass. [Dascher laughs.] They can of course be horrendously difficult, but it’s also kind of enjoyable. I’ll wince at first, but then I just get down to work on them.

SINGH: Luckily I haven’t been confronted with many puns.

NIEH: Yeah, there’s not a lot of puns in Japanese, but there are some, and it’s also just the humor translates differently. And it’s sometimes hard to make sure that things that were funny in Japanese are funny in English, and I think that’s really the ultimate test. Cause it’s not gonna be the same work in the target language, but it’s a really important thing if the work is meant to be entertaining.

THOMPSON: It’s especially bad when the puns actually then get reflected visually. Because if there’s a pun in the text, you can just glide over it, but if the pun actually influences what’s happening, then you’re stuck with it. I think probably the best example I can think of is I was translating a Lewis Trondheim script, the Kaputt and Zösky strips where it’s a couple of aliens, and they go to this planet and the inhabitants are all really, really literal-minded, which is also a really funny translation thing, because they would just take everything really literally. And at one point when Kaput is threatening them, he says in French, “Je vais vous faire baver,” which is literally, “I’m going to make you drool.” And it just means, “I’m gonna kick your ass.” And of course the next panel, all the aliens are standing there, saliva coming out of their mouths, and Kaput is going, “No, no, that’s not what I mean, that’s not what I mean.” So that was a real challenge. How do you deal with that?

SINGH: So what’d you…?

THOMPSON: What I did was, I had them yelling, saying: “You’ll be screaming for salvation.” [Laughter.] And then Kaput went, “No, salvation, not salivation…” [Laughter.]

SINGH: That’s good!

THOMPSON: Yeah, I was pleased with myself on that one. Of course, with the Tardi book, You Are There, Ici Même itself was a pun on the character’s name. That took a lot of effort to wrangle into shape. But I enjoy them.


DASCHER: How about drafting? For example, do you read the books before you draft them? Is there a kind of work you tend to be doing your first draft or second draft or third draft, is there some kind of pattern to the way you approach a new book that comes into your hands?

SINGH: Definitely. In my case, all the books I’ve worked on, I’ve chosen. So I’ve read them first and known that they were books that I wanted to publish and wanted to work on. And then the first draft is just going through and translating everything I can translate really easily and skipping everything that is hard, like, were there to be a pun, or a phrase it’s just not obvious how to translate it. And then the second draft is going through and fixing all those things, and the third draft is going through, and I think that’s the stage where I think you should ask other people to read it and say, “Is there anything that sticks out and is not sounding right? Does it all make sense?”

THOMPSON: I go through and I do the same thing. First, one, I just rush through, and if there’s something I don’t understand, I just put down whatever gibberish comes out of my typewriter. I live in fear that I’ll do one of those first drafts and drop dead in front of the computer screen and it will read really retarded. Somewhere around the second or third draft, if I have the chance at all, I like to just put it away and not look at it for several weeks or a month, ’cause what I do, then, I try to forget the original and then I come back and approach it as if I’m simply copy-editing the English version.

SINGH: Yeah, things percolate in your brain when you put it aside, there’s something you’re turning over in your mind. Like, how do I say this? If you put it away, it comes to you.

THOMPSON: Yeah, and after a couple of drafts that I’ve completely forgotten and ignored and shoved away the original French or Italian or whatever it is, then I can go back when I’m happy with that one and reconnect make sure I didn’t wander too far off the reservation.

NIEH: Whenever possible I’ll read the entire series, if I can, before starting my first draft. And it’s not always possible, sometimes, when we’re doing each volume as it comes out, so there’ll be a lot of foreshadowing and so forth and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the story in the future or if the character they’re alluding to is male or female, ’cause there’s no third-person gendered pronouns in Japanese, that kind of thing. So it makes it tougher to get the foreshadowing right, if I don’t know what’s coming ahead.

DASCHER: That’s interesting. If I have the opportunity, I actually like to be able to produce a first draft without having actually read the book, in the hope that in the experience of reading the book and not having preconceived ideas about how the plot is developing — as you go through subsequent drafts, you do bring your understanding of the book and the interpretations that bring — but to have somewhere in that translation the sense of discovery of reading the text.

NIEH: That’s very cool.

SINGH: That’s true. That’s brave.

THOMPSON: Almost translating as she reads, just about: almost chapter by chapter.

DASCHER: Absolutely. If I can, I do. I’m very research-intensive, so in subsequent drafts, all of that other stuff will come in, and certainly on a first draft, if it’s at all possible. I mean sometimes I need to write the blurbs for the book; sometimes I’m translating, so those I will have to read before I start the translation. But if I can, I always prefer to have the first draft after first reading.

SINGH: So that means sometimes you’re translating books that you don’t actually know if you like. [Laughter.] Like you’re saying, it’s your job…That’s really interesting.

DASCHER: I initiate some projects, but I’m assigned to projects more. It goes around that other way more often.

NIEH: Of course all four of us work in such different environments.

THOMPSON: I read everything a couple times before I even start thinking about translating it. I just really like to… Here’s something about translating books you like versus books you don’t like. Virtually invariably, when I translate a book, the more I work on it, the more I like it. I never get tired of it, or think after looking at it more closely, “It’s not as good as I thought it was.” It’s like the more invested I get into it, the better I think it is. When I started working on West Coast Blues, the first Tardi book we did, that was nowhere near my top favorites of the Tardi books. It was a pretty good one that I chose specifically because I thought it was the most accessible, but by the time I worked my way through it, it was one of my favorite books he ever did. That’s happened to me again and again. The more I work on something, the more I like it.

DASCHER: I agree, and I’ve become very fond of the intentions that I discover in the book as I go through it.

THOMPSON: Exactly. Because you work so hard on it, you actually, by necessity, become more attuned to what the author intended. You become almost complicit in it.


VALENTI: What are you proudest of in your body of work, as a translation?

THOMPSON: I think I nailed West Coast Blues. I just love the noir tough-talk. I love profanity, and Manchette is just a fantastic writer to begin with: so tight. So if I had to pick one that would be it.

DASCHER: I love the books I’ve collaborated on, because they’ve just been such a joy to work on. And I think that the presence of other voices comes through in the translation and creates a tight and exciting read.

SINGH: I have no idea how to answer that question. Persepolis 2, probably, just because it’s the first book that I did. And it was, just the whole process was, very special. I have a very small body of work, so every book has been pretty important to me. But I also feel like you learn something from every book. There’s no book where I’m like, “Oh this one was perfect; I did a great job.” [Laughs.]

NIEH: Yeah, that’s a hard one. I can’t say. And I haven’t gone back through and read all the ones, all the books after I’ve translated them. Once the publisher’s handed them to me. I’m still working on that. But I can tell you, the ones that are just my favorite, because I just love the books, and think the art is so incredible and so forth, would be Gogo Monster, I just think is the most beautiful, beautiful story and the art is just incredible. So I’m really in love with that one, and honored that I got to do the translation for it. And then I think also one of my favorites is Ode to Kirihito, which was also the first manga that I did. So maybe those ones, like Persepolis 2, those ones will have a special place for us in our hearts.

DASCHER: Yeah, I want to say there’s one challenge to work on a book that may have some weaknesses you want to compensate for, but there’s another kind of challenge, which is working on a book that’s so beautiful, that you just really want to be able to do justice to it. And a lot of these books that I work on, they have that quality.

THOMPSON: It can be intimidating. I was intimidated going into War of the Trenches, certainly, and for that matter, Epileptic.


DASCHER: I’m really curious to ask you two editors what you see as being the obstacles or the facilitators to broadening the market for translation? You mentioned, Anjali, that the question of whether editors are bilingual or not. What about, how important is it for you as publishers, that authors be able to go on the road with the books, to promote the books, what are the other issues that come into play when you are marketing translations?

SINGH: Hm. Yeah, it’s certainly helpful if the author speaks English, you wanna know as much as you can about the author beforehand, but I don’t feel with graphic novels it’s as important as it is with literary fictions. I don’t know why I say that, except one of the things that I like to say about graphic novels is that it feels like there’s less in translation because you don’t have to translate the art. There’s something that’s immediately communicated. And so somehow, having a personal photogenic author doesn’t feel as important as when you’re trying to promote literary fiction.

On the other hand, I feel like 90% of Persepolis’ success was due to the fact that we had an incredibly charismatic author that went on the road tirelessly. Otherwise that could have been just this graphic novel that was going around that a few people had heard of. The question of the editors speaking another language, but also having connections with other editors in other countries is a really big one. You know, American publishing doesn’t really promote that, sending editors to Frankfurt, to the London Book Fair, and establishing the relationships with other editors, and that’s usually the best way to find out about other projects, to be told by someone whose tastes you trust that this is something that you should pay attention to, especially if you can’t read it. Anyway, I’m not sure that Marzi would be at Vertigo if I hadn’t been able to say this is what the book is, and done a synopsis, and having been a graphic-novel publisher, to be able to say this is worth doing, because I understand as an editor it’s hard to take a risk on a book when you can’t actually read it. That’s my two cents.

THOMPSON: Fortunately, most of the publishers that do that sort of work are actually bilingual. I mean you have Terry Nantier, who’s fluent in French, certainly, and Mark Siegel at First Second, and me. It tends to work out.

SINGH: But you wonder how many good projects are out there because we don’t read whatever language we don’t know about.

THOMPSON: That is true, you have to wonder about, like, Russian or Polish comics.

SINGH: Right, right.

THOMPSON: I have no clue. In fact, it’s interesting, because that’s also a handicap for some in other countries, if it happens to be in a fairly obscure language, like Swedish. I know, for instance, one of the reasons Rocky’s publishers were excited when I decided to do an edition of the Rocky strip is that a lot of other countries’ editors, like in France and Spain and Italy, were then finally actually able to read the material.

SINGH: Right, right.

THOMPSON: There’s not a whole lot of Swedish/Spanish bilingual Spanish publishers.

SINGH: And that actually works well for me in French, because the French graphic-novel industry is so vibrant, they’re translating a lot from other countries, and that even if you’re not translating from the French at least you can read it and see what it is.

THOMPSON: And also because my Italian’s so weak, I’ve often snuck away and read the French translation as well, to use when I’m translating Italian stuff. But don’t tell anyone.

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