Translation Roundtable (Part Two of Three)

Posted by on June 3rd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.


DASCHER: But here’s something I wanted to ask the three of you:  for me, in recent years, something that’s really made this work a lot of fun is working in collaboration with other writers. I worked with my brother, who is a translator, Dag Dascher; with John Kadlecek here, for a book for Fantagraphics; and Kim’s input on this book was great, and it just…. Especially for this kind of translation where you’re dealing with voice so much, and so many different kinds of voices, I find this input of another person to be incredibly enriching for the text that comes out of the whole process, and just for the act of translation itself. On the one hand, when I’m working on a text, preparing a draft, I feel I have much more freedom, because I know someone will step in and hold me back in places where I’ve maybe overstepped. But that freedom to overstep is great, because it opens the door to possibilities I might feel more reluctant to explore if I alone were responsible for producing the translation, knowing I’d have no editorial input either. And I’m wondering how that plays out for the rest of you: if you’ve had experience working in collaboration with others.

THOMPSON: I would say in my case, yes. That’s the scariest part of my situation, which is there’s no one above me to rein me in. Whenever I can, I will give the translations, for instance, over to Kristy, and say “Have a look at anything there that sounds goofy or weird or whatever.” And also sometimes I’ll run them by Gary [Groth] or Eric [Reynolds] or other people, but if I could afford to, I would hire a freelance editor to go over everything I do, because I think it would improve it, but I can’t, so I just have to use my own best judgment.

NIEH: Yeah, I would hire my brother if I could afford him. [Laughter.]

THOMPSON: See, I would hire Anjali. Anjali, I worked with her before, so that would be…

SINGH: That was fun. No, the one collaboration I was really involved in was with The Rabbi’s Cat, because Alexis Siegel was the translator that I hired; but I was so involved as an editor, he ended up offering to share translation credit with me, which was really nice, but it was also… It really is nice to be working together, because I feel like my instinct is always to try to be as faithful to the text as possible, and of course, you want it to sound good in English too, and it’s really nice to have someone who balances you out. I feel like as editor, my job was to go, “OK, this is literally what it says, and how far away from that do we want to go?”

THOMPSON: That’s actually the two poles.  I don’t know if it was noticeable when I was working with you, Anjali, because David B.’s work is so fairly easy and straightforward, but my place is exactly the contrary: I try to go for what reads best in English and I tend to be an extremely “unfaithful” translator on that level.

SINGH: Well, I wonder if my instinct to be faithful is because you have to be the foil to whoever you’re working with. If someone’s going to be unfaithful, then you have to be the faithful one. And this project Marzi that I’m working on now is my first time. I’m not the editor; I’m just the translator. But I’m also just by myself. And it’s gonna be an interesting process. [Laughs.] And it’s scary!

THOMPSON: So Helge, where do you put yourself on the faithful-to-unfaithful scale? If we define ourselves — Anjali as being really faithful, and me as being really unfaithful — at each end, where do you…

DASCHER: Here in Quebec we’re so exposed to translation, or here in Montreal, in any case, we’re a bilingual city, and if you were to go to a museum or go to an airport, if you were to be in any public environment, you’d be exposed to translation all over the place. And it’s often translation that is very symmetrical. You know, you’ll have the French text equally weighted with the English text. And I think it creates this kind of fascination for seeing how close you can come to the original while still being readable in the target language. And I notice that in the way that I approach work — when I look at what you did with You Are There, where you are so free, and it’s beautiful, because I think there is this way in which the reading experience of those strange voices that Tardi creates in that book comes across, and it comes across through a great deal of liberty at a word-to-word level. So I think I’d certainly be… I mean, faithful to what? You know, there’s faithful to the words, there’s faithful to the voice, there’s faithful to the intention…

NIEH: Exactly…

DASCHER: So again it depends from project to project. I think I try to be faithful to what I understand the writer’s most important issue is to me….

THOMPSON: This is the big name-drop, sorry. When I translated the first chapter of Trenches I did with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, and Art Spiegelman said, “What I try to do, is I try not so much to translate as to write it the way I think he would have written it in English to begin with if he had been writing it in English.” I think that sort of sums it up. You junk all the stuff you know is in the way, because it was in that language to begin with, and just go for, when necessary, the spirit, the meaning of it.


VALENTI: Are there any literary forms that influenced your work? And the second question is more of a concrete question, because you’re literally working with word balloons, so it’s almost like poetry in that, not only do you have to get the sense across, you have to do it in a certain shape, and I was wondering if you all could talk about that a little bit.

THOMPSON: Let me jump in there because I do so much in production, and so I have some experience in that… I think the enormous advantage that we have as translating into English is that English is the most succinct of the languages that we’re working in. So if you ever look at one of those sets of instructions for your carpet cleaner or whatever, and it’s in a bunch of different languages, the English is always the shortest. And that is so convenient when you’re translating into comics, because you very, very rarely run out of space in word balloons. It’s quite the contrary, I’m sure, that if a French publisher was trying to publish Dan Clowes’ book, every other panel, it must be all “Oh Jesus,” because the words are running over. So thank God for being American is all I can say.

It’s true that the shaping of the word balloons, especially something like Tardi, does take a lot of effort. It’s also been true for King of the Flies, but fortunately we also have the advantage of being Americans in the 21st century as it’s all being done digitally. Because doing the work we’re doing 20 or 25 years ago would have been a complete nightmare on several levels. There’s just so many options, such flexibility, you can move things around, shape it, reduce things slightly, make them bigger, without having to manually re-letter everything 23 times while you make up your mind. So… I’m sorry, I kind of hogged that one. On to you guys.

DASCHER: I’ve seen a huge change, working now, not working with manual letterers. I don’t know how it is with you, but I know that when I produce a draft, there’s always a different reading experience once I see the text dropped into the word balloons. So, back when we were working with manual letterers, it was really a decision where we would go in and make changes, because making changes was so time-consuming. So it’s very freeing now, to know… Although I don’t know: how is it, Kim, on the production end, how time-consuming is it for you to enter changes into a lettered page?

THOMPSON: It’s extremely fast. It’s certainly obviously superior to having someone re-letter it. Back in the ’80s and ’90s when we didn’t have that option, there are cases when I would actually get the pages and I would sit at the typewriter and type in the text first before actually sending it to the letterer, because it was crazy not to know what it looked like … In fact we’re doing that right now, we’re doing the Moto Hagio book that we’re translating. We’re actually just lettering the entire thing digitally just to get the shape and everything right and sending it off to a letterer, a hand-letterer, for it.

SINGH: Oh, that’s nice. We had the luxury of having a first pass and a second pass with the copy-editors. Well, we would copy-edit the translation before it got lettered, but then once the words were in the bubbles, you had a chance to go through and if something looked tight, to change the language around a little bit.

THOMPSON: And not necessarily even tight, sometimes it just reads different.

SINGH: Yeah, exactly. Or it looks weird the way it’s placed.

THOMPSON: I go through maybe 10-15 drafts over and over and over again, and it’s just ping-ponging back and forth, and sometimes you’ll have the same word balloon that will read one version — I’ll go to version B and then go back to version A. It’s just endless. If I had to work with a letterer, a hand-letterer, hand-lettering every change I needed, every book would cost $10,000 to letter.


DASCHER: [Laughs.] I’m trying to see what you all do. Kim, from a production angle, and all of you as translators, with sound effects and stuff like that —especially you, Camellia — whether you try to retain anything of the Japanese sound, or whether you really look for English equivalents.

NIEH: Sound effects are the hardest part of manga translation. I’ve read some of all your translations, actually, and it seemed like in your languages you don’t have to deal with it to the extent that I do. To call them just sound effects is actually a misnomer, because a lot of them do signify sounds, they’re onomatopoeia, but a lot of them also are words that signify a state or an action, and they don’t actually denote a sound. So, it might be like: if you were watching this and it were an animated cartoon, we would have scary music here, and they would have a sound effect that there’s a monster looming, there and they have a word that suggests looming. So sometimes I have to put loom. But we try to not just use verbs if we can come up with something else that still…

And I think my editors read more manga than I do and they’re so steeped in it, if I’m having a hard time coming up with a good — like what’s the sound of this type of material twisting, and sometimes if I can’t come up with a good one, I’ll give them a few suggestions, and I’ll make a comment, and I’ll explain what it is, and I get their ideas on it. That’s the trickiest part, and also that there are things you can’t look up in a dictionary: often they’re made up by the author, and as a non-native speaker, my intuition might not be the same as a native speaker’s, what I think that sound sounds like. So that’s what I frequently consult my colleagues about: that’s where I cash in favors and so forth from friends and get their opinions on what they feel that sound sounds like, what kind of punch that was or whatever, what kind of explosion, or if there was a boom or a foom.

SINGH: Do you also have friends who are native Japanese speakers that you also consult?

NIEH: Yeah.

SINGH: Our French-speakers are invaluable.

NIEH: I consult them on sound effects most of all. You know, sound effects and non-sound effects.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And again, sound effects are an instance where again it’s nice to live in the digital age. It used to be if you had a particular colored French graphic album, those effects were embedded in there. If you wanted to remove them it would take a lot of effort. And nowadays, a little bit of digital tomfoolery and you can change one of those weird gun sound effects. I mean, in French, guns shoot and they say pan. And pan would just look goofy to English-speakers. Particularly in the West Coast Blues, the Tardi translation, we had to go in very carefully and change all the p’s in pan to b’s and add g’s at the end so they became bangs.

SINGH: Well, it’s true: it’s a small part of the job, actually, but is one of the harder things. And it’s not that hard from French, but I go, I know there’s probably a sort of shorthand comic sound effect that somebody else would know and I don’t know —[Thompson laughs] — because I don’t read enough comics, and that’s where I get stuck. I’ll have to ask people who know more than I do.


VALENTI: How about accents — because I know that a lot of times it’s important to denote class and things like that — is that a big problem? Because not only do you need to understand what the accent is, you need to know what your audience will recognize as that accent.

NIEH: Yeah.

THOMPSON: Next question. Yes, it’s a problem. [Laughs.]

VALENTI: Do you have any tactics to deal with that? Or do you just struggle?

THOMPSON: Obviously, if you got something where it’s a local accent, you’re screwed. Like high-class versus middle-class versus lower-class you can fake, and you can fake period accents, but if it gets really specific, then you can run into some real trouble. Which I always think I have, myself, so far, fortunately. Anyone else: any insights there?

NIEH: In Japanese, there are very different dialects throughout the country, and characters will speak in different dialects and we really don’t have counterparts for them. And there’s a convention of: if a character speaks in a Western Japanese dialect, people give him a Texan accent in English or something. But in the movies they give him a Southern, often dub, for Western Japanese characters. And I think what I struggle with a lot is that, I think that in print if you try to bring that dialect across too strongly, it becomes really distracting and annoying to read. So the decision of how much to bring that out —to maybe just suggest it a little bit but not to go overboard in the spelling and so forth to the point where it’s disruptive to the reader —I think it’s really hard to do a nice smooth job of it, and do it beautifully. I struggle a lot: I hope to get better at it as a translator over the course of my career.

DASCHER: It’s a big issue here, among other things. For instance, in Michel Rabagliati’s books, here in Quebec, there’s a way that English is present in the French language, or might be present in the environment, and that actually — in these books, which are not very political, it nonetheless brings in a certain kind of context that would allow a French reader, certainly, to recognize some of the issues of living in a place like Quebec. And dealing with that in English is very difficult.

In the very first book that I translated, Road to America, by Baru, it was the story of an Algerian boxer who finds himself in France, and there is a whole… For instance, there are swear words, or ways of speaking about Algerians in France, at that time, that we just have no equivalents for. And also, these very different registers: a French that has either the French of immigrants, or a more bureaucratic French and all of that, and those are really, tricky, tricky issues to deal with. And like you say, Camellia, I think you bring to it as much as you can and hope you get better. [Laughs.]


VALENTI: So are you ever tempted to fix bad or unclear writing in translation?

DASCHER: Yeah, absolutely, that comes up sometimes. Writers will even invite you, actually, to… I certainly work with, and not only in comics translation, but in literary or commercial translations as well, with writers who look forward to a translator’s input on the text. And certainly I think if you have a text that has certain problems embedded in it in terms of the quality of the writing — I don’t know how the rest of you feel about it — but I think if there’s something you can bring in to clarify, that it’s something to consider doing.

THOMPSON: No, I agree with that. A long time ago, we worked on the Sinner series by Muñoz and Sampayo, and it was a great series, but sometimes Sampayo wasn’t really clear. It was like, I would read a sentence, and I couldn’t figure out what he was saying because he just hadn’t thought it quite through, and there was a temptation to rework it or put a little explanatory clause just to make it work just a little bit better.

NIEH: I think when you say “fix bad writing” — since norms of what makes something good writing or bad writing are so different between Japanese and English — there’s a lot of stuff, more so when I do a novel than when I do comics, but in all of my work, that if I don’t adapt it to norms of good writing in English, it’s gonna be really bad writing. In Japanese, the same adjective will be used repeatedly to describe the same object, or every time the hospital room is mentioned, it’s an “inorganic hospital room.” And we can’t say that over and over again in English, it sounds terrible, so I feel like that’s part of my job as a translator because —just as Helge brought up — there’s so many kinds of things to be faithful to when you’re translating. And beyond being faithful just to the individual words, I’m always trying to be faithful to what kind of a book it is, and if it’s a well-written book and I produce a translation that’s not well written in English, even though I was faithful to the words, it’s not faithful in that sense. Or if it was funny in Japanese and it’s not funny in English, then that’s not faithful, because the jokes didn’t come across. So there’s different things that weigh in.

Another example is just that the paragraphs in Japanese are really, really short, often. And that makes it really choppy in English: it’s just not normal writing. So often I put the paragraphs together —and this might be done differently it were a different type material, this is when I’m doing maybe popular fiction — and I don’t know if I would make the same decisions on a very literary work. It’s daunting when the language that you’re translating from is so different from the target language, some of those decisions.

Tomorrow: The panelists mull over censorship, works that have been translated previously, puns, scanlations, process and the marketplace, among other topics.

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