Translating Terrors: Translating Kim Jung Gi’s and Jean-David Morvan’s Graphic Memorial McCurry, NYC, 9/11

There are two golden rules that all translators (should) know not to break. The first is: never translate into any language other than your native, mother tongue, because your command of a foreign language will never be as good as your own. Rule breakers risk committing awkward, non-idiomatic turns of phrase as well as any number of grammatical, registral and lexical terrors – which is why translating as such is referred to as ‘translating the wrong way.’

The second golden rule reflects the first: never translate something that has already been translated back into its source language, because the resulting text will bear little or no resemblance to the original. Rule breakers risk destroying the coherence, style and voice of the author’s composition.

This is because no two languages are the same. There is no like-for-like equivalence of meaning at the word, phrase or sentence level for any two languages on Earth. If you’ve ever toyed with translating and back-translating on a service such as Google Translate you will know how easy it is to corrupt a source text. For example: “I kid you not” Google translates into French as “je ne plaisante pas” which it then back-translates as “I am not joking”. QED, while the literal sense may have been retained, the syntax, register and lexicon have been lost.

Most editors of comics are not aware of this issue, as 99.99% of titles are unlikely to be back-translations, meaning that when one crops up, they are not likely to realize that there is a problem. It is ironic then that one of my earliest comics translations was just such an exception.

The book in question was conceived by writer Jean-David Morvan soon after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which had begun with the murder of five cartoonists (Cabu, Charb, Honoré, Tignous and Wolinski) at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January and concluded with the terrorist attacks of Friday, 13th November. Morvan wanted to write a biography about Magnum photographer Steve McCurry who, as fate would have it, was in both New York on 9/11 and Paris on 11/13. Who better to help comprehend the enormity of such atrocities and contribute to a graphic memorial to mark the 15th anniversary of that fateful day in Manhattan?

Morvan’s tale is based on a lengthy interview with McCurry, telling of his time in Afghanistan, Kuwait and India prior to the attacks of 2001 and 2015, as well as sharing many of his acclaimed photos. The project was edited by Jean-Christophe Caurette who brought in Korean master, Kim Jung Gi, to illustrate it - arguably one of the most talented illustrators of our time. Kim’s dynamic pictures deftly capture the events that McCurry’s lenses could not. The result is a captivating, revealing biography that offers both perspective and insight, over and above the jaw-dropping visuals.

As far as the English version was concerned, with the target readership being primarily French, Morvan (also French) had had the interview tapes transcribed and then translated into French before creating his manuscript. This meant that when the final draft arrived in my inbox, although I had what appeared to be the relatively simple task of translating the work into English, it had the (English) voice of Steve McCurry translated throughout into French – which, as rule two dictates, I should not attempt to translate back into English. But, when I asked for the original transcript of the McCurry interview, I was told that, regrettably, it could not be found. So, I had the unenviable task of trying to imagine what McCurry sounded like in English from the French text. (I remember thinking he said “vous savez” a lot, you know?)

While this turn of events threatened the eventual coherence of my translation, after a bit of proofreading by a U.S.-based colleague, the version that went to Steve McCurry for a final seal of approval passed with flying colors.

It is fitting that this graphic-photo-memorial novel brings together one of the greatest comic writers of our time (Morvan) and one of the greatest illustrators of our time (Kim), with one of the greatest-ever photographers (McCurry). One hopes that such a collaboration, by these three renowned artists, will bring this book to the attention of future generations bombarded by ‘alternative-facts’ and ‘post-truths’.

Indeed, I recall a colleague stumbling into my school staff-room looking a shocking shade of pale one morning, as I was battling a capricious espresso machine. While her look of exasperation was far from surprising, and not a rare occurrence, as she had just finished teaching Culture Générale (General Knowledge) to a class of 15-year-olds, what they had told her was something else entirely:

“They think 9/11 was a hoax!” she spat. “I mean, they truly believe it was all done in CGI, just to fabricate an excuse to send troops to the Middle East!” (Je ne plaisante pas.)

For the generation that had grown-up with near-real CGI cinema and endless fake news on social media – it seemed obvious that nothing so terrible as 9/11 could actually ever happen in real life. They had not, of course, bothered to consider the evidence. This is why we need works like McCurry, NYC, 9/11, to help future generations understand where the truth lies, to remember, and never forget.

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McCurry, NYC, 9/11 is published by Dupuis/Magnum Photos & Éditions Caurette in English and French, and is available to order from the artist & Liberdistri.com.