Edward Gauvin has translated hundreds of books and comics from French to English over the years. He’s ushered the works of Zeina Abirached, David B., Christophe Blain, Blutch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Frederick Peeters, Marjane Satrapi, Joann Sfar, and Lewis Trondheim, and books like Aama, About Betty’s Boob, Best of Enemies, The Killer, Lucille, Renée, and So Long, Silver Screen to English language audiences. He’s translated a lot of fiction in various genres, and is a Contributing Editor for Words Without Borders, which has long been among the leading online magazine in the English speaking world to focus on literature in foreign languages, and has featured a lot of translated comics and essays about comics.
Recently Gauvin received two prestigious awards. He was a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellow and was a faculty member at the Fifth Bread Loaf Translators Conference. He also translated the recent graphic novel Letters to Survivors by Gébé, which was published by the New York Review of Comics imprint in 2019. The first book by the late French cartoonist translated into English, Gauvin also wrote an appreciation of Gébé and a biographical sketch for the book. This is in addition to other books including Sons of El Topo by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jose Ladronn, Waves by Ingrid Chabbert and Carole Maurel, Gramercy Park by Timothée de Fombelle and Christian Cailleaux, and an excerpt of his translation of Jake Raynal’s Factproof is in the December issue of Words Without Borders.
If that wasn't enough, this year he also successfully defended his doctoral dissertation. Recently, I exchanged a series of e-mails with Doctor Gauvin about his work and career and the nature of translation – all of which was conducted in English because sadly my French just isn’t up to it.
I have encountered your name a lot over the years as the translator of a lot of different books, but I don’t know anything about your background. Were you always a comics fan?
That’s kind of you to say! Visibility is protean and patchwork at best, difficult to gauge especially for people who work alone in rooms. How widely read a title is bears no seeming relation to how much PR I volunteer for it. American writers already (serially, fretfully) wonder if anyone bothers with their books; how much worse the wondering for writers from abroad, at the double remove of language and distance? Whereas we translators are fairly resigned to the fact that readers who goes the extra mile of bothering with a foreign book will still tend to overlook our names, even when featured more prominently than in 10-point font on the copyright page.
Readers don’t usually think of translators as the ones they’re communing with; in fact, the thought of any such mediating presence may still, sadly, be rebarbative. That this attitude is so widespread as to be unthinking doesn’t mean it couldn’t bear examination, or use some adjusting going forward. Translators hover somewhere between readers and writer; when I call translation “the most participatory form of recommendation,” when I say that more people should try it out, I am thinking of translation almost as a kind of fan fiction, whose available tools are not plot and character, but rather tone, pace, and wording.
I have a wistful and wary relationship to fandom, or do I mean favorites? I am, as the Paris ’68 protesters said of themselves, a Marxist of the Groucho school. Part of not caring to belong to any club that would have me as a member means I can see clear around anything I love to why someone else would hate it—which leaves me something of a fan in bad faith, unable to summon the joyous and unalloyed squee I envy in others whose days can, from all appearances, be more easily made by the events of our own era, the geekdom come. I feel positively apostate when the trailer for the next MCU movie musters in me more curmudgeonliness than cheer, as if my misgivings might be traced to some obscure failure at being a truer believer.
My immigrant parents were vehement but erratic gatekeepers, anxious to limit the influence of the suspect foreign culture in which they found themselves, yet inconsistent in where they drew the lines, mainly because they weren’t the best judges of material—how could they be? Which meant that what made it through, from rock to TV shows to comics, was almost always out of context and owed as much to randomness as inertia (their randomness, when they relaxed their vigilance, and my inertia, when I tired of the effort of smuggling or argument). A lot of my early comics exposure has a cargo-cult feel. I treasure, for instance, a Nocenti-Romita Jr. Daredevil, an issue-long brawl with a possessed dentist that ends with the hero raising a beer to the Big Apple, but for years that was all I could get my hands on: imagine getting to know the Man Without Fear through, of all things, Inferno. It was decades before I got around to Born Again. By which time I had, however misguidedly, “put away childish things”, but more crucially, I think, forgotten the elaborate fantasies I’d spun out from memorable covers and arresting panels to explain to myself a universe glimpsed through a keyhole. That I’m now conversant in the canon doesn’t mean it occupies the same emotional place for me that it does for many fans, partly because of the bassackward way it trickled into my consciousness.
Another story: for a few late grade-school years, I studiously amassed D&D manuals and made characters that, for want of anyone to game with, never wound up on any campaigns. I think that, in the same way, I harbored a sort of outsized and wholly personal hopefulness, founded mostly on individual illustrations, about the contents of things I never actually got to experience, from food to physical products to media. Any eventual encounter was doomed to disappoint. A lot of this content proved flimsy or ephemeral perhaps to the exact degree that its packaging was sensational or inspiring. I think of this as a curiously American sort of suckerhood, born of loneliness, fed by imagination, compounded by the naiveté of cultural remove.
Newspaper strips, though! I was raised without religion, but our Sunday ritual as a family was to buy the paper in person. At the counters of 7-11s and Kmarts, we handed over quarters for newsprint thick and comforting as a folded towel. For years, all I read were the funnies (then later, the entertainment section). My copies of Bloom County Babylon and The Lazy Sunday Book are loved to pieces; from library book sales, I scrounged the odd mass-market paperback collections of B.C., Beetle Bailey, Hägar the Horrible. In high school, I wrote a very self-serious boomer sequel (inspired by my osmosed sense of another movie I hadn’t seen, The Big Chill) to Peanuts, a reunion piece where corporate lawyer Charlie Brown, now the winner he’d never been, returns to his hometown to be reminded of the important things in life by Lucy and a football. There he lies, on his back in the grass at the film’s emotional climax, humiliated but himself again, autumn leaves streaming onto his face. In the ‘80s, comebacks and caring for your inner child were the order of the day.
So much for the mainstream. My interest in the medium and its specific affordances dates to much later, and is rooted in international work: discovering BD while teaching in France after my Master’s. So there, too, I lack the canonical basis of many stateside fans of Francophone comics. Visiting Brussels' Belgian Comic Strip Center, I felt like I was on a tour of someone else's nostalgia. I guess I’ve always been playing catch-up one way or another: first with the present, then with the past, though as an outright foreigner in France (and not just an ethnic hyphenate), I had (more of) an excuse. When I first lived in France, the order of the day was L’Association, and the revolution they represented. Bart Beaty lays out a convincing narrative of the aesthetic shift in Unpopular Culture, but the scene, always far larger, has since diversified. There’s a lot of good reading across the board: Cornélius, OuBaPo, La 5ème couche, the new Futuropolis, Poisson Pilote, the short-lived Professeur Cyclope.
Because I translate for a living, the comics I work on often differ from those I’d naturally read. And that’s fine, really: it's a prerogative of translation to let me write work I never would otherwise. I tend to agree with Apostolos Doxiadis when he claims comics are uniquely suited to provoking thought, because a Brechtian distancing effect is baked into the medium. It sounds like the revelation of someone who has read more deeply than widely, but first impressions can have a clarity and insight more conducive to innovation. It may seem stuck-up to say I cherish about the medium something in its potential I haven’t yet seen realized, but one of the great things about comics is how much remains to be discovered.
Your past is an attic; enough rummaging and precedent for any present-day circumstance turns up. What I’ve been circling, I think, is a sentiment reminiscent of a line remembered from a translation (pure coincidence) of a French book (another coincidence!) I first read around the same time as Nocenti’s Daredevil: Marguerite Yourcenar’s Oriental Tales, translated by Alberto Manguel. The artist Wang-Fo, title character of the collection’s first story, “loved the image of things but not the things themselves”: a worldview usually dismissed in most Western schemes as foppish, or at worst villainous, and certainly superficial when not outright seditious. I take it to mean a fascination with form over content – which may in the end be a view well-suited to a translator.
So how did you end up working as a translator?
My eight-word origin story, à la the first page of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman? Liberal Arts. Year abroad. Dumb luck. Decent taste.
The very phrasing of the question—the use of “end up”—seems to imply that it’s an unlikely, even unintended state of affairs, doesn’t it? And while I think that used to be true, I also think of myself as being on the tail end of a generation that, like ones before it, stumbled, not unhappily, into the field. Whereas many today, girded with specialized degrees, or else graduates of creative writing programs with translation tracks, set out to become translators, with mission and devotion. This has to do, I think, with the general, gradual rise in visibility for translators—it’s rare to want to grow up and become something there are no role models for—and the nascent sense that translation can be a force for good in a changing world, not to mention the American tendency to capitalize on trades by professionalizing training.
Or maybe the phrase should be read more as “end up working”? Which, fair enough. It’s hard to find work as a translator, much less get a freelance business off the ground, though hardly everyone who translates tries to make a living at it.
I got my first paid gigs from hanging around comic-cons: the late Byron Preiss’ IBooks, the late Archaia Studios Press, First Second. In the mid-aughts, graphic novels were a boom sector in publishing; major houses were all launching their own comics imprints, and the success of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis had turned heads. I think of the three ages of Franco-Belgian BD in America as Tintin/Asterix, Heavy Metal, and then Persepolis, each founded on a certain book that sold and, as per the logic of capitalism, sent publishers eager to replicate the hit looking to France for more of what they thought to be the same/in kind. And so Persepolis redefined Frenchness in comics as "indie" for a while: no children's adventures or cosmic '70s science fiction came over in its wake. Nations can get locked in reputations, perceptions from abroad of what they have to offer. It's salutary as a translator to try and do one's part in rattling these up now and then. France was (and is, and probably always will be) a safe bet for wine, gastronomy, and cultural theory titles. To be fair, it's not that these perceptions are unfounded. But to think that for a long time, they were all France meant to English readers, while such a major part of French culture as BD barely made it into English... that's a balance that needed to be rectified. The world was missing out.
I’ve made a career in the (fairly small, but now growing) business of translating French comics without ever working for what I think of as the “majors”—not Marvel and DC, who rarely have anything translated, but rather the three North American publishers with strong track record of publishing foreign material. I avoided D&Q because I didn’t want to poach from Helge Dascher (and didn’t think I could). Besides, even if she was busy, they were based in bilingual Montreal. I avoided NBM because of their similarly longstanding relationship with Joe Johnson. I avoided Fanta because, hey—amazing polyglot Kim Thompson had it handled, and expressed interest in “owning” the voices of certain creators for consistency’s sake. You can see why, when I finally got to translate for Top Shelf with Ludovic Debeurme’s Lucille, I felt like I’d arrived. That’s not to diss the clients who enabled me to go freelance in the first place—just that back then, Top Shelf was the publisher with longest-standing indie cred I’d gotten to work for. These days, pretty much everyone is doing translations – except Marvel and DC, still.
This is just the comics side of things; the literary fiction side was a different path. I'm happy to reminisce, but wary of offering my story as an example of how to break in. Not only is there no one right way, but the publishing scene has changed so much and keeps changing so fast that what I did probably won't work anymore. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every struggling freelancer struggles in their own way. Except there are no non-struggling freelancers.
How do you get most of your translation jobs? Are editors and publishers reaching out to you because they know your work and reputation? Are you aware of what’s being published and pitching people? How does it work?
I do get job offers from people I don’t know. But for the most part, recommendations from people I do know and/or have worked for are still behind these; I suspect that knowledge of my work and reputation, like those of most translators, does not extend beyond a fairly restricted sphere of professional colleagues. The trouble with not knowing how you got a gig is not being able to replicate that chain of events to get more gigs. That said, I think I have decent client retention, such that I’m deeply insecure about, but have no real way of investigating, the exceptions. I’ve faced enough rejection to know that it isn’t always, or at least not exclusively, about me (my style, any bad work habits I’ve built up), but I also tend to resist believing the worst about anyone when I feel that doing so is self-serving: you can see how these tendencies would dovetail to keep me in uncertainty—which is I suppose better than blame, if just as unproductive. I will say that I now have enough résumé credits that when I cold-write someone I don’t know (again, within a limited sphere), I seem to have generally earned at least the courtesy of a response.
The indie comics landscape has vastly changed since I started out just over a dozen years ago. There are a lot more publishers interested in European material, and with what seem like the means to do it justice. I see new translators emerging, and I admit sometimes I envy some of the titles they’ve gotten to do—creators I admired from the get-go but wasn’t in the right place at the right time to interest any publisher in. I’m thankful that in comics no editor will ask multiple translators to submit samples for the same work, essentially placing them in competition with each other, as is common practice with prose fiction. I hate that. It’s counterproductive and reinforces the idea that there’s only one true translation (about which, more later). Which is valid only in the legal sense that rights will only allow one translation at a time to be marketed and sold.
I have a fairly strict sense of etiquette, I think. I tend to avoid jostling for “hot” authors, literary or otherwise, from a dislike of competition; Lord knows there are enough to go around. It is not about making a star of any one author, or just desserts for the long-neglected, but something more intimate, like matchmaking, I think: connecting writers with the readers who’ve been waiting to hear from them. There are a number of authors and creators I’d like to translate but have no more claim to than a few published short stories or excerpts, and a few abortive attempts to interest publishers. Translator etiquette and the tricky politics of “owning” an author merit their own essay. I refuse to poach work, and dislike being poached from. I don’t think it’s just part of the business that one should have to get used to. Nor, for that matter, are low rates.
In the 1990s, the Federal Trade Commission investigated the American Translators Association (ATA) for possible violation of antitrust law. While in theory, charges like price-fixing and consultation among competitors apply only to organizations and not individuals, translators have been leery of openly discussing rates ever since. I can’t name names or quote figures, so I’ll say this. It may be a mistake that translation is priced, like everything else in comics, by page when some comics are obviously far wordier than others. (For instance, some Brazilian comics publishers pay by keystroke, so Érico Assis tells me.) But it’s insulting that some highly esteemed publishers today feel perfectly fine offering a page rate that’s less than half of what I started out at in 2006. And it’s criminal that the going page rate for basic lettering—not hand-lettering, mind you, or placing sound effects, but just balloon-filling, a job often done by interns—is more than twice that of translation. What this points to is a fundamental misperception of what it is translation entails, because it is easily both a) more creative and b) less mechanical than basic lettering. Whereas “mechanical” and “rote” are both qualities popularly attributed to translating: it’s an activity for the machines.
Hell, Google’ll do it for ya. Except that Google Translate, like Soylent Green (and unlike most translation programs before it) is people. The work of human translators, searched through, and presented uncredited.
There’s any number of reasons for this; after all, translation is already undervalued in prose fiction, where people give lip service to “nuance” in vague recognition of the fact that translation does something they can’t quite put their finger on. How much more, then, could one expect translation to be undervalued in a medium where language already plays second fiddle and pictures do the heavy lifting? (I’ve had editors buy rights to a foreign work on art alone and then be surprised by the story once I turned in the translated script.) It may also be that, well, some comics publishers and readerships just don’t English that good, never have and don’t care to start now, so why bother with premium proofing and grammar stickling? (They’re being dragged kicking and screaming out of the lowbrow gutter by decorous middlebrow interest.) But that the language used in comics is often more direct than in literature—you’re usually not dealing with complex syntax—doesn’t automatically mean translation is easier: an ear for the rhythms of punchy, catchy dialogue is its own skill, quite apart from a flair for posh eloquence. Because, as comics legend Diana Schutz likes to say, and make no mistake about it: “Translating IS writing.” Since retiring from her Dark Horse editorship to translate, Diana’s become a most welcome advocate for the profession and the visibility of its professionals, outspoken and pleasantly out of fucks to give. This is not to mention when translation entails proofreading, editing, and research, and other services usually billed separately; it is in the nature of translation that the scope of the task involved changes with each book. In the world of commercial translation, ruled by agencies catering to corporate clients, there are far finer if still fudge-able lines drawn between translation practices, mainly so these can be billed à la carte at different rates: “transcreation”, for instance, when a campaign or slogan has to be entirely reconceived for marketing in a new cultural context, or “localization”, a dirty word in literary circles, are opposed to “strict translation”. And yet such services, conveniently unexplicitized, are simply part of what the translator in literary or creative fields is routinely expected, and underpaid, to provide.
Look, I love and respect these presses. Lord knows they’ve got great taste and often beautiful production values. But what they’re offering is not a cut I can take. Maybe there are translators who can, even if they shouldn't—they’re also professors, say, or otherwise young and hungry—but for someone earning a living as a full-time translator, it’s just not happening. As it is, I already translate certain kinds of things to buy myself time to translate other things. I understand the juggling act. I especially resent the language of love being used to guilt people into rates that, living wage be damned, are just flat out unfair to and unreflective of the labor involved.
It’s about educating everyone, from editors to readers, as to what makes a good translation, to encourage them to believe it’s worth paying for, and in so doing, maybe hope for some standardization of rates and practices across a notoriously chaotic industry.
How do you work? What’s the process of translating a book?
There are two ways to tackle this: one, what are my working habits that remain constant from book to book? Which I understand is an interview staple that for writers often extends to such picayune idiosyncrasies as coffee regimen and preferred pen, as if some quantifiable and transferrable power mystically inhered in such choices. And two, the more interesting version, but one I won’t do justice to, is: what is involved in the act of translation?
And perhaps that’s too general a question to be answerable. If I had to come up with a long, clunky, and still inaccurate definition à la McCloud’s “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” it might be a thought experiment along the lines of “rewriting each sentence to preserve meaning after shifting several of its pivotal words to other parts of speech.” But that purely linguistic level is just for starters, covers at best half the kinds of utterances you’ll encounter, and elides the cultural component, not to mention the gestalt of a given work, the holistic “spirit” that superior translations are said to grok.
More approachable, but still difficult to articulate, might be: what is involved in translating French into English? It helps me to think of French and English as different mediums. Media are conditioned by usage; each has its own strengths, specificities, possibilities, and limits, cultural and technological or historical and syntactical. French, for instance, has no apostrophe-s possessives. Contemporary English often verbs nouns, while French more easily nouns adjectives. These affect the possibilities of sentence structure, which in turn affect rhythm, tone, spacing, and pacing, while other affordances, like a language’s cultural clout, affect reception and responsibility. The clamor to be translated into English today is at least in part a reflection of its broadcast reach (itself a historical contingency); making it into English, the language of world publishing, is like having your book optioned by Hollywood—suddenly accessible to audiences that might not otherwise have sought it out, or even heard of it. French publishers will use an excerpt from an English translation of a given book when shopping the rights around to editors from other countries at book fairs, because English is the current lingua franca.
Which isn’t to file translation as a subcategory of adaptation, or vice versa. More interesting to me is how cultural appreciation for adaptations has increased—largely due to increased awareness of the constraints and affordances of individual media—and the extent to which this evolution can be ported onto translation to similarly legitimizing effect. The story of adaptation in our culture has been one of grudgingly greater leeway, leniency, and esteem in recreating a work for another medium, while comparatively, translations lag behind on this developmental timeline, still vilified for failures to honor an original. DVDs with extras—director's commentary, deleted scenes, making-of documentaries—put me in mind of nothing so much as critical editions of literature, with their essays and appreciations, contemporary to both classic text and modern reader. Whatever the market motivation for their inclusion, these extras give us insight into the circumstances of a work’s creation. Reviews from even a decade ago are a testament to the ways blame for a movie’s faults were wildly, often wrongly ascribed, due to misunderstandings or guesswork about how movies were made. I’m on record as saying only a better appreciation of process can help the reading public overcome misconceptions about what translation can or should do, and better evaluate the difficulty, necessity, or ingenuity of aesthetic choices.
Perhaps because process is so particular to each work—like almost everything about translation, it’s case-by-case—all I can seem to muster are metaphors: writing, adaptation… But it’s quicker to model the process through metaphor because the nitty-gritty really does get very granular; British translator Daniel Hahn has a nifty Twitter breakdown of the thought process that went into a novel’s opening line, but bear in mind that it probably took him less time to make that series of gaugings and tinkerings than to articulate them for someone else’s benefit. There’s a lot of hemming, hawing, and fiddling that will be familiar to writers and would fall under the umbrella of revision, were the decisions not so intuitive, occurring in the moment and often below the level of consciousness.
Intuition is not something readers usually afford translators—in doing our absolute faithful best, we aren’t supposed to make choices we can’t justify, even if only to explain how we fell short. But this is to discount the essential mushiness of language or, as linguist Arika Okrent puts it, “the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power.” Human communication, much less expression, is not easily rulebound. “The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation [italics hers], of experimentation and discovery.” And that’s what translators are negotiating through the inevitable insertion of themselves as, sure, a fallible, but above all a human agent, just as capable of surprising insight from seemingly out of nowhere. There has to be room for that—for the mushiness of the implement we’ve designed and our part in maintaining that mushiness. As a discipline, translation is all exceptions and no rules—no rules that matter, that is, beyond a certain basic point, and even those rules are really just conventions, and so subject to change over time.
I rarely read a book—prose or comic—before translating it. This seems to be a somewhat controversial topic among translators recently. For me, it has more to do with the volume of comics I do, but many prominent literary translators refrain from reading the book on principle: Lydia Davis, Charlotte Mandell… The idea I’ve heard articulated in lectures and interviews is that they’ll be guided through the work like a reader, experiencing something of the same pacing and surprises, and letting that inform their process. There’s some truth to this: translating plot-heavy comics sometimes feels like watching TV at typing speed, as if the subtitles were appearing a few letters at a time, subject to some transmission delay. And I’ve wondered just what it is—for me, at least—that makes a work engaging and enjoyable to translate, because things can definitely be fun to read without being fun to translate, and vice versa. I’d be interested in research on what different kinds of reading do—areas of focus and retention—since I feel that what I retain of a book from translating it is perhaps closer to proofing than pleasure reading.
I delight in first drafting—the freedom of it, the reliance on instinct—and have been known to drag my feet over revisions. Mainly out of fear, I think, that I will become mired in indecision and make things worse rather than better. Because once I hit a point where I’m convinced the revision is improving things, rather than just moving them pointlessly around, I’ll stick with it no matter how painstaking or time-consuming. I just have to get there, and each time, via a different path, it seems.
I know there's no such thing as a perfect exact translation, so how do you go about translating and making the decision of what is important to capture in the language? Because French has a different style and structure and often approach than English. To translate is to transform the text. It's easy to say that it's all important, but something often has to get sacrificed due to constraints. Whether formality or structure or some of the way the author uses the language which doesn't get across. You might simply say that's something you address on a case by case basis. Perhaps I'm really asking about the language and what fascinates and excites you and what elements you find most interesting as a reader.
“Case-by-case”, however true, is a cop-out, or at best knee-jerk; I too yearn for some principle, however limited. A lot of my rhetoric has been aimed at getting people to your starting point: that “there's no such thing as a perfect exact translation” though to pick at your words again, I would probably say “there’s no such thing as a direct or transparent translation.” And, hear me out, the reasons for this edit have to do with how I perceive contemporary translation advocacy, but are also reflective of the translation process itself.
A lot of what I say has been aimed at getting people to admit the basic fact that there’s no such thing as a transparent translation, or a direct one that is satisfying. Which is to admit not only a difference in medium (the mismatch of languages one to another) but also the mediator’s inevitable presence. And like I also say, getting people to own up here doesn’t mean I think people aren’t aware of this; I think they all are, they just would rather not think about it. And it is precisely this aversion to awareness, this reluctance to consider it that then informs the sheer virulence and vituperation that have been the dominant tone of translation criticism. It is the tone in which calls for retranslations are couched, as if our grasp of language were subject to some linear idea of progress rather than arbitrary fashion. It is the tone of what translators call the “translation police,” be they critics or academics, who from the blind of expertise take potshots at word choice with no discussion of the gestalt, as if meaning were fixed. It is in fact even the tone of one translator berating another for “not getting” an author, as if one reading might be anointed with invariant truth-value when all readings are contingent and likely instrumental. It is a tone of woundedness, of having been sold a bill of goods when, if anything, these people knew all along, were complicit in their own willful deception: they should have known and in fact did know what they were getting into when reading a translation. If that sounds like victim-blaming, how do you think translators have felt for a very long time?
So, having hauled you with needless violence through the muck to your starting point—apologies—the reason I’d want to avoid “perfect” is because contains a value judgment of the very kind we’re trying to get out from under as translators. I think you probably mean it less as a value judgment and more as “perfectly” (as an intensification of “exact” that, as an adverb, would shoulder less weight in the sentence; adverbs in the hands of most people besides Henry James are among the least load-bearing elements of a sentence, which is why in our post-Hemingway age all the tough guys tell you to avoid them). But I single it out for alteration because it ties into and complements a later phrase—“something has to get sacrificed due to constraints sometimes”—and what both notions of “perfection” and “sacrifice” play into is an underlying idea of loss. I AM NOT SAYING LOSS DOES NOT EXIST. Loss is real. I am only saying that we as translators are trying out various strategies to move the discussion away from that idea, which only seems fair, since discussion has squatted there for centuries. There is a way of admitting to loss that is practical—as a starting point—and another that seems like finger-pointing. Just as there is a double standard operating around failure: when an author does it, it’s noble, when a translator does it, it’s a given.
And so, as a side note, what I did just now was select from your text, which may have contained ambiguous or multiple meanings, an interpretation that made sense to me but was also supported by your text, and worded my version in such a way as to make that explicit. Which is one thing that translation, as an unavoidably hermeneutic activity, may do. And many other textual activities do that—editing, criticism—working productively both in concert with or sometimes against the text and the author’s intent. But my version will go on to make your work available to new readers in new ways that continue to reimagine the original, perhaps applying it to new contexts, unearthing yet more readings. Which is one of the ways I have heard translators try to reframe the idea of loss: how can it be loss when something now exists that didn’t before? As Japanese translator Michael Emmerich has said, “That’s 100% win.”
“So how do you go about translating and making the decision of what is important to capture?” How do you, as a reader, decide what will stick with you – if you do? How do you as a critic decide what’s important to highlight in making a case about a book? When you say “to translate is to transform the text,” it’s surely a sentiment translation scholar Lawrence Venuti would appreciate. I hear echoes of his book Translation Changes Everything, a title he meant both literally and figuratively. Venuti’s vastly influential and his ideas, especially about “foreignization,” have trickled in somewhat misrepresented form into popular discourse, but he attempts to shift discussions of loss (which he too takes as a given) to what he calls “surplus” or gain. On page 7 of Letter to Survivors, the word “proliferation” was in French “pullulement,” which suggests both an insectlike swarming and unchecked increase. I chose to swap out the “seething mass of humanity” imagery because I found the word “pullulation” rare enough in English that it did not land with the same immediate impact. I can only hope the implication gain in my replacement, “proliferation,” is in keeping with my take on the book’s thematics.
I think my own strategy has been along these lines, maybe even more textually-based. Translation is an invisible profession; an invisible profession being, as Shea Hennum puts it (in an essay on John Workman at the back of Shutter #7), one that only mistakes make manifest. (Which begs the question: what things or categories of things constitute “mistakes”? Some are merely departures, and intentional to boot. The question of latitude for change is a translator’s entire horizon; another reason I’m quick to dodge notions of “perfection.”) But the idea of mistakes making us selectively visible produces a body of lesions, a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts, all seams and suppurations. (And just who or what is this putative damage being inflicted on, anyway? The original is alive and well and living in Paris). Whereas in fact the entire new text is the translator’s body, right? A record of our choices, and hence of our passage, our intervention. As British translator Daniel Hahn chides reviewers:
By all means compliment the author on the tightness of the plotting, on the deftness of the characterization, and ignore me—they’re supported by my work, of course, but marginally. But a reviewer who thinks he can praise the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice, without acknowledging who’s responsible… that’s a reviewer who simply has no understanding of what translation is. There’s a reason the copyright in my translations belongs to me and not the original author. The plot and the ideas and the themes aren’t mine, but the words are, all of them, and the way they all fit together, too.
The text bodies us forth completely.
When you ask “[what] about the language that fascinates and excites you and what elements you find most interesting as a reader and translator,” I’d have to confess I am too often seduced by the plastic properties of words. In my first drafts, I am guilty of letting convincing sound (assonance, consonance, alliteration) stand in for sense, or led astray from intent by appearance. What this opens up is the possibility of foregrounding words as objects. Considering the philosophy of language, art critic Susanne Langer writes:
“A symbol which interests us also as an object is distracting. It does not convey its meaning without obstruction… The more barren and indifferent the symbol, the greater is its semantic power… That is the source of the "transparency" of language, on which several scholars have remarked. Vocables in themselves are so worthless that we cease to be aware of their physical presence at all, and become conscious only of their connotations, denotations, or other meanings. Our conceptual activity seems to flow through them.”
This last conjures Beatrice Warde’s seminal 1932 essay on typography, still often referenced today: “The Crystal goblet” Warde, a writer and scholar of typography and marketing manager for the British Monotype Corporation, believed that “Type well used is invisible as type,” that “The book typographer has the job of erecting a window between the reader inside the room and that landscape which is the author's words.
Cf. George Orwell’s “Good prose is like a windowpane” commonly bandied about, and Norman Shapiro, translator of Verlaine and Baudelaire, who uttered the equally oft-encountered: “I see translation as the attempt to produce a text so transparent that it does not seem to be translated. A good translation is like a pane of glass.”
So it seems like another potential remedy to transparency would be to focus on the objecthood of the word, its sensuous qualities, and hope readers notice that too. This is poetic project, though I’m no poet. Hence my fondness for onomatopoeic sound effects in comics—“Just as,” writes poet and critic Rosemarie Waldrop, “a painter might draw attention to a color rather than to the object painted in it.” With meaning dialed down, the form and feel of words take a front seat. Onomatopoeia is the poetic object par excellence, foregrounding words for their plastic attributes: shape, weight, size, sound, assonance, consonance, appearance. On top of the usual poetic insistence on phonetics and page layout, comics reinforce the visual aspect: onomatopoeia are pictorial elements in an overall design, though this last is often beyond the powers of translators to affect.
Langer goes on to say that words “fail to impress us as ‘experiences’ in their own right, unless we have difficulty in using them as words, as we do with a foreign language or a technical jargon until we have mastered it.” Isn’t that the very experience of “foreignness” that readers are after, that they seek to recreate in reading translated work? Few would say that in one’s native tongue, apprehension of form precedes that of content. But when reading a foreign tongue, content is belated, form immediate and seductive. Romance languages are likened more often to music than Germanic ones, but surely thanks to foreign ears?
This reminds me of a fable from William Weaver’s translation of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. For a long time, Marco Polo cherishes what the name Pyrrha conjures in his mind, never having been there: “a fortified city on the slopes of a bay, with high windows and towers, enclosed like a goblet, with a central square deep as a well, with a well in its center.” But once he goes there, what he sees there replaces his visions of it, “everything I had imagined was forgotten; Pyrrha had become what is Pyrrha… obviously the name means this and could mean nothing but this.” The replacement is permanent, but not without rue. What a word might have suggested is, given the vehicular reputation of words, overshadowed by what we later find out it means, but we can with a deliberate shift of focus recover that initial apperception, and whatever it seemed to promise. The excitement of purely sensory expectation, before the actuality of dull communal meaning.
Is it necessary to understand and learn about the creators, their background, the context they worked in, to know more than just the words on the page in order to translate their work? Does it help?
The first translator I ever heard speak about his work was John Felstiner. It was a summer literary conference; there was a reading every night. Devout and impassioned, he made the other authors seem listless or offhand in their presentation, though perhaps it would’ve been immodest of them to speak of their own work with the same evangelical exactitude that Felstiner reserved for the poetry of Paul Celan. The monastic study, strenuous scholarship as Method immersion, the picture of the poet on the wall above the desk: translation as Felstiner preached and practiced it was a communion of unrivaled rigor and intensity. This was a decade before I tried my hand at it. My motives were far less noble, my texts themselves less esoteric, and my temperament so different that I cannot with any honesty claim causal influence, but that lecture lingers in my memory as the kind of experience that would inspire vocation.
I feel like this question is predicated on an older idea of translation, a boulder translators are trying to get out from under, namely that the author is the source of all things right and good. Fidelity, when brandished as a stick to beat translators with, generally means fidelity to the author’s text and intent (for which scholars will beat you). But there are different kinds of fidelity: to the conventions of English (for which the average reader will beat you), to the conventions of French (for which French teachers will beat you). There’s fidelity to genre, letting the tropes and clichés speak through you, insomuch as works in a given genre contribute to the ongoing conversation that is that genre itself, and originality within that framework usually amounts to ringing a few canny changes at a time on familiar formulas. Working in comics has allowed me to translate across more genres—westerns, epic fantasy, science fiction, biography, reportage, memoir, chick lit, children’s, war, noir—than I might have encountered in prose, simply because the selection of French prose we get to see here lacks the same breadth. There’s nailing, out of elective affinity, one character’s voice more than the others, a character who may not be the one the author loves best, and so in your English version they run away with the book like Elmore Leonard let Raylan Givens run away with Pronto, which begins as Harry Arno’s story (Givens even walks away with Harry’s girl).
But to focus so wholly on the author as the godhead to which the translator, poor oracle, remains shattered, when everyone else from critics to readers have been freed to make what they want of a text… it is absurd in our day and age, when intertextuality is a given, that translation, which contributes to the proliferation of a text at the most basic level, should remain a category of exception. Translators not only interpret a text, as readers do, they give that interpretation a written form, however mortal, enabling other readers who could not previously access the text to continue the process.
So let’s talk, instead, about devising a voice. At every stage here I want to be clear about my own fallibility but also the complexity, the helpless embeddedness in multiple contexts.
Let’s take the author Ç, a French author. There are qualities of an author’s voice, or the voice they devise for a specific work, that I might perceive from reading them, that might endear them to me, and/or inspire me to translate. Inextricably involved here is my subjectivity as a reader (maybe I hear something in the voice others don’t) and my grasp of the language.
I could put names to these qualities—adjectives—and try to devise in English a style that embodies or features those qualities. And/or I could look for models—that is, other writers whose style features qualities I would also name similarly.
Some of these models are going to be a matter of historical record, or can be gotten in an interview. Some may be direct, avowed influences, some may not—some may be connected with the author only through my own reading. Maybe I think Pierre is like Ç, but Ç has never heard of Pierre. Why would I put them together? Maybe it has to do with how I learned the language, what I was exposed to and the order in which I was exposed to them, the era, the pedagogy, other people’s priorities from mentors to friends—in short, happenstance: the miniature France of my education. Maybe I’m wrong to connect them—maybe I haven’t read broadly enough in French at that stage, and I’m still sort of bedazzled by French, and just the act of understanding it flatters me, and much of it sounds the same. Or maybe I am, as a critic might, creating something new: identifying affinities and drawing together practices into a new tradition, defining a new school or canon. “Every writer,” wrote Borges, “creates his own precursors.”
But these original-language influences and likenesses, though they might inform my work, are going to be of limited use to me, because they stop short of being English… unless I translate them. And if I do, I’m going to bring my lens or bias to the act. But hey, maybe someone else already has. Someone else has devised Englishes for these related authors. So I’m going to be taking the aptness of these other Englishes on faith; they’re lights along my path.
At this point we could back up a bit and ask, what does it mean to like a writer, anyway? That is, what in my own reading up till our encounter might predispose toward liking Ç’s work? It’s likely some things about Ç I already liked before encountering Ç’s work, in fact already knew I liked them, because I had liked them in others. And these others are primarily going to have been English—native English, that is, until translation fixes the world, evens the playing field. So a lot of what I’m drawing on is personal, unread or only coincidentally read by the author, and if read, read through the remove of translation.
And so a lot of what I’m going to want to bring Ç into—assuming I’m bringing Ç in because I love Ç’s work—are also voices I’d consider. Because I’d like Ç to be in conversation with, considered among, read by the same people as, taken seriously by, those same people. Let’s say one of the reasons I like Ç is because he’s a lot like an author I love named C, whom Ç has never read. And one of the reasons I want to bring Ç into English is to be in conversation with C—either literally, because C is still alive, or otherwise across eras.
Or let’s say I have less of a personal connection to Ç, but I do my research. I draw on sources. If not people I like to read, people I recognize as kindred, for literary-critical reasons. Race. Period. History. Sociology. Theme. Genre.
Already, the new voice, the voice I am devising, is beginning to be synthetic. Derived from sources of varying relation to and distance from the original, which is to say, “fake” by any strict standard of fidelity. No one—least of all a writer—comes up with a voice from scratch. Writers write from having read. Even when they hit upon something signature and inimitable, it may be assimilated into like bodies in the culture’s process of understanding it.
Translators don’t come up with voices from scratch, either. But it’s important to me to note that a lot of what informs a translator’s creation of voice is probably derived from contexts not native to the author being translated. I don’t think I’m making outlandish claims so much as unavoidable ones: you do, you definitely do draw on your native language sources, you are helpless but to do so, just as you are helpless but to come between the text and the new audience—that is what you do, your job description.
I’d heard of Gébé but hadn’t read his work, though after reading your intro, I want to. Letter to Survivors is a weird and fascinating story and I’m curious how you see it fitting into his body of work.
Where had you heard of him? I’m curious because the various contexts in which a foreign author pops up are exciting to me, as a translator. Gébé has the capacity to touch or tickle so many different kinds of people; I don’t want to stick him in a niche. I was just talking about context in the previous question, but his book has yet to find a specific readership in America. In a way he doesn’t yet have an identity. He’s not spoken of in the same breath as… he still has a chance to escape who he was. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be weirdly popular with… railroad engineers here in a way that he never was in France.
Publishers are obliged, ostensibly for sales purposes, to employ language that is generally inaccurate when not embarrassing to me when I have to represent them, claiming authors are the greatest this or that, the hidden or forgotten genius you’ve never heard of. The fact is, there are just a lot of foreign authors no one heard of here; our abysmal percentage of books translated annually makes that obvious. I think the historical and cultural context I detailed for Gébé in my preface to Letter to Survivors is fascinating, but it’s just the beginning, not the be-all and end-all. God forbid if, with his first book, he should go down as a footnote in our spotty timeline of French comics as a historical great. He’s so much more exciting than that!
For a long time, the multiverse was not a concept that people seemed comfortable with, but now that it’s been explained multiple times and at great length on network TV, I feel confident about its mainstream chances. A translation is to an original as Jet Li is to Jet Li, in The One. You can’t let either of them become the One—that would somehow be catastrophic to the fabric of the universe—they’re both credible threats to each other in different ways—so the only solution, however imperfect, is to let them exist in parallel dimensions. As translator, poet, and essayist Eliot Weinberger writes, “A translation is not inferior to the original; it is only inferior to other translations, written or not yet written.” This edition is not the French edition. The language is different, the lettering is new, it has a preface that would be useless in the original, and it has just been set loose in a different country almost forty years after it was first written. It is beholden to nothing: let it live its own life!
When you’re translating, are you ever talking with or discussing work with creators? Or are you mostly working with editors and publishers?
Nobel laureate Günter “The Tin Drum” Grass throws a working party every year for all his translators from around the world. I’ve been on residency at the Château de Seneffe, where Belgian author Jean-Philippe Toussaint hosts his translators one book at a time (my year, most of us were working on Naked). I have this fantasy, Priscilla-Queen style, of chartering a bus to cross the desert with all my authors aboard, or as many as could make it. We’d break down off of Highway 50 in Nevada. We wouldn’t all make it back. Rumors would abound, never confirmed, of unspeakable acts of cannibalism.
You could say I cut my teeth on the conveniently dead. In speculative fiction, at least, I spent a few early years working from contemporary authors backward up their chain of influences a few generations, for no other reason than obsession and free time. If there’s one thing I’ve done obsessively, it’s make myself a temporary expert in things nobody cares about. (Is that an art form? Art is supposed to be gratuitous, and a compulsion, right?)
I’d say it’s rare for prose fiction translators not to correspond with their authors to some degree. Though horror stories of controlling, disdainful, or backstabbing authors are common, most translators, when asked, would nevertheless say they value the experience as one of the unique and more rewarding opportunities the profession affords. If the work in question is a commission, they might not start out already in touch with the author the way they would if they’d pitched the project themselves, but they can always request to contact the author through the publishers (domestic and foreign). One thing that surprised me early in my career was how little many authors care about getting involved; I’d assumed they’d all relish the navel-gazing chance to discuss their work at length, in detail. But many perhaps rightly realize there’s not much they can do to help, or are at peace with their work loosed upon the world. Others meddle.
The legal quandaries of translation as embodied by the gargantuan rights apparatus intrude somewhat impersonally into all this. Let’s say I’m reading a published work and decide I’d like to translate a sample for shopping around to Anglophone publishers. I’d probably reach out to the foreign publisher first because authors generally don’t hold their own rights, so even if I got through, they’d probably just direct me to their publisher. In the English-speaking world, with the bizarre agent system we blithely assume is universal but is actually fairly atypical if also spreading, agents might hold translation rights, or even authors themselves until an offer comes in, but in many parts of the world, authors are still represented primarily by their publishers, whose specialized rights departments handle the rights. So where the mechanics of making a translation actually happen are concerned, I’m not only NOT talking to authors, but not even people with direct personal relationships to them, like their editors or agents, I’m talking to a department whose global mission it is to get all the books of a given publisher translated in as many languages as possible. These can be great people to know (though industry turnover is high). They might not help clear up ambiguities in a text, but then again, they might very well take you to lunch.
I say all this by way of contrast with comics. If translators are already traditionally invisible in prose fields, how much more so are they (or anyone who does text-based work, like letterers) in a medium where art has the upper hand? An industry eternally plagued by understaffing, shoestring budgets, and tight turnarounds? Half my prose translations were my pitches; three of the more than three hundred comics were comics I successfully pitched. Since most of my work consists of commissions, I start out at a remove from the creators. And because I do so much of it on short deadlines, I don’t often have the time to seek them out. A casualty of this is feeling peripheral, rather than like part of, the comics industry. I keenly feel my lack of firsthand art shoptalk when talking with French creators.
When it comes to translating, it feels like there is a degree of specialization. You translate mostly graphic novels and science fiction and fantasy prose. And you translate from French to English. How did you end up focusing on that?
I hope I’m not disavowing anyone’s expertise when I say this smacks to me of a market economy phenomenon. It’s convenient to specialize. It helps you define your brand, penetrate your market. At some point, call it a career singularity, specializing may then take on a life of its own.
I’ve specialized out of personal interest but also in hopes of bringing something new to the table. Translators can exercise activism in their choice of what to champion and translate. For want of working from underrepresented cultures and nations, I went with underrepresented genre and mediums, at least from France. But I don’t think specialization is a requirement. Technical translators often do it. Malcolm DeBevoise has stuck to nonfiction, I believe, but that man could probably do anything. We’re lucky to have him.
I’ve had translators, like journalists, tell me that a top work perk is the eclectic research each individual project demands, but by this logic, proofreaders and copyeditors, from the sheer variety and quantity of reading they do, should be the most interesting cocktail guests in the world. From the trenches, I’d say I have indeed become an expert on many diverse and unlikely topics— sharks, Chernobyl, typography, the Ramones, Magritte, child soldiers, Josephine Baker, Gauguin, Antonello da Messina, the Krumen people, Marcel Rayman, Luisa Casati—but often only for about two weeks to a month apiece. Which has increased my interest in the specialized abilities of serial con men (say, Ferdinand Demara), short-term memory (human RAM), and the different levels of comprehension, appreciation, and retention afforded by different kinds of reading. This is something I’ve love to be pointed to research on, since many thoroughly knowledgeable translators calling translation the closest form of reading. That’s true, on a granular, atomic textual level, but still, if I am to talk intelligently—that is participate in the conventionally accepted critical literary discourse—about something I’ve translated, I have to read the book again once I’m done, as a book, which to me means that how I read when translating a work is somehow different from the kind of reading I do if I want to speak about it.
You are a Contributing Editor for Words Without Borders, which is a site I love, but for people who don’t know it, can you say a little about it and what you do?
As one of the first American periodicals devoted solely to global literature in translation, Words Without Borders (WWB) is one of the cornerstones of the increased attention translators and books in translation enjoy today, sixteen years after its founding. It was definitely the first such to eschew print and explore being digital-only, which allowed it to expand in many ways unique to the web, as well as ensuring it stayed afloat for the first few years—when it started in 2003, it was definitely ahead of its time. Now the translation journal scene is flourishing (though still mostly online, with the notable exception of the even older print journal Two Lines) while Anglophone lit mags (mostly but not all university-affiliated) are actively soliciting translated work. WWB is, alas, still a notable exception to most of these in several vital ways. For one, it’s a monthly (most litmags are semiannual to quarterly at best). For another, while many journals do not pay at all (a sad feature of the literary world so widespread and longstanding as to be accepted), WWB always pays the translator AND the rightsholder, whether that is an author, an estate, or as is most often the case, a foreign publisher. What’s more, WWB sees to acquiring these rights, a burden usually incumbent upon the translator, whose time and effort spent in doing so is somehow routinely overlooked as remunerable labor by periodical and book publishers alike. Finally, WWB actively encourages and solicits translators to reflect on their process with a given work, or other issues in world lit. I’ve written for them on sound effects in comics, and heck, they even let me cover the Angoulême International Comics Festival (and all the L’Association drama) when I was there in 2011, before the Arab Spring hit. To celebrate International Translation Day (the feast of St. Jerome, the Bible translator who is considered the patron saint of translators) in 2017, WWB also ran “Going Native,” the first of my comics on translation with artist Claire Stephens (and sponsorship from AmazonCrossing, Amazon’s translation-only imprint).
I won’t say I was instrumental in organizing WWB’s first-ever comics issue back in 2007, but I did float them the idea, along with a few curated excerpts, and it’s been going strong every February since—their issue with the most hits. I’ve contributed work every year but one, I think, and later got to translate several books – Gébé’s Letter, the trilogy on the history of Arab-American relations by David B. and Jean-Pierre Filiu, Weapons of Mass Diplomacy by Abel Lanzac and Christophe Blain, A Chinese Life by Li Kunwu and Philippe Otié, and Zeina Abirached’s A Game for Swallows – excerpts of which were first featured in WWB, with the last going on to be a Batchelder Honor book from the American Library Association (note how many of the others are quality SelfMadeHero titles). Other translators have gone on to work on some of the creators featured there, like Jérôme Ruillier, Nicolas Wild, David Prudhomme, and Ruppert & Mulot. In 2007, Epileptic had been out for four years, but David B.’s stuff wasn’t nearly as widely available in English. Blutch in 2010, that was before the late Picture Box’s So Long, Silver Screen and NYRB’s 2016 launch with Peplum. For a while, Fantagraphics was hemming and hawing over Jeanine, a prostitute’s memoir as taken down by cartoonist Matthias Picard. Hélène Aldeguer’s After the Spring, which ran just this February, is forthcoming from IDW. I’ve always wished Jochen Gerner’s Against Comics could find a home, but I don’t blame anyone for not taking on the slim Farniente by Lewis Trondheim and Dominique Hérody, so I’m glad even a selection of these witty strips has a virtual home. Hopefully, plans for Fabrice Neaud’s Diary, which I’ve passed on to another translator, will pan out, as it’s a landmark gay memoir.
I also actively scout work to bring in, keeping abreast of the French comics scene and taking pitches from translators or scholars in other languages, like guest editor Dominic Davies on the “Global South” or the work of Mercedes Gilliom, fellow French comics fan and also frequent digital letterer. Over the years, WWB has both gotten more global in terms of languages featured, and my material for them reflects an editorial turn toward reportage or current issues. So please, pitch me great comics!
That said, I feel like the comics world at large still isn’t aware of what WWB is doing in comics. I’ve made it a point to mention them whenever presenting at comics or cultural events. As you can tell, there’s a deep bench of ideas for potential publishers. It’s a good place to check out what creators worldwide are up to, and if you’re fans of certain creators, the only place to find some of their works in English. So thanks for asking, and for the signal boost!
In 2019, you were a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellow and you were on the faculty at the Fifth Bread Loaf Translators Conference. Both of which are fairly huge honors and I think it’s fair to say that one wouldn’t have received them for translating comics or genre work even just a few years ago. Is there more interest and excitement and I don’t want to say respect, but has the atmosphere, both popularly and more academically, changed since you started?
Thank you. Alas, I can’t say that I received either of these honors for doing comics or genre work. I pitched Bread Loaf a comics-specific module, but the book that got me the job was Paul Willems’ The Cathedral of Mist, a short story collection decidedly on the literary end of the fantastical spectrum. Ditto the authors that got me both my NEAs in 2011 and 2019, fabulists both: Belgian Bernard Quiriny and Frenchman Pierre Bettencourt. Fabulism : fantasy :: graphic novel : comics. I hate saying that, because it makes it sound like I’m perpetuating a distinction I actually hope to erase. How to classify a work, if you have to at all, may perhaps be ambiguous in direct relation to the ambiguity quotient in that work. But whether or not it’s a distinction that matters to you as a reader (and there are readers on both sides of the line busy maintaining it), it’s one that still operates. A class issue, sure, but – maybe a more nakedly economic framing would sidestep this futile aesthetic hairsplitting. Willems, Quiriny, and Bettencourt might freely use outrightly fantastical conceits, but something in the way they handle these makes it a sure bet no commercial press would touch their books. (Bettencourt writes prose poems, for Chrissakes – call ‘em short-shorts if you like, but that won’t make them an easier sell.) Which makes these authors quite literally grant-worthy – how else would their work ever see the light of day? But also “literary” in that readers who pride themselves on the label won’t feel like they’re slumming when reading said work.
That said, the cultural powers that be are certainly aware that I have staked my reputation on speculative fiction and comics. At a conference, the NEA’s Literature Director Amy Stolls once personally expressed her regret to me that there was not yet a NEA grant for comics, and she’s written about the need to recognize hybrid work that weds text and image. And one of their picks for their Big Read was Roz Chast’s memoir.
Now, a hardcore genre fan—someone who draws solid lines around what counts as speculative fiction and what doesn’t—might just as easily look at my prose bibliography and not find a single work of interest. Though my first prose book was with Small Beer Press, a publisher well-known to genre audiences, I’ve not translated any secondary world fantasy or hard SF (I know, a reductive view of genre and its readers: see above). Except in comics, where I’ve done my fair share of both—but then again, mostly for a digital-only market. Meaning those titles don’t get the same media coverage, and it’s hard to quantify just how much they’re read or contribute to pushing the boundaries both of genre and of Anglophone readers’ expectations from France.
But to answer your question: yes, I think it’s clear to any cultural observer that the reputations of comics, genre writing, and translation are all undergoing re-evaluation if not outright renaissance in both the public and academic spheres to the extent that it’s hard to say which of these—popular or scholarly—is the driving force.
For those of us who read Letter to Survivors and want more Gébé, where should we start? Is there anything else in English? Anything on the horizon? Or something to buy next time we're in the Francophone world?
Alas, for now there’s nothing else in English, or on the horizon, that I know of. Remember, this can be a long game: it took seven years from my first publication of an excerpt in WWB till the book came out this year. In that time, I shopped excerpts around to lit mags and the whole book to several publishers, but I had to luck into the very founding of New York Review Comics. I doubt anyone else would’ve touched Letter (though I thought Uncivilized Books, with their indie political leanings, a good candidate after doing Joann Sfar’s Pascin with them). The book I’m pushing for next is L’Âge du fer [Age of Iron]. It’s not a graphic novel per se – that is, it wasn’t conceived as a whole, but then again, most of Gébé’s comics work was serialized. Rather, the book (from L’Association) gathers strips, originally published in Hara Kiri from 1977-1982, that are all set in the same world, where everything is made of metal in a very industrial-era way that exaggerates, if not knowingly satirizes, the roots of Gébé’s cartooning style in technical draftsmanship. People, nature, man-made objects are all rivets and bolts and girders. It’s from the same era as Letter, and so shares a similar sense of deflated hope, but it’s less a projection futureward than a fanciful Swiftian otherworldly satire.
The decade or so before Gébé’s passing saw a late-career limelight that’s only shone brighter since. Though most of his back catalogue is still available used at reasonable prices, a large part of his work has also been brought back into print. L’Association led the charge here, particularly founding member Jean-Christophe Menu, who at the expense of his own work was the driving force behind their resurrection of archival influences – that is, until his 2011 ousting. Four major graphic novels (if I’m not mistaken), a collection of strips, and even a handsomely produced collection of prose columns, all admittedly harder to keep track of from abroad in the early days, when L’Asso had no website and eschewed barcodes. Buchet-Chastel’s prestige artbook imprint Les Cahiers dessinés, the brainchild of founding editor Frédéric Pajak, is the chief rival when it comes to Gébé material. They produce high-end coffee table softcovers of artists from Gustave Courbet and Giacometti to illustrators like Tomi Ungerer and Folon. Gébé joins the likes of old pals Siné, Topor, Wolinski, and Cabu with collections of early career single panel cartoons and new editions of strips selected from previously published collections. And rounding out the renaissance, alt comics press Éditions FLBLB (pronounced “fleuhbeleub”) put out a new edition of Gébé’s roman-photos, or photo comics, for Hara-Kiri; indie Wombat collected Gébé’s 1979 “encephalo-ppolitical” post-script to L’AN 01, a clear-eyed re-evaluation from the pages of Charlie Hebdo; and the small literary press Le Dilettante released a new edition of Gébé’s prose columns (I translated one at Words Without Borders). Plus some gallery shows and retrospectives.
Just to wrap up, what are a few books which have not yet been translated and come out in the US that you are really excited about, books you’ve worked on that will be out soon, books that those of us who read French (or try to) should be checking out?
It's been a good fall for releases, featuring a few works I’m especially proud to have been a part of. September saw two from British indie SelfMadeHero. The first was a historical fiction, Mozart in Paris, that drew heavily from the copious family correspondence. Creator Frantz Duchazeau devises some inventive graphic ways to convey Mozart’s inner turmoil. The other was The ABC of Typography. Histories of typography are niche enough, but this is the first comic on the subject, itself a visual medium. It’s told by typographer David Rault in eleven chapters, each with a different artist, a nice cross-section of today’s Francophone talent, from indie (Delphine Panique, François Ayroles, Alexandre Clérisse) to more mainstream (Jake Raynal, Hervé Bourhis). Although only 130 pages, this was in many ways a mammoth project. The timing was right for it to dovetail with personal research into typography for my recent doctoral dissertation, which included a chapter on design (industrial and graphic) as a metaphor for translation. (My specific interest in typography grew out of a fascination with onomatopoeic sound effects in comics, the importance of whose plasticity as word-objects includes not only phonetics but appearance as a pictorial element of page and panel.) So any research time I spent on the book did double duty and predictably expanded as I dove down rabbitholes after references, obscurities, anecdotes, marginalia.
This was also the first time I’d translated a glossary that wasn’t just an appendix of made-up words for an epic fantasy. It wasn’t a long glossary—just three pages. But boy, did I feel dumb for so belatedly realizing I’d have to do something as basic as completely re-order the entries. And translating a glossary confronts you with one of translation’s foundational problems: that one language will have words another just won’t, for lack of a matching concept. So, removing some entries and added others, I felt my way toward a glossary that seemed complete unto itself. As you might imagine, the proofreading process for this book was especially fine-toothed. Some of the fonts from the original were replaced, with David Rault’s approval. I’ve been working with SelfMadeHero for a decade now, and it’s always a good time. I feel like a session musician sitting in on the book we all put together: editors, proofers, creators. And several artists deserve special mention. I’ve long been a champion of François Ayroles’ work, which apart from Toronto darling The Beguiling’s Key Moments in the History of Comics is almost entirely unrepresented here (over the years, I’ve managed to smuggle a few of his short strips into translation-focused literary magazines like Two Lines and The Arkansas International). Alexander Clérisse is, of course, the wunderkind behind IDW’s Atomic Empire and Diabolical Summer, two graphic novels scripted by the erudite Thierry Smolderen. The first is a spiffy retrofuturistic riff on the life of SF writer Cordwainer Smith, and the second a meditation on the abiding presence of evil with a splashy pop ‘60s palette. I’ve worked on books where the prolific Hervé Bourhis was alternately wearing his writer (for Space Warped from BOOM!) and artist (for Heavy Metal from IDW’s Little Book of Knowledge series) hats. I’ve had my eye on Delphine Panique’s uniquely lyrical absurdism for some time, and would love to introduce her to Anglophone audiences, especially with Le vol nocturne, a sort of slacker comedy about witches. Jake Raynal’s mordant strips have been a staple of French comics mag Fluide Glaciale for 25 years, and I’m proud to be debuting him in English in Words Without Borders [I’ll send you the link when it goes live next week] this December.
I’m also glad to have translated Alexandre Clérisse’s solo debut, The Bugle Boy, for EuropeComics digital. My comics work has really ramped up in the last four years, mostly due to major mainstream French comics publishers (Delcourt-Soleil, Mediatoon (Dupuis, Dargaud, and Le Lombard), and to a far lesser degree, Glénat) securing EU funding to commission translations directly, which are then released only in digital form, thus bypassing US & UK publishers. Despite these being available from the usual services (Comixology, IBooks, Google Play, etc.), I’m not convinced readers know they exist. And though print rights to most of these books remain available to interested publishers, I’m not sure if their digital existence deters interest. But the initiative has allowed these French publishers far more freedom in the choice of material to bring into English as they raid their vast catalogues. Mediatoon’s editorial priorities, for instance, have really ranged all across the board just in the four years I’ve been working with them: from classics like Les Frustrés by Claire Brétécher (whom Roland Barthes called 1975’s “sociologist of the year”; to long-running, reliably-selling pulpy-soapy series; to the latest from name creators, plus some fun kids’ stuff. I feel like I need to give these a shout-out because with the initial EU grant coming to term, these publishers are going to need to see digital sales to want to continue bringing this work to Anglophone readers.
One of my favorite digital comics that I got to translate recently was Last of the Atlases, by Fabien Vehlmann and Gwen de Bonneval, with art by Hervé Tanquerelle and Frédéric Blanchard. It’s an alternate history that introduces us to an Algeria where the War of Independence took place 15 years later because after WWII the French were able to greatly modernize Algeria using nuclear-powered Iron-Giant-style robots named Atlases. After a horrible catastrophe, the Atlas program is scrapped, and in the book’s present day, a small-time gangster is trying to rescue the last remaining Atlas from an Indian shipbreaking yard to fend off what he’s convinced will be an alien invasion. Vehlmann and de Bonneval are a pairing I’ve long admired, and their contemplative far-future tale Last Days of An Immortal, one of the few comics I ever successfully pitched (to the late Archaia, before BOOM! Bought them), and like some of the other favorite translations I’ve done, already out of print.
Gramercy Park is an October release from Eurocomics, a Hitchcockian noir that is noted YA author Timothée de Fombelle’s first foray into comics, with art by Christian Cailleaux. The delicately told Angoulême nominee concerns the unlikely fascination a beekeeping former ballet dancer exerts over a crime kingpin in hiding.
Editor Dean Mullaney endearingly emailed me to say he was so taken by the book he typed the whole thing into Google Translate just to get an idea of the story he was now handing over to me for translation. For veterans of the comics scene, Dean Mullaney needs no introduction, but with his latest endeavor, he’s become a full-on lamed vovnik. Eurocomics is his baby, his brainchild. He’s the impresario of this imprint from IDW bringing readers long-overdue masterpieces of international comics from creators like Muñoz and Sampayo, Jean-Pierre Gibrat, Pellejero and Zentner, Jorge and of course, Hugo Pratt, new translations of whose classic Corto Maltese Dean commissioned from Professor Simone Castaldi. I was thrilled Dean let me translate the great Claire Wendling’s fantasy classic Lights of the Amalou, to date her only work in English apart from art books through Stuart Ng (though to be fair, it’s her only real work in French, too: despite pervasive admiration—even a shortlisting for the Grand Prize at Angoulême—she’s become a cult figure since her retirement due to illness).
Eurocomics is an imprint of IDW, which in October also brought out Hélène Aldeguer’s After the Spring, a sparely told documentary comic that follows the difficult lives of four Tunisian youths through their fear, struggle, disillusion, and disaffection over the country’s turmoil after the “Jasmine Revolution” of early 2011. The book won Aldeguer the Prix de la Fondation Raymond Leblanc, a Belgian prize for young comics creators, and Words Without Borders previewed an excerpt of it in its annual comics issue last February.
And speaking of IDW imprints, Top Shelf is finally publishing Lupus, the science-fiction road trip that put Swiss creator Frederik Peeters on the map. It’s not his first work, strictly speaking, but over the course of its four volumes originally released from 2003 to 2006, you can see him refining his craft. I first translated Peeters for SelfMadeHero in 2012 with the Lynchian Pachyderme (still my favorite) before moving on to his four-volume far-future epic Aama, and more recently, The Smell of Starving Boys, the western he did with writer Loo Hui Phang. Lupus was a long time in the making: Chris Staros had had his eye on it for a while before taking the plunge; then Top Shelf hit a rough patch and the project was put on hold for a while. I can’t praise them enough for persevering.
I finished the translation in early 2016 and haven’t seen it since, so I feel sort of… apprehensive? It’s coming out of the gate with a starred review from Publishers Weekly, but I sort of unrealistically wish I’d had a chance to tinker with it again. There’s always something I’d change… the more time goes by, the more things. A few years ago, Gideon Lewis-Kraus covered a machine translation conference for the New York Times, quoting a funny interaction with a computational linguist kvetching about human translators making “quality control… impossible. ‘If you show a translator an unidentified version of his own translation of a text from a year ago, he’ll look it over and tell you it’s terrible.’” This is such a given to us translators on the human side of the fence that hearing it phrased as complaint instead made me laugh out loud. I’d never thought of it as a bug instead of a feature.
For the past month, and through mid-January, I'm doing a huge, highly enjoyable project: 1100 pages of the latest French indie comics. I’ve been too busy to keep up with the scene for so long that I feel very lucky the scene is now coming to me. It's 10 publishers, 10 books apiece, 10-15 pages from each book, mostly recent releases, for a giant catalogue. The samples I translate won’t be published, but will be used at international rights fairs to attract publishers. The publishers are the usual suspects of the Francophone indie comics scene, from Switzerland, Belgium, and France, paying for the project out of a government grant. I’m finding a lot of stuff to like that I wouldn’t normally see unless I went over. And the material is fairly varied: outliers include a picture book and a rainy-day activity book for kids. Alexandre Kha’s stuff for Tanibis has really stood out to me so far, especially his macabre history of solving Fermat’s Last Theorem, and his carnival freak yarn, Curse of the Clockwork Lady: the occult sensibility of David B. with the spareness of a Stanislas or Ulf K.