As everyone is moving back in to Haverford and gearing up for a new year, it is pretty weird to see it all happening from far, far away, in my little world of panels and speech balloons in Paris. Despite how far away I am, though, I’ve been doing a lot of work recently with English an American publications–and I think I would have to say that the work I’ve been doing in English has been more difficult in most ways than the work I’ve done this summer in French. I’ll start by talking about that.
Science fiction is a weird genre. And it adds a whole new level of weirdness when you read it in another language. There’s nothing like translation to really force you to think about the words that are on the page you’re reading–you can’t just let the meaning of each sentence wash over you and past you, allowing yourself to focus on the coherent whole, the way you do when you read. (At least when you’re reading for your own enjoyment). And when you really dig into science fiction words, you sometimes have to laugh when thinking about how they were come up with.
For instance, in the Star Wars universe there is a rubbery, tentacled species of alien called the “Mon Calamari” from the planet Dac. If you were to put that into a French Star Wars production without any attempt at transforming it, the species name is essentially “My Squid”–or “My Squiddy” if you want to get picky–but they’re both equally silly. And as soon as you realize that, you can just see the writer in the LucasArts studio going “Hmm, this alien I came up with looks like a squid. It’s lunchtime and I said I’d have this file done by 11… Let’s just call it My Squiddy in French, no one will notice.
That’s obviously a slight exaggeration; Mon Calamari is a decent alien name, but it shows how dangerously close to breaking the 4th wall of fiction you can get, if you don’t translate carefully.
So when I was asked to do a correction of the translation of an upcoming English edition of Barbarella, a classic French sci-fi comic series from the ’60s made famous by Jane Fonda, I had was excited. She’s an intergalactic hero who vanquishes her enemies with love and love alone. Lots and lots of love. Enough love that one of the translation issues was wondering how much of what was OK in France in 1968 is OK for a young US audience in 2014…
But besides that there’s a whole slurry of weird vocabulary: there’s the “Archivèpre,” ruler of the planet Spectra; there’s Big Bug the Astronef, Barbarella’s (awesome) spaceship; there are the “Bornes,” a bizarre, cultish Spectran species that walks around in army-like ranks and files, staring across the space-time barriers on the surfaces of mirrors, into a parallel universe; there’s “space-time” itself, which is sometimes “espace et temps,” sometimes “temps et espace,” sometimes “espace-temps,” it goes on and on and on.
How it usually goes is I make a pretty liberal correction of the original translation, and send it to our anglophone editors in London and L.A., both of whom are comic-book experts, only one of whom speaks French. Then we have long, detailed Skype conversations going one-by-one over the corrections that we don’t all three of us agree on, which is most of them. At least initially. Often, where I wanted to make a change to erase a French-ism to make Barbella more believable, the London editor wanted to conserve the original because old fans who read the comics in the ’60s will appreciate the authenticity. And I say, “but in the ’60s, they were pumping out a translation every two weeks and they didn’t have the time to spend on quality translations, but we do.” “And then he says to me, “Nick, this is supposed to be sent to the printer today…”
And then the L.A. editor creatively comes up with some new term that conserves elements of both perspectives, and we move on. It’s a constant compromise. I’m not too happy about some of my corrections that were vetoed, but I think that the editorial team we have has probably made for a more holistic, better translation than we would have had if any one of us had done it alone.
This week, I’ve started correcting a translation of a series that is written in French, about a boorish, caveman-like Belgian zombie-hunter and a pimply guy named Carl who has a thing for lady zombies. It takes place in an apocalyptic L.A. in 2064, in which both George W. Bush and Jesus have risen from the dead. It’s filled with French caveman speak, crude Belgian humor, crude L.A. humor, just straight crude humor, lots of post-apocalypse terminology. One of the worst parts: Sean Hannity STILL runs a radio show… In 2064… Wish me luck…