Kim Thompson on Translating Manara

Dark Horse announced this summer at San Diego's Comic-Con International that it would be translating the works of famed Italian artist Milo Manara, with some of his books becoming available in English for the first time. Working with writers like Alejandro Jodorowsky, Neil Gaiman, Hugo Pratt, and influential directors Pedro Almodóvar and Federico Fellini, Manara stands as one of Europe's premiere artists, and his own original material has cemented his reputation as one of the greats of erotic comics.

A planned nine volumes set to begin shipping next year, with the Pratt-written "Indian Summer" and "El Gaucho" leading the way. The books are translated by Fantagraphics co-publisher Kim Thompson, who also translates most of his company's titles including works by Jason, Jacques Tardi, and many more.

CBR News spoke with Thompson about his translation efforts, from the early stages of the Manara adaptations to his philosophy on translation in general. We also asked Thompson where he finds the time...

CBR: By this time, Kim, you've translated scores of books from a number of different languages. Are there some authors who, whether because of their style or source language, present additional or unusual challenges?

KIM THOMPSON: Every one is different. Humor is difficult. The Swedish comic "Rocky" was excruciating, for instance. You can miss the mark slightly translating a dramatic or tragic scene and it'll still work, but get one word wrong in a joke and it's ruined. But it varies even for the same author: The Tardi book "You Are There" was nut-bustingly hard because of the weird, orotund, rambling style of dialogue (and I'm still not sure if I succeeded, or if it was indeed even translatable), while "West Coast Blues" was written in a hard-boiled, sardonic lingo I can do as easily as falling off a log. Jason's writing is so stripped-down and uninflected I can buzz through his books too. It's all different.

What is key in translating Manara?

I don't know, I haven't actually translated any Manara writing yet! I'm midway through the second Pratt-written book, "Indian Summer" (which I believe is the first to be released), so aside from some very early Manara strips (which I also believe were not written by him) I don't really know what he reads like in terms of translating, any more than someone who translated "Fantastic Four" knows what it's like to translate Jack Kirby.

Generally, my core belief is that you have to betray the source material to remain faithful. The Italians have the phrase, "Traduttori, Traditori," meaning, "translators, traitors," which most would read as an insult but I read as sound advice. The most important thing is that a translation can't sound like a translation, so if the original phrasing cannot be made to work, then drop it and write something different that conveys the same information and meaning. I see so many translations where there are awkward phrases which I can identify back to the source language, particularly in dialogue.

And European text tends to be... stodgier in some ways than American text. For period pieces that's okay, but contemporary material, it's easy to fall into the trap of duplicating that stodginess.

Does the sexuality or other subject matter in some of Manara's work add a layer of complexity to finding the most appropriate English equivalent? I'd think that English can be overly flowery or overly coarse when it comes to sex (not that Manara himself doesn't go into these territories at times).

That's a good question, although since I haven't hit the sex stuff yet I don't know. I translated a lot of erotic comics for the EROS line over the years and never found it to be a problem. I don't think the flowery/coarse thing will be an issue. At most Italian **sounds** prettier and sexier, but that doesn't matter on the page. And what's great about English is that it's still got some real taboo words (there's no word in Italian that has the nuclear impact of the F- or C-words), which can be really useful.

At Fantagraphics, you've been responsible for bringing a lot of great cartoonists to the attention of English-speaking audiences. Milo Manara, despite the fact that a lot of his work hasn't yet been translated, already has a distinguished reputation here in the U.S. Is there a different expectation when translating the work of a well-known artist?

Nah. The difficulty of the work is unrelated to the greatness of the artist, I've found. In some cases when I know that I'm dealing with a masterwork for the ages - [David B.'S] "Epileptic," or [Jacques Tardi's] "It was the War of the Trenches," for instance -- I may be slightly intimidated, but you just have to jump in and do it.

Do you see a potential for growth in Manara's fan base in America now that his work will be more available?

I think he was doing very well for a while there with the NBM reprints, and then it tapered off. Dark Horse looks like they're putting a lot of effort into this project, and they're putting their "A" team on it (Diana [Schutz] and, well, uh, me). But who knows? I thought "Rocky" would conquer America! Drawing an "X-Men" comic probably didn't hurt.

Manara is, of course, even more renowned in Europe. What would you say he is most revered for among European cartoonists?

Honestly, I don't know what the Europeans' perspective is on Manara. But I assume he's considered one of the pantheon of erotic cartoonists, next to Magnus, Crepax, and Pichard.

On a practical side, you do a ton of translations for Fantagraphics. How are you working these Manara translations for Dark Horse into your schedule?

I do all my Fantagraphics translations at home in my spare time. As it happens I had a little bit of a window open so I've been able to squeeze in Manara. Watch fewer reruns of "House," put in a little more work.

Since you are fluent in and translate from several languages, I'd be curious to hear about how knowledge of one language might help sorting out unfamiliar/unusual words or phrases in another--obviously, some languages have similarities or are complementary in some way, but I'd be interested to hear about any less-apparent connections.

Well, being fluent in French often helps me figure out possibly problematic words in Spanish and Italian, where I'm less strong. Although that can be treacherous, too: "Topo" in Spanish means mole; in Italian, rat. That nearly tripped me up once (fortunately the bilingual author was checking that one). I loved a sentence I saw in a book translated from the French that mentioned "the genial Rodolphe Töpffer," which baffled me (how would they know? who cares?) until I realized that the original must have been "genial," i.e. brilliant. Translation offers you unlimited chances to make an ass of yourself. One great thing about this job is that I get to work with an editor (and a good one); on the Fantagraphics stuff I'm often out there alone. In fact one major reason to take this job was to work with Diana. We plan on rockin' this project.

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