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TRANSLATING COMICS: THE ALAN MOORE ENIGMA

July 13, 2017

Join our guest writer, Leonardo Rizzi, as he recounts his times translating the legendary Alan Moore.

 

Translating comics is bewilderingly complex. Then again, the medium’s relationship with its readers is only deceptively simple, with comics having their effect in gradual steps. First, there is the impact the single pictures have on the reader, with their style and graphic vividness. After that, the simple act of putting pictures in some sort of order and forming a sequence is the source of this medium’s magic.

 

Such is the power of arranging pictures in sequence. The most accomplished creators manage to guide the readers, letting their imagination fill the ‘gutter’ between the panels. With the constant task of filling in gaps, reading comics is an exercise in insight. The relationship this medium has with its audience is intricate, as it subtly beguiles readers to invest their intellects and emotions in a very active, two-way process.

 

In comics, the written word is not the primary source of communication. Pictures and sequences convey the most basic storytelling and can powerfully evoke meaning. Creators use words to dig deep in what is shown visually, elaborating on everything that cannot be drawn, such as paradoxes, lies and the most abstract concepts.

V for Vendetta Copyright ©2009, 2013 DC Comics.

 

This necessary and yet surely already tedious preamble finally brings us to what translating comics entails. As crafts go, translation is always very inadequate, and yet hopefully revealing and often necessary. It is not limited to the act of carrying words from one language to another, as our own experience can prove: all our attempts at writing a meaningful email using Google Translate are met, at best, with puzzlement, sniggers or embarrassment. What a decent translation does in a way that Google Translate simply cannot, is ferrying a whole sets of concepts across two languages that can be very different in terms of worldview, values, basic philosophies, sounds and the very notion of what is considered beautiful.

 

A good analogy would be considering translators as conjuring artists, trying to bewitch vast audiences while doing their best not to get caught using their tricks. Every time some awkward legerdemain or botched prestidigitation is spotted by the audience, any suspension of disbelief is immediately lost. And with that, gone is the playfulness, the sense of entertainment, the enchantment the original text could have. As a result, a good translator always has to take the hardest path: replicating the original writers’ storytelling strategy, being faithful to their intentions more than to their words. The translators’ ultimate goal is convincing their audiences, at least for a few fleeting moments, that the text was originally written in their own language.

Providence and all related properties TM & ©2015 Alan Moore.

 

In order to do that, translators are constantly forced to sacrifice some subtle fragment of the text, the priority always being understanding what kind of effect the original writer wanted to generate and creating something that might have a comparable effect. Another analogy sees a translation project as the literary equivalent of playing a football match with the strongest team of the championship: most of the time, the translator will just try not to cut too sorry a figure.

 

Well, cutting not too sorry a figure is often the main problem when translating comics created by a bold writer, where the text is dominating. The weirdest things can happen. Since most of the indispensable information is conveyed through pictures, the most capable and experimental writers will let their imagination run wild in their prose, creating made-up languages and the most extreme stylizations.

 

Touching briefly a few meaningful challenges I met during the last two decades, spent translating comics between other things, it’s hard not discuss one of the most brilliant writers ever bestowing his multiform intelligence on this medium – unsurprisingly a very hard nut to crack for his translators. This ingenious innovator is Alan Moore, who often imbues his stories with a fractal, sinuous complexity that is rarely seen. In his work, he pushed the comic medium towards unsuspected possibilities, writing modern classics like V for Vendetta, Watchmen and From Hell. Over the years spent at the translator’s desk, I was lucky enough to work on most of his literary works and graphic novels, exploring his voice and learning his most daring storytelling techniques. Having a look at two of his works might then prove interesting.

V for Vendetta Copyright ©2009, 2013 DC Comics.

 

Graced by David Lloyd’s sombre and sophisticated art and masterful storytelling, V for Vendetta is a dystopian graphic novel deeply influenced by George Orwell’s work. It’s set in a futuristic and neo-fascist Britain, where a vigilante hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask, the eponymous “V”, sows the seeds of revolution with theatrical panache and flamboyance. Not considering the sheer power of the story’s premise or daring storytelling techniques, one of the biggest pleasures in reading V for the Vendetta is Moore’s skill in shaping the English language. Meaning that those three hundred pages are littered with translation headaches.

V for Vendetta Copyright ©2009, 2013 DC Comics.

 

The hardest problem was definitely taking the whole load of British language and culture peppered on the novel - filled as it is with assonances, references subtly watermarked and almost invisible, jokes and puns and nursery rhymes normally learnt at kindergarten - and somehow turning it all into my native Italian, making all those references clearly understandable even for my least exotically-inclined fellow countrymen, and yet retaining the novel’s Britishness in order not to lose its authenticity. Questions abounded: how do you translate a popular drinking song linked to the novel both in theme and narrative, when Italian drinking songs are few and far between, and are generally related to what the Alpine Army Corps were singing between battles in World War 1? And how do you convey the rhyming acrobatics of a cabaret song filled with blatantly fascist and overly sexual innuendos? And let’s not get started with the notion that the title of every single chapter in the book starts with the letter “V”, a symbol obsessively running through the graphic novel and echoing Thomas Pynchon.

V for Vendetta Copyright ©2009, 2013 DC Comics.

 

One of my hardest tribulations was translating This Vicious Cabaret, a song serving as prologue to the second part of the novel, a smart way to summarise what went on before in an artistically satisfying manner. This song doesn’t simply provide rhyming lyrics that, let’s be honest, can be translated taking a few liberties, while being considerate to the writer’s ideas. To the horror of all translators worldwide, this song is printed at the bottom of a musical store, note after note, lyric after lyric. A few international editions solved the problem with refreshing casualness: they simply decided to skip it, and add a literal translation at the end of the song’s score. However, this solution widens the gap between the source text and the target text and no reader can take any emotional or intellectual pleasure out of the writer’s idea. Alas, the only feasible solution was finding a translation that could preserve the original text’s meaning, rhyming pattern, assonances and exact verse structure. Readers are now welcome to take some pleasure in trying to guess how many days it took this writer to translate just six pages.

 

Another interesting challenge was finding the right language for the story’s protagonist, V. His speech is initially pretty naturalistic, but over the pages it starts speaking in non-rhyming iambic verses, revealing his romantic anarchic nature, the soul of an entertainer of destruction. Such a powerful characterization needed an Italian equivalent. Let’s the cat out of the bag: the metrical scansion is not exactly Moore’s, but I believe the emotional feeling of V’s speech has a similar effect on the reader. His slow, constant lapping of words, both in his monologues and dialogues, hopefully becomes prophetic, revealing and mesmerising.

Providence and all related properties TM & ©2015 Alan Moore.

 

Another of Moore’s major works is the recent Providence, a graphic novel based on the opus of H.P. Lovecraft. For the unlucky ones still needing to familiarise themselves with him, Lovecraft was the early 20th century American writer who revolutionised horror literature by turning it into an exercise in metaphysics, putting Man in all his misery in front of unknowable horrors, too vast to fully comprehend. Lovecraft saw his work published on cheap pulp magazines hardly making any literary claim, but the way his ideas infected generations of readers shouldn’t be underestimated. In his latest graphic novel, Moore is interested in Lovecraft’s memes, in the way he seemed to weave a whole fictitious mythology in our reality.

 

Writing Providence, Moore concocted a sublime hoax. He took dozens of Lovecraft stories and put them together in one dreadful mosaic, embedding them in our real world and creating a unique literary universe, in which the readers can get lost at will, to their own horrific enlightenment. Thus, it is evident how crucial it was to convey Lovecraft’s text in a consistent Italian translation, using all the versions that made the Providence writer known in Italian. Not an easy task: his opus had countless translators over the decades, creating numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies. While translating Providence, my priority was reconstituting Lovecraft’s literary universe as one consistent whole.

Providence and all related properties TM & ©2015 Alan Moore.

 

A problem of a different nature was the diverse cultural or geographical background of the novel’s characters. Lovecraft rooted his characters in the most remote corners of New England or Neo-colonial America, trying to make his horror seem commonplace, casually hidden in plain view behind some corner of our world. In Providence, Moore pushed this idea further, featuring incredibly diversified characters speaking with the most outlandish inflections: the refined American English of the late 1910s, the equally refined but slightly awkward language of a Spanish expat doctor, the stammering dialogue of a Latino landlady, the language filled with regionalisms spoken by Irish immigrants, the code used by New York’s closeted gay population in early 20th century, the 19th century dialect developed in the more inland regions of the Eastern territories of the US, the even more ancient jargon of the 18th century sea captains, and more and more, getting to the speech of unconceivable monstrosities borrowing our language to convey alien concepts. As every reader can now imagine after this endless list, it was extremely important using a different language for every character – and yet, losing their geographical connotations was necessary. After all, what is the difference between an Irishman and an Englishman and an American when their words are translated in Italian? However, what is lost in geographical terms can be somehow regained; it can come out with the characters’ sense of culture, class, and personal warmth.

Providence and all related properties TM & ©2015 Alan Moore.

 

In this veritable sea of words translated from language to language, what is really Alan Moore’s work and what is not? It is time for a confession: many of Moore’s subtly specific references cannot be carried to any other language, barricaded forever behind the idiosyncrasies of British culture. And yet, if a translator is really trying to pull his conjuring trick – an idea that Moore might like – a whole new literary reality can be created: a veil of illusion in another language, able to let readers feel the diversity and the deep truth of these characters. The overall effect on the reader should always, always be the same Holy Grail: convincing the readers that everything that it’s been said, is nothing less than true. And by doing so, binding them, charming them. Conjuring a spell in every language, the one great form of communication in this apparently divided world.

 

Leonardo Rizzi, Master Wordsmith

© Gareth Munden

 

Leonardo has been translating comics for most of his life, wrecking his brain on some of the most influential writers in the medium, including Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Chris Ware, Los Bros Hernandez, and many more. Feeling that his life was somewhat empty without more stories and narratives, he’s been writing for the theatre and TV in more languages than it’s safe to admit, winning the Ugo Betti playwright Award. He also works as a story editor and script consultant for Eurimages, NBCUniversal, BAFTA Rocliffe, Script Factory and Apulia Film Commission and has been involved in lectures and seminars intended for experienced writers, directors and script editors as well as for emerging writers.

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