Alexis Siegel

As I’ve read more and more comics from Japan and France, I’ve become fascinated with the translation process. In this week’s column, I talk to Alexis Siegel, who has provided translations for works such as The Rabbi’s Cat (Pantheon) and two of Joann Sfar’s Little Vampire books for Simon & Schuster. He’s currently working with :01 (First Second) Books, having completed translations of Deogratias and Vampire Loves (due this spring), and Klezmer (due this fall). Next spring will see the release of The Professor’s Daughter and The Tiny Tyrant with translations by Siegel.

Thanks to Alexis for his thoughtful comments on the translation process, and to Gina Gagliano of :01 for helping to arrange the interview.

CWN: How many languages do you speak and/or read? What’s your educational background?

AS: I basically speak three languages, French and English as mother tongues and Spanish a distant third that I can speak and work from as a source language but not write very reliably. I’ve also been studying Chinese for a year and a half and once spoke Hebrew after having spent a summer in Israel as a teenager.

I never trained formally in translation – my education was a hodge-podge of many different interests that I cobbled together in zigzagging spells at various American and French universities, studying economics, literature, philosophy and environmental science. Along the way, translation was always something I could do for pocket money, having, like Obelix, fallen into the cauldron as a boy. While I expected some serious vocation to make itself known at some point, I was happy to take on projects like an American botanist’s book on “The Useful Trees of Haiti”, that I translated into French as a student. And I eventually found I could make a living from this work, which I’ve now done in many different contexts – a translation agency, the translation department of an audit firm, at the United Nations, and freelancing from my local café.

CWN: How did you get into translating graphic novels? Are you a fan of the medium?

AS: I grew up in France, where graphic novels have for a long time enjoyed the mainstream acceptance as an art form that has come only recently here. So I always remember reading many different kinds of graphic novels, from the Asterix and Tintin series to Moebius and many other independent artists. Of course, having an older brother (Mark Siegel, now editorial director of 01: First Second) who had been passionately into drawing and reading comics from a very early age meant that I had a steady stream of new things to discover. As I became a more and more avid reader of novels, history and other books, I found that my enjoyment of graphic novels became more vicarious and based on Mark’s recommendations – and I was more of a text person, absorbed by the plot but less attentive to graphic quality than the artist in the bedroom next door. I remember once, after I had zipped through reading one graphic novel, Mark asking me, faintly disgusted, “did you even look at the pictures?”

But when an opportunity to translate graphic novels came up, again through Mark, I was thrilled, not just to have a pleasant diversion from the annual reports and accounting manuals I was translating at an audit firm in Paris, but also to take on the challenge of re-creating lively, humorous and pun-filled dialogue. That was Little Vampire goes to School, which Mark had managed to convince Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers to publish, while he was still working as a designer there. We worked on both Little Vampire books together – I did the initial translation, Mark re-read it and we discussed any changes. Joann Sfar, the author and a good friend of Mark’s, was pleased with our work and asked me to continue with other translations of his prolific production.

CWN: How do you approach a translation? I’d imagine it varies from work to work, but could you give a general sense of the process?

AS: I read the book several times to try to get a feel for the language of each character, and of the narrator if there is one, then I try to put on a different hat as an English-speaking reader who doesn’t have the cultural references contained in the book. I then get a sense of what will be some of the particular challenges in the work: are there jokes, puns, poems or songs that I’ll have to devote particular attention to? Do the characters’ names all work in English, or do I have to find new ones? And many questions of that order, before I start translating – at which time it’s guaranteed that I’ll still run into difficulties that I hadn’t anticipated in reading. The main issue, as I’m translating and in re-reads, is always: does the dialogue work? Does it produce the same effect as in the original, without introducing a different feeling?

For the dialogue, I try speaking it out loud to see if it works – apparently that’s what the French author Flaubert used to do with his prose, except he would shout it out. He called it running his work through hisgueuloir, or screamer, as a test of whether it could stand.

But as much as I try looking at the work from a fresh perspective myself, I still find it useful to have the input of another person who reads through the translation, asks questions, challenges my choices. These days that often turns out to be Mark or another First Second editor, but I also really enjoyed working with Anjali Singh on The Rabbi’s Cat – she would rack her brains to see if there was another way of putting things that could work, coming up with suggestions that were many times useful and sometimes not at all. But in the latter case, I would stand my ground and she’d accept the outcome. I lost count in the to-and-fro, but I think we did at least five versions of the Rabbi’s Cat manuscript, going back and forth!

CWN: I’ve seen manga publishers describe the process of translation as equal parts art and science. Beyond the basics of language, you also have to find a way to translate the author’s particular voice, and find the things that make creators like Sfar and Stassen and others so distinct.

AS: I agree, that’s why it’s hard to train translators – because you need someone who is both an alert and sensitive reader of the medium and a capable writer. Each author’s voice is distinctive, but also multiple, expressed through different characters that each have their way of speaking, their level of language ranging from polished to slangy to very crude. And I find that the bridging of cultural references can be particularly tricky. For example, in The Rabbi’s Cat, Sfar has a scene where one of the characters, an Algerian Jew, performs a street song dressed as an Arab and using a lot of the Arabic words that have made their way into French slang. He borrowed an actual song from an Algerian songwriter who lived in France in the 1930s, and translating it turned out to be quite a task. I found the recording and came up with several different versions of the lyrics to fit the music, knowing from the start that it was an impossible task to capture all the dimensions of that scene, which is informed by France’s conflicted relationship with its former North African colonies.

Or, to take another example (not to draw all of them from the same book), in Sfar’s Vampire Loves, Ferdinand the hapless romantic vampire meets these two cute vampire sisters, who are called Aspirine and Josacine. Now, Aspirine worked fine as a name, but Josacine only worked in French because it’s a brand name for an antibiotic that became famous throughout France following a sordid murder case several years ago where someone had laced a Josacine cough syrup with cyanide. In the English version the older sister became Ritaline – seeing that the name vaguely reminds you of a certain stimulant that helps focus the attention of children, it seemed appropriate for this bombshell of a redhead who has that effect on men.

And to bring up some of the pitfalls involved in this art and science of translating a comic book, you often do need to have fairly extensive cultural references to avoid mistakes. There’s one mistake that comes to mind in an otherwise well translated and beautifully published work that I’m particularly fond of, Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang. At one point the author and narrator describes his weekly trip to the diplomatic mission in Pyongyang, the only shopping place that has a little bit of variety in the hermit country. He says he has an opportunity to buy a gift for his North Korean hosts, and his text bubble in the English version says “clopes or gnôle?” What happened there is that the translator, a native of Quebec where Drawn & Quarterly is based, probably thought those two words were brand names, while in France they’re simply slang for “cigarettes or booze?” Although Delisle is a Quebecker, he’s been in France many years and published his book for a French audience. And there’s even more of a difference in the French slang of Quebec and France than in the English slang of England and the US.

CWN: As I was reading Stassen’s Deogratias (:01 Books), it occurred to me that it must have been especially tricky to translate. Not only are there basic issues of language and capturing the author’s intent, there are wider issues of Rwandan culture that inform the book. Were there any particular challenges to that project?

AS: Deogratias was challenging on three main levels. One was providing enough background information to locate the reader in the story – that, fortunately, was settled by Mark’s decision to have a historical introduction, which, amazingly, he allowed ten pages for; because long footnotes would not have worked, they would have ruptured the continuity of the story. As the book stands, I expect people will read the story, be moved and heartbroken by it and then read the introduction to fill out the picture – and then maybe do some more reading on their own.

The second difficulty was getting US readers to identify with characters, and for that the names of secondary characters needed to be made easier to pronounce than the original French ones would have been, clearing some stumbling blocks – so Apollinaire became Apollinaria, Bénigne Benina and Juvénal Julius.

A third issue came from the fact that the characters mostly speak Kinyarwanda and French is not their main language, and there are scenes where you guess from the context which language is being spoken. Also, at one point the character of Apollinaria welcomes a Belgian priest at the airport with a greeting that shows that her French is not perfect – she says “Bonne arrivée”, “good arrival”, which is not standard French. But that’s the kind of thing that had to be missed out in English, because it would become too complicated.

But besides those obstacles, I felt it was easy to tap into the universal dimension of Stassen’s story. Even as I was translating, I was myself going through the range of turbulent emotions that the story brings out. I finished it in one of the Starbucks cafés where I often work, and as I typed that haunting last line “He was a creature of God”, I found myself wiping away tears, hoping no one was looking in my direction.