Friday, February 8, 2013

A Petition for Translation

And now to draw your attention to a worthy initiative I’ve become peripherally involved in (occasionally lending my services as a translator): a Facebook-based fan petition, founded and spearheaded by J. Antonio Fraga, to have the works of genius cartoonist Moebius translated into English. Moebius, who passed away last year, needs no introduction: his visionary works redefined the landscape of multiple genres, most notably science fiction, beyond the comics medium and across film, animation, and design. What Moebius there is in English is really just the tip of the iceberg, and being largely out of print, isn’t accessible to readers anyway. It’s time he was introduced to a new generation in a manner befitting him.

Madame Isabelle Giraud currently manages her late husband’s estate, and the petition is addressed to her as rightsholder. I still can’t get over Moebius’ last words, none better for a SF giant; on his deathbed, he reportedly said to her, "I can feel myself transmuting... give me the repair codes!"

Since numerous reprints of Moebius’ work have appeared in other languages and territories, the question is: why not English? Are offers being made, or turned down? Are English-language rights being specifically withheld? Kim Thompson’s speculations on the issue, informed by years in the editorial trenches of this relatively incestuous medium, made some waves when first aired in a comments thread at The Comics Journal.
“If I had to guess — and in the absence of no solid facts whatsoever, what with Mme. Giraud’s Sphinx-like demeanor on the subject — my conjecture would be that she feels Moebius was such a titan in the field that eventually some major English-language publisher is going to wake up and offer a ton of money for all of Moebius (say, mid six figures) — as Marvel did to whatever degree once, but this time on steroids — and piddling away the rights to individual volumes at a time on small publishers who’ll want to license just a couple of books and pay a few bucks (at the low end of five figures, say) here and there is a waste of her time, an insult to Moebius, and a threat to the eventual grand bargain that could be struck for the works with some Random House-scaled publisher someday. (In a way, the tabula rase lack of Moebius books in print in English is an opportunity.) So until that day, “No” is the easy, fall-back answer.
My other main area of interest as a translator is the fantastic, and there I recall a similar case keeping English readers from a worthy body of work. For years, the œuvre of Belgian master Jean Ray has been unavailable to a general reading public. Appearances have been restricted to the rare anthology piece and expensive volumes from exclusive small presses of soon-exhausted print runs (whereupon the expensive, in the hands of used book dealers, becomes priceless). To put it crudely, Jean Ray was like Poe and Lovecraft combined; he singlehandedly defined the Francophone fantastic in the first half of the twentieth century, bringing the early explorations of the Decadents into the energetic era of the pulps. The author of several acknowledged masterpieces, countless landmark short stories, and reams of lesser adventures of eminent historical interest to the genre, he is a towering figure whose potential impact on the English world is just beginning to be felt fifty years after the fact. A coterie of English readers clamors for more translations, but the agent for his estate turns down every offer as too low, driven by an estimate of his work that is no more unfounded than it is unrealistic.

Once again, the politics of English’s clout on a world stage are in play here. To the complications of translation into any language—negotiations of syntax, vocabulary, cultural history and context—are added issues of authority and disseminative power. Translators working into English must contend with that fact. Languages, like beliefs, draw their power from the number and power of their users. English derives dynamism from the sheer quality and volume of its users’ contributions; testing a language’s malleability makes it grow. As the gateway language, English polices the parameters of the known world—by that, I mean the most immediately visible and transmissible world. I’m often embarrassed by how eagerly authors I’ve translated greet me, a gratitude that seems disproportionate to my services. And I am ashamed, not only for how little I’ve done to deserve their thanks, but for how outsized the hope is that English, the gateway language, commands. French publishers marketing books at international rights fairs have sample chapters translated into English, knowing that Korean and Greek editors alike will be able to evaluate them on that basis. Translation into English not only confers prestige, for English is currently the language of the arbiters of culture, but also carries with it broadcast breadth and reach. In that sense it constitutes a fundamentally different media channel from most other languages.

The fan-founded petition, which has garnered some famous supporters and gotten some friendly buzz, raises another topic of interest in this day and age when print publishers struggle to harness the power of all things digital and explore alternative business models. Comics make a great case study, having at once one foot firmly in the world of book-as-object, and yet taking advantage of the net’s ability to form and maintain fan communities. A few years ago Comix Influx tried to migrate fansubs, long a staple of manga and anime, to the Eurocomics sphere, careful to sidestep copyright infringement by posting only the translated text, which they rightly pointed out was useless without owning the actual graphic novel to read along with. Although down right now, founder Stephen Betts has promised Influx will come back. This kind of organized fan activity seemed poised to prove to US publishers that there was indeed a fan base ready and waiting for Eurocomics, disproving their usual arguments for not bringing over more work in translation (the cost of creating a readership, etc). But fans and publishers weren’t connecting. I’ll be interested to see what impact the Moebius petition has over the long run.

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