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Archive: December 2005

beauty and faithfulness

Ooh, it’s another quick note on translation and comics! There’s a great preview of Hope Larson’s upcoming graphic novel Gray Horses at the Oni website, if you’re willing to click the images to get a good look. Young, French Noémie arrives in the pseudo-Chicago Onion City (with an appropriately Rutabaga Stories name, even) and considers her new environment as she moves through it.

Her thoughts are presented in French with an English translation, not something I think I’ve seen represented like this before. I love the organic flow of the words, more frames than subtitles as they snake in pairs around the images. I’m interested to see how this works through the rest of the book (though I’d be interested anyway) because I can read both languages and do feel myself reading more consciously because both are there. I can’t pay attention to just one because there’s an interplay between the two, nuances on each side.

As a personal aside, I don’t think I can still speak French, come up with sentences on my own, but I can read it pretty fluently and I don’t exactly translate as I read, just understand. I remember asking my Greek professor during the semester I was taking Latin, Greek and French (and one day a week all three back-to-back, which left me unable to understand any language by the end of the last class) whether if I kept with the classical languages I’d ever be able to lie in the bathtub and just read the way I did with my French, and he doubted it. But I also do (I should probably use a past tense verb here, actually) better with Greek and Latin if I read the sentences aloud or at least subvocalized them before translating, which doesn’t seem as necessary with French. The other languages I’ve studied have been with a focus on speaking rather than reading, and I never had any true fluency there.

But back to Gray Horses, it’s fascinating that Larson has moved from the dialogue-free and nearly wordless Salamander Dream to what seems from the previews to be a less-than-wordy book but where what language it has is doubled. I’m interested to find out what the reading experience is like for those who don’t read French (Steven, a hint!) because they, too, will have an awareness that what they’re getting is translation but a different one, one where the “original” is inaccessible. I feel this way when reading manga, but my eyes gloss over the holdover Japanese letters in sound effects and so on. I’m not sure if it’s as easy when there are familiar or seemingly familiar words and letters as in this story.

But basically this post is just a beginning, a placeholder. Someday I’ll hunt down the author at a convention and ask what language came first (if any) and how the words grew out of that, but for now I get to wait to read what I’m even more convinced is going to be a fascinating book.

“Anything I say can be held against me.”

Today I was thinking about a conference I attended as an undergrad, Performing Aristophanes. I really miss going to conferences and lectures and talking to visiting professors, but that’s not really the point. What I was thinking about was how difficult it is to translate humor. How can I make a joke that was relevant nearly 2500 years ago funny now while still leaving it in some way intact? What’s cultural-specific and what’s universal? This is something I think about a lot when reading manga, and I wish more manga translators/adapters kept blogs themselves, because I’d love to hear about the process.

I have a few examples, though I’m not going to be a good enough blogger to look up the page numbers or anything like that. In the first volume of Genshiken, the club welcomes a new otaku member with the chant, “One of us, one of us, one of us.” Is this because there’s a big Japanese market for Freaks or was there something else there originally? Since Japanese isn’t even on my list of languages to learn, I don’t think I’ll be finding out. Then there was, I think, the first volume of .hack//Legend of the Twilight, in which the main character, Shugo, was told he wasn’t even qualified to be an “assistant pig-keeper” in the online roleplaying game he was entering. Is this a Japanese Lloyd Alexander shout out or is the translator remembering his (the Tokyopop site doesn’t list any names, but I remember blaming Jake Forbes, perhaps unfairly) own childhood favorites?

There’s more than this, though. When the character called Osaka, after the town where she most recently lived, talks like she should be on The Sopranos in Azumanga Daioh, is this to denote class and ethnicity or could it be any funny accent? When the Chinese student in Negima uses pidgin English (presumably originally Japanese) I do feel kind of awkward about it because I can’t evaluate the extent to which she’s playing on ugly stereotypes. (And in that case I’m tending to believe that’s what’s going on, given that apparently Ken Akamatsu’s more famous book, Love Hina, features some sort of fictionalized Polynesian girl who is also a sort of ingenue/airhead figure.)

So how do you translate culture and context and depth? I was left wondering about this when we saw Syriana last weekend. I didn’t find the plot confusing, but was fascinated by some of the language choices. As far as I can tell, the considerable foreign language portions were under-translated (Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, French that I recall), perhaps because American audiences can’t keep up with long subtitles. You can tell that when a long string of text doesn’t lead to correspondingly long translations, something may be up, but I noticed something even more striking. At one point as Wasim, a young Pakistani man who has been working as a day laborer in the fictitious Persian Gulf state where much of the action takes place, is being pulled on a radical Islamic path in the madrasa he attends, the man instructing him and his friends goes on a tirade about how, basically, globalization is not solving the problems of modern life. I’m trying to phrase this so that I’m not paraphrasing the Islamist slogan “Islam is the answer,” but I do think that’s left implicit in the teacher’s repetition of “Qur’an” as a counterpoint to everything that isn’t making the students’ lives easier. And then he says something that is rendered as (more or less, because I know I don’t remember the predicate of the sentence, though I do know the subject), “The Christian world doesn’t help you.” But he didn’t say “the Christian world,” or at least didn’t exactly say it. He said “al-Harb,” meaning “Dar al-Harb, the house of war. He’s saying in much stronger terms than just breaking the world into Muslim and Christian spheres of influence that there’s a war going on and there are sides to be chosen, that the dichotomy is real and comprehensible. It was strong enough that it grabbed me in the theater and I elbowed Steven and told him to bother me later for details, but I wonder whether the language was strong enough for other viewers who didn’t know even enough Arabic to notice this. Obviously they still knew that Wasim was being wooed into a system where he was still a pawn, but well-fed and literate, Arabic-speaking. They understood that this was a lecture about the state of the world and the imperative the teacher felt for his brand of Islam, but is it only because they knew what kind of movie this was and because of the America we live in that they could tell what brand that was, know that there was a war on?

I don’t know how to answer questions like that. You can call this a hypertext movie, but in hypertext there are more links, you can keep another tab in your browser open to google what you don’t understand. It doesn’t really work like that if what you don’t understand is in Farsi, because where do you start? How do you know?

Maybe Syriana is more interesting to people like me who already ask questions like that, who appreciate the necessity of incompleteness in communication. Certainly it may resonate better with others like me who will recognize that its corporatespeak is awfully close to the real thing, or those who pick up on more religious references than I do, or people who know more about the flow of oil and LNG. For me, though, it worked as a movie and as a parable of sorts about corruption and complicity. I was able to tell the characters apart even though they were virtually all men (an ongoing problem) and I think the complexity of the plot was overrated by a lot of the critics I read. However, as I’ve commented, the complexity in the story was perhaps more than I can know.

“You have bewitched me, body and soul.”

(I suppose I’m back and I’d like to stay this way, though such an absence felt surprisingly good. I’m quite sick, too, so weirdness will probably be a result of that more than anything else. I have tons more knitting to post and other things I’ve been thinking about, but perhaps we should finally take ourselves off the Comic Weblog Update Page.)

Steven and I watched Pride & Prejudice a few weeks ago now, I suppose, although I’d watched it on my own a week before that and I finished rereading the book this weekend. I’d read it first when I was 10 or so and it seemed so alien, less because of the social machinations than the love, I suspect. I may not understand what love feels like now, but certainly didn’t then when I expected I’d grow up to be a writer who lived alone with cats and perhaps foster children. The joke’s on me, I suppose, since everyone who’s dropped by here has seen how much writing I do, though at least there is now a cat.

At any rate, before seeing the movie or embarking on the novel again, I’d read Rachel Hartman’s lovely posts about the place of Romanticism and her detailed thoughts post-viewing. I haven’t seen any of the other Pride and Prejudice adaptations and don’t imagine I will. (The much-beloved Colin Firth seemed like such a square-headed, lumpy creep in Love Actually and made no impression in the dreadful recent The Importance of Being Earnest, the only two times I’ve ever seen him.) Oh, and I have to add that the North American ending wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t dialogue, but there decidedly is. Ack.

Where I’m going with this is that in Rachel’s second post she complained about some of the goofy, sappy choices in the movie, particularly when Lizzy and Darcy are dancing and all of a sudden ooooh, they’re the only couple in the room. And when you put it like that, yes, gag, but I was going to argue it’s something I’d accept in shôjo manga and that’s why I allowed it here. It’s been a progress for me, first allowing superheroes to work as metaphors for mundane life, then learning to see the angry scowls in Nana as perfectly normal and understandable, finally ending up not minding in my movie romances when the scene ends as the heroine blows out her candle. And while there’s probably something to the argument that Pride & Prejudice is a Bollywood film, I think I’d have been on equally strong ground explaining that it’s got shôjo elements, moments when emotions get so strong they skew reality. But then I remember that before I called that shôjo I called it focalization.

Rachel touches on this, too, that in the book (and, apparently, prior conversions to film) when Lizzy meets Darcy again after having rejected his unexpected offer of marriage (in part because she’d found him insufferably self-absorbed and antisocial) only to find him a changed man, open, generous, shy. It seems that many readers want this moment, want to see that love has changed Darcy, and that’s not quite there in this current version. While I wouldn’t say that’s not the case in the novel, what’s more apparent to me is that love has changed Lizzy and that she’s the focalized(/focalizing) character. While it’s not a first-person book, much of what we see is swayed by her eyes, which is part of the reason her father is a fuller character even though her mother gets more “airtime.” While the movie uses an even more distant third-person setup, I think the effect is the same. We get to see one of Lizzy’s dreams, including the reddish look of light from within her closed eyes, but less literal is the way the world melts away when she and Darcy dance or becomes an unchanging cage when she has rejected his love. If I were still 10, this might bother me because I’d doubt love was like that. I do doubt that a bit, I guess, but I think life is like that, with moments of excitement or pain we capture and turn into metaphors, and I thought the movie handled it beautifully.

And after all that is it still important to note that I covet Lizzy’s coats? I like Keira Knightley to begin with and I did believe her as Lizzy, giggles and raised eyebrows and lewd stares at nude statues’ privy parts and all. And while I don’t look the least bit like her and probably couldn’t pull it off, I keep hoping this is going to jump-start some sort of fashion trend and those boots and coats will be readily available (and maybe not too popular so they’ll end up on clearance and I can buy them myself). Then you could draw me with tiny dot eyes and a huge, huge smile.