Natacha Ruck has several personas. To some, she is a writer of funny and darkly wonderful stories, to others, she is a radio voice. We recently learned that she has another life altogether, another passion that involves long hours and careful creative work—comics translation. We cornered her, and she spilled the details…
Let’s start off easy. Where were you born?
I was born in the north of France. An area actually called North which makes it very inconvenient when people ask me “Where were you born?”
Perfect linguistically challenging beginnings. How did you learn English?
I’m constantly learning English. But I think I have an unusual level of proficiency for someone who wasn’t born with mixed parents, a French father and an English mother, for instance. My first infatuation with the English language I owe to Oscar Wilde and Stephen King. Oscar Wilde, because I just adored his wit. Stephen King because I had to keep reading even though I couldn’t quite understand everything on the page. I had to know if the characters would survive.
What were the first comics you remember reading and liking?
I suspect French children are truly born with comics in their hands. In France they are called bandes dessinées, beautiful hard covers that cover very very different subjects. The first ones I read as a child were in Pif Gadget, a nice magazine with some strips offering a covert communist message…When I got a little older, probably Iznogoud, Lucky Luke, and the Marsupilami were my favorites.
If you read comics in both languages when you were younger, what did you feel were the most noticeable differences in style or theme, if any, between the two cultures?
I read manga as a teenager, before I saw any Anglo work. But then I discovered the work of Alan Moore. V for Vendetta. The Watchmen. I found them in a very small public library in a small harbor town where I was going to college. They were translated in French in nice hardcover and I was blown away! I discovered the Sandman series in Sweden. This was darker, more sophisticated, more meta, than anything French I’d read. I mean I’d read a lot of Loustal/ Paringaux, a lot of Bourgeon, Schuitten/Peters and Bilal, which had plenty of darkness and complicated worlds–
but there was something more methodical and more mythical with these Anglos in America. They were really trying to build a new mythology. Or, if I am more cynical, perhaps a franchise…
I don’t think I read any guys in tights until I discovered Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison etc. But I do think that a lot of American stories are considered more in terms of creating a universe, while a lot of French stories are more about the characters.
Do you feel those differences in comics culture are still present today?
In America, comics are sometimes perceived as being for kids and geeks. In France, this is really a popular art form. Certain titles have the same widespread blockbuster distribution as a book by Stephen King. Also, in France we have many more genres of graphic novels; we have Western graphic novels, ancient Egypt graphic novels, futuristic stories. There’s a lot of sexual graphic novels, too, some of them incredibly beautiful and philosophical.
What first drew you to work in the translation of comics?
A friend of mine, Justin Kelly. He was Australian and he was translating graphic novels for Humanoids. I was like, “You can get paid to do that?”
Could you describe your process from receiving an assignment, to approaching the task?
I don’t usually get the script anymore. I used to, but these days the publisher sends me the French edition of the book that is slated for American publication. Mostly it’s PDFs. I read the graphic novel once, and then I set out to work. I work standing up, at my computer, with voice recognition software.
I say things like “1.1.1 next line balloon next line.
Die, zombie, die.”
Once I finish the first draft, I reread it for style, character voice, and continuity. Then I hand it to my partner Ken Grobe. He turns it into the best version of American it can be. And then he hands back to me, and I check to see if anything has been lost in translation.
Do you translate in one direction?
I go both ways! I mean, I translate from French to English, and English to French. Usually people are more comfortable translating into their mother tongue. But I actually really, really love translating from French to English.
What is the most difficult aspect of translation for you, personally?
The first page is always the hardest. Usually the first page takes me two hours and then, after a while, I get into a flow and rhythm with the language.
How do you tackle the translation of humor between the two cultures?
You can’t be literal with translations, but you really can’t be literal with humor. Especially since the two cultures don’t necessarily find the same things funny.
Nakedness and shit are much funnier in French.
In order to be funny, you really have to find situations that make sense and words that sound like something someone would say. Of course, the worst is when a writer likes to make puns. To my great despair, Jerry Frissen, the author of The Zombies That Ate the World, is really great at puns.
What gets lost in translation?
Sometimes things get lost in translation, sometimes they get found. I try to stay away from both. I guess what is most difficult is when it comes to politics.
The French are obsessed with class warfare. The Americans are in denial about it. I’ve translated the phrase “bourgeois pig” so many different ways…
You really have to give it a meaning that makes sense in the contexts for the characters…
What is your philosophy concerning linguistic style in translation?
I try to match the style of the original language.
Manara has flowing philosophical sentences, Frissen is pithy and hip, Jodorowsky is incantatory, Dupuy creates a sort of poetry of dailiness.
I just try to absorb it, and, as I am uttering the words into the headset of my voice recognition software, recreate it.
What do you do when there is an untranslatable word, phrase, or idea?
How do you vary language according to character “voice”? Do you translate dialect?
For that, I really rely on my partner, Ken. I write descriptions like
“This giraffe really talks in a very slutty way. She has a Parisian suburb accent which in France would be associated with being “urban…””
What translated work are you most proud of?
Celestial Bibendum, by Nicolas de Crecy. That was so incredibly hard. So proud of how it came out…
What is the funniest translation error, in comics or life, that you’ve made?
I do a lot of interpreter work, for filmmakers at the Toronto Film Festival, or the San Francisco Film Festival, and one of my favorite moments was when Jean Pierre Jeunet, the director of the movie Amelie, explained to a journalist that an actor had been offered the role but had decided not to take it. “He passed on,” Jean Pierre said. I had to step in and reassure the journalist that the actor had not died. Just passed on the project.
What comics do you currently read for pleasure?
What non-graphic literature is on your bookshelf at this moment?
Alice Munro’s Dear Life and Kevin Todhunter’s A Meal Observed.
What is the future of comics translation?
What I’m really excited about are works that combine audio recordings, and very light, simple, bare-bones cartoon animation. Arte Radio has incredible pieces. It is a sort of visual translation of documentary sound. Very exciting.
Natacha Ruck is a storyteller and a storymonger. She tells stories in print, radio, and video, and helps others carry their stories that little extra step. Her stories can be heard on State of the Human, the radio show of the Stanford Storytelling Project and her translations include works by Jodorowsky, Frissen, Manara, Thirault, Chaland, Dupuis, and Nicolas de Crecy. Find out more about her at natacharuck.com
The Celestial Bibendum
The Zombies that Ate the World
The Alliance of the Curious