5 Questions on Translating a Graphic Novel

My piece about author-illustrator Magdy El Shafee, his graphic novel Metro, (and its English-language edition) has now run in the print edition of the Egypt Independent / International Herald Tribune. IsA it will be coming soon to the online edition. Meantime, the full Q&A with translator Chip Rossetti that informed the piece:

ArabLit: Was there anything that felt different about translating a graphic novel vs. translating novels or novellas?

Chip Rossetti: In some ways, it felt as though the stakes were even higher when translating a graphic novel rather than a novel or short story. Because of the visual element, there is a narrative immediacy to graphic novels — and particularly Metro, with its kinetic, intense style — that doesn’t leave a lot of room for translationese. I think readers also bring to a graphic novel the expectation that it will reflect a conversational, naturalistic style more than a novel would. Fortunately, I had an editor who was adept at flagging my clunky translations!

With a graphic novel, there is also the production issue of switching the direction of the layout between the Arabic original and the English translation. Unlike novels, graphic novels come with a pre-set layout, so there are length requirements you have to stick to — you can’t turn that five-word thought bubble into a full paragraph!

AL: You said that translating 3ameya was a pain (or maybe you used a different word). Because of the shift from translating fos7a or for other reasons?

CR: I don’t recall saying anything like that, but with a graphic novel, where most of the narrative takes place in conversations (rather than description) the ratio of ‘ammeya to fusha is much higher than it usually is in other fiction. For me, at any rate, there is still something counterintuitive about seeing that much ‘ammeya on the page.

AL: As you read, re-read, revised the book, did you discover things — either visually or textually — that you hadn’t noticed on a first read?

CR: There are always things that I discover on a second re-read or re-edit — a play on words, for example, or a reference to a pop song that I wasn’t familiar with. In the case of Metro, there was a technical issue as well, partly owing to the book’s stunted printing history in Arabic. For the longest time, I was working from a hard copy of a copy which the publisher and Magdy’s agent had sent me. There may have been only one printed copy between their offices and I wasn’t able to view it, unfortunately. It wasn’t until near the end of translating it that I saw PDFs of Magdy’s own files. It was like having cataract surgery: blurry, indistinct words were suddenly clear, and black clouds on the page were revealed to be gray background with words on it. Entire lines of dialogue came to light!

On a more general level, I was fortunate in being able to turn to an Egyptian-American colleague for advice. Among other things, she filled me in on pop references I wasn’t getting, such as a comedian’s catchphrase from a television program a few years ago. That catchphrase shows up in the protest scene, and I never would have caught the reference without her help. Ultimately, there turned out to be no way to translate that phrase into English that would make any sense in that context.

AL: The reasons you would buy this book for an Egyptian friend are obvious. What sort of U.S. reader would you gift this to? What do you think is particularly special about this book for a non-Arab reader?

CR: When I was living in Egypt, it was often difficult to convey to my American friends the sense of frustration that many Egyptians felt about their government and “the system” in general. Metro certainly encapsulates that sense of frustration, of a stacked deck. So I can see myself giving Metro as a gift to two kinds of U.S. readers: the first would be a sophisticated literary reader that is looking for a better understanding of contemporary Egyptian society, and of the anger that led up to the events of the past year-and-a-half. The other kind of reader would be the legions of devoted graphic novel- and comics-fans in the US who are not familiar with Arab comics-writers like Magdy El Shafee and others. I’ve only started to familiarize myself with the burgeoning comics scene in the Arab world, and I hope Metro can be a “gateway drug” to interest readers in some of those other voices.

AL: How was working with Metropolitan different from working with BQFP or AUC Press?

CR: I was fortunate to have an excellent editor, Riva Hocherman, at Metropolitan. The only difference in working with Metropolitan as opposed to, say, BQFP or AUC Press, is that I was aware that a book like this was unfamiliar territory for the publisher.