The Art of Translating Comics: A Conversation with Hannah Chute




FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS, Hannah Chute has been translating graphic novels from French into English, including Espé’s The Parakeet (2021), a deeply personal story of the artist’s mother’s illness; Pablo Fajardo’s Crude: A Battle Against Big Oil (2021), an account of the author’s fight against Texaco and Chevron in the Amazon rainforest; and Fabien Toulmé’s Hakim’s Odyssey (2021), which follows a refugee who escapes Syria to settle in France. 

By her own admission, Chute’s path to translation was a bit unusual. After studying French when she was young, she decided to pursue translation at the University of Rochester. One of her first efforts was the very difficult novel Island of Point Nemo by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès, which has been described as a Jules Verne adventure structured like a Murakami novel. Needless to say, such a text presented significant challenges. The translation of comics and graphic novels involves its own challenges and constraints, demanding succinctness and an almost musical attention to tone. 

I recently spoke with Chute about her work as a translator and the specific challenges involved in translating comics.

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ALEX DUEBEN: How did you become a translator?

HANNAH CHUTE: My story is a little bit unusual. I was 16 and applying to college, and I wanted to go to Rochester for a variety of reasons. I was digging around on their website, trying to talk myself further into the school. I had been very interested in languages, having taken French for a long time and really loved it. I had a knack for it. I was also just a book nerd my entire life. On Rochester’s website, I found their literary translation department. They have an undergrad certificate program and a master’s program, so I did the certificate and decided to stay on for the advanced degree. I knew that is what I wanted to do.

How does one end up specializing in translating French into English?

Pretty much always you should translate into your native language. Especially literary content. I also do commercial work: I worked at a translation company for about four years. Some commercial work you can do out of your native language, but it’s usually not recommended. It’s always going to sound a little bit off. I took a course in college that included some native French speakers and some native English speakers. We did exercises where all of us would translate from English to French, and then all of us would translate from French to English. We would workshop with each other, and every time that I presented something in French they would say, you’re not making mistakes per se, but they would laugh because it sounded strange.

As far as specialization, you have translated prose, but a lot of your translation work has been in comics.

I fell into it by happenstance. I don’t want to present myself as an expert on the graphic novel as a genre, but I do really enjoy it. I had translated prose. I was working in commercial translation, because that was what made sense as a career. Finding French novels, as someone living in a non-Francophone country, and figuring out rights and putting together samples and trying to find publishers is a lot of work. I had had some success, but it was really not the main focus of my days. I’d done a couple of publishing internships while I was in school, and one of my co-workers from one of those internships ended up working at Graphic Mundi. They suddenly needed a French translator, so she reached out to me because of our connection. They approached me with The Parakeet and Crude. They really liked what I gave them and I enjoyed the work, so it was mutually beneficial, and they’ve continued to send me stuff ever since.

You also translated Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s prose novel Island of Point Nemo (2014), which is a crazy book.

Very crazy. I love that book. That started as my master’s thesis, actually. I recognize that it is not for everyone and that it takes unexpected turns! [Laughs.] I remember reading it and questioning my own French skills. Maybe I don’t speak French. I thought I did, but sometimes what was happening in the book was so strange that I thought I must be misunderstanding things. [Laughs.] I love it. I’ve done a couple of samples from his more recent novels. He really changes things up from book to book, which I think is great, but none of the other books have resonated with me quite as strongly.

There are obvious formal challenges inherent in translating comics. I think of it in terms of poetry, where a lot of translators want to keep the form, meter, and structure in translation. In comics, you have a small word balloon and you have to translate more or less within that limit.

Yes. It was a new kind of challenge. I found that graphic novels were an interesting trade-off compared to doing a prose novel because of the pictures. I mean, if a character says something that could be ambiguous, you could translate it into English eight different ways. The object they’re talking about could be a cupboard or a wardrobe or a bedside table, maybe. But having the graphic on the page can give you a clue of what to use if the meaning is ambiguous in the French. I think that makes the process faster. I spend less time digging through dictionaries and going over various definitions of things because I can see what’s happening on the page.

The character limits definitely present more of a challenge. I think I am blessed because, on average, French sentences are longer than English ones. That isn’t true in every case, of course. I need to have some creativity. For example, maybe a character says “Bonjour. Ça va?” — which in English would be “Hello, how are you?” — and the text bubble is really tight, I’m not going to be able to fit the full English translation there. Instead, I might have to have them say “Hello!” and then I could move “How are you?” to another bubble or panel. I have a hard character limit and I have to respect that, so I try to figure out a way to get the meaning across in some other configuration.

There may be a lot of nuance or cultural specificity that the French conveys in a couple of words, but the average American reader doesn’t get any of that, so do you explain it or do you ignore it?

Another wrinkle with the particular books I’ve been doing, like the Hakim trilogy and Crude, is that there’s another layer of separation. Crude was a series of interviews between a French author [Sophie Tardy-Joubert] and Pablo Fajardo, who’s a native Spanish speaker. I’m not sure if they were speaking French together or Spanish, or maybe they were speaking another language altogether. Then Hakim obviously was speaking Arabic, and there was an interpreter translating his Arabic into French for Fabien Toulmé. And then I’m translating it into English. I almost want to say that that gave me a little bit more freedom. The French is already in those cases a little removed from what the narrator was doing and how they actually speak. What I would say is that the French authors in those cases had already done some of the interpretive work for me and I got to reap the benefits of that while translating into English.

What is the process like? Like most freelancers, I assume you say yes before they finish asking. [Laughs.] But once you agree, what is the process?

I’d say one of the benefits of the graphic novels is that translating them usually takes me about a month. I was working on other things at the time, but it took me about a year to translate Island of Point Nemo. So, this is a different scale. Now this may be a controversial statement in translation circles, but I do not typically read the whole graphic novel before I start translating. In prose translation, I usually do read the whole work before I translate a sample of it. With these graphic novels, though, the translation work goes so quickly. For me, it might only take me three weeks to translate the book once I start, and I don’t feel like I need to delay that by sitting down and reading the whole thing first. I’ll certainly read part of it before I agree to do the project, but I typically do just jump into the translation after that.

I typically do a “trot” draft first, which is the industry term for a rough translation. I’m making sure that I’m getting every speech bubble filled in with something, getting a feel for the book and the voice and the characters. I will try to check character limits as I go, so I don’t end up writing a whole sentence that seems beautiful and perfect and then, when I’m editing later, realize that it has to be completely demolished because it’s too long. So, in this first run through, I’m not paying that much attention to elegance, but I’m trying to get just a rough draft on the page — ideally, a rough draft that I know will fit in the text bubble, something that’s at least semi-workable. Compared to my graphic novel work, I find that, when I do prose, I end up making a lot more edits to my trot. I go a little more carefully on the first draft with graphic novels because I slow down to think about character limits. Then I’ll go back and do usually one or two edit runs, where I’m checking against the French, reading the French and English side by side, and then I’ll do a final run through just reading the English alone and seeing if it actually sounds good to me.

It makes sense that you would go slower. If you write a haiku, for example, you’re pausing to count syllables.

Exactly. You might edit the haiku later, but you put in more thought than if you just dashed off three arbitrary lines.

Why don’t you read the book through initially? Is it just a matter of time?

I think a lot of it is time. A lot of these do need to be done within a month. And at this point, I know that anything that Graphic Mundi sends me is something I’m going to enjoy. When I was doing more exploratory work, sending samples out to publishers, trying to convince them to publish a book, you want to read the whole thing so you can explain what happens and why you should publish this book. But Graphic Mundi has already decided to publish these. They’re already doing it. I don’t need to talk them into it by explaining how the narrative works or what makes this book special or important. Also, with graphic novels, I tend to fly through them so fast. When I’m reading a graphic novel not for translation but for fun, I have to try to make myself slow down a little bit rather than reading it in an hour or two and missing out on the details and nuances in the art.

Do you have a favorite book you’ve translated?

Probably The Parakeet. It really felt like an honor to be translating Espé. It was so visually stunning and so tender and raw. I felt very privileged that he wanted to share his story in such a personal and loving way. His affection for his mother shone through on every page, in every word bubble, in every drawing. It was hard because I wanted to do justice to his work. He did both the art and the text, and it was his own life that he was putting on the page, so it felt very intimate to translate. I also thought it was just a beautiful book.

It sounds like you’ve really enjoyed these books.

Literary translation work is really what I love doing. I know people do make it into a full-time gig for themselves, but not very many honestly. Most people are doing a lot of other things. My work for Graphic Mundi has been a total dream. I get a PDF in my inbox and an email that asks, do you want to do this? And I say, absolutely!

Do you pitch a lot of books?

I have done it. This is actually a funny time to be talking about all my translation accomplishments because I’m going to med school next year. [Laughs.] I’m continuing to do some freelance work for now — and I would definitely do more between now and July if Graphic Mundi has any to send my way. We’ll see if they need me. But starting in July I will be transitioning away from it, at least until I’m done with residency. I like to think that I might translate a graphic novel every couple of years once I’m not working 130 hours a week or whatever it is. [Laughs.]

So, what prompted this turn away from translation? Or this turn toward medicine?

A lot of things. My mom is a doctor and I felt — not from my parents but from a lot of people in my life — that they expected me to follow in her footsteps. That chafed at me. I had all these other things that I was really excited about. My undergrad education was a dual degree at the Eastman School of Music in harp and the University of Rochester in comparative literature and literary translation. I was really good at music. I was really good at languages. I loved books. I felt like I was going to shuck off my family’s expectations and do something totally different.

But over time a lot of my commercial work ended up being medical and pharmaceutical translation. That commercial translation work kind of lit a spark in the back of my head and got me thinking, you really like doing this. It’s interesting and exciting and fulfilling. A lot of the way that I was making my living as a translator involved doing projects that I was not passionate about. I love doing these books, but in order to have this as a career, I was doing a lot of stuff that I did not find particularly interesting. It felt like I was doing it to pay the bills rather than because it called to me as what I wanted to do with my life. I started taking classes a couple of years ago to get organic chemistry and all the other prerequisites under my belt, and I applied this fall.

So, you studied the harp and translated French?

That was my undergrad career. When I started college, I was undecided on whether I wanted to be a musician or a translator. About halfway through, I decided I was going to be a translator. I like playing the harp more for myself than for other people. Playing Pachelbel’s Canon at 30 weddings a year is, well, I could take it or leave it. [Laughs.] I’m a millennial and I feel like I got a lot of the messaging as a kid along the lines of “if you’re passionate about your hobby then you should do it as your career.” It took me time to unlearn that. Because then it can’t really be your hobby anymore. Just because you could make it your career doesn’t mean that it’s actually the career for you. I’ve been seeing more and more pushback against side-hustle culture recently. You can just do things for fun rather than for profit.

Looking back, and especially thinking of 16-year-old you going, I shall be a translator, how much of what you expected is actually what it’s been like?

Good question. I’m trying to think how firm an idea of the day to day I even had as a 16-year-old. I think it was this lofty notion of making books accessible to new audiences. You go and read the great French novels, or the great Russian novels, and you fall in love with a book, and then you find a publisher who’s just as enthusiastic as you are. Which happens. It doesn’t never happen. But that part, the pitching of books, was harder than I thought it would be. My publishing internships helped me to see this. There are publishers who in theory would love to publish the book that you’re pitching, but they have their own constraints that are not necessarily visible to you at that time. I think a lot of publishers really are doing their best, but speaking as a translator, it’s easy to feel like you’re not being heard or valued. A friend of mine, Chad Post, who was a mentor of mine and the publisher of my first book, has a line that he pulls out sometimes. Translators will complain that they’re the lowest paid and least appreciated people in publishing. But he likes to point out that this argument ignores another very important group: authors. [Laughs.] Because a translator will say, I spent a year of my life on this translation and no one appreciates me, but the author spent five years on the same book and is also getting peanuts.

The author does get mentioned in the book review, at least.

That is true! More and more the translators do these days, but yes. Results may vary. [Laughs.]

When we’re young we have this idea of pursuing the life of the mind, working in libraries and living in garret apartments.

Yes! And being in Rochester at times has been not unlike that. Because of the program here, we have a very high density of world-lit people. We have a group that meets — when there’s not a pandemic — once a week at a pub. Someone will bring in a chapter they’ve translated, and we’ll all read it together and workshop it and drink fancy cocktails — that are only $10 because it’s not New York City. We’ll get drunk and yell about translation and theory and what is tone and what is meaning and all these kinds of things. I definitely had those moments. But COVID put a little damper on that. Among other things.

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Alex Dueben has written for The BelieverThe Brooklyn RailThe Comics Journal, the Paris ReviewThe Poetry FoundationThe Rumpus, and many other publications. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.

 

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