Translating Krazy Kat
The story is set in Coconino county, Arizona. Well, not quite the real Coconino county. It’s the story of a cat who declares his love to a mouse ; in return the mouse throws bricks in his face. Krazy Kat is a monument of popular culture.
Elected “Best 20th-century comic book” by the Comics Journal, the poetic and nonsensical work of George Herriman is still litlle-known in France. Until the publisher Les Rêveurs finally took the project over — more than twenty years after Futuropolis‘s last attempt –, French publishers had many reasons to hestitate about it and didn’t really know how to start, first because Krazy Kat is considered as impossible to translate, and perhaps also because of the lack of coherent material due to scattered publication filing. In the meantime things have moved on : following collector Bill Blackbeard’s initiative, Fantagraphics published all of the famous Sunday Funnies. Les Rêveurs will use this work for the French publication. The only remaining difficulty lies in the pitfalls of the translation, a task that befalls Marc Voline.
Gilles Suchey : How did this project come about ?
Marc Voline : I’ve been wanting to work on the translation of Krazy Kat for a long time. I’d discussed it with Jean-Louis Gauthey from Cornelius but we didn’t really know what to do. I would have liked to work on a chronological selection because up to now there have only been anthologies. While we were thinking about how to proceed, the project came to a standstill. One day Jean-Louis told me : “I gave your contact details to Les Rêveurs beacause they want to do Krazy Kat”. Things got moving little by litlle and I was able to start working after showing them a sample of my translation which they thought was conclusive. Les Rêveurs had made a good agreement with Fantagraphics : they could use all their digital files and choose evrything they thought was interesting in the critical material (prefaces, etc…). The first volume, published in 2000, is a collection of the 1925 and 1926 publications. Nothing would have been possible without Bill Blackbeard’s incredible work. He saved entire collections of newspapers to build up the story of Krazy little by little…
Gilles Suchey : It must be emphasized that the new edition is not made from the original artwork but from old newspapers kept here and there, as is the case for many other great works like Little Nemo.
Marc Voline : Indeed. Even if some pages of original art were used it’s mainly collecions of newspapers. The research opportunities was what made Fantagraphics start with year 1925 even though the original publication runs from 1910 to 1944. So Les Rêveurs had access to the files relating to Herriman’s last 20 years. At the moment the project is to publish four volumes each including five years of publication. Then we’ll see…
Gilles Suchey : Will Les Rêveurs keep the layouts designed by Chris Ware, especially the cover artwork ?
Marc Voline : The artistic supervision and the layouts are Manu Larcenet’s great pleasures. So he’ll be designing the covers.
Gilles Suchey : Why have French publishers involved in cultural heritage never been interested in this project after Futuropolis ceased to exist ? Why didn’t Cornelius insist ?
Marc Voline : I don’t know. Jean-Louis never told me but I think he was uncertain about the project and didn’t know how to begin. But for most people Krazy Kat is a myth with the reputation of beeing impossible to translate, a mountain to climb…
Gilles Suchey : The translator’s ABC is to disappear behind the original work. The two main pitfalls are excess of literalism and infidelity. How can the translator work around those parameters with a work so tricky to deal with ? What stylistic choices are to be made when the language isn’t well defined ?
Marc Voline : I had no major problems translating Coconino’s secondary characters. For them Herriman is parodying flowery Elisabethean language or more recent Dickensian language. The problems concentrate on Krazy’s language. It’s also a matter of readability. I have the feeling that a totally phonetic rendering isn’t easy to translate into French. At one point I was interested in poetry and in the work of people like Dubuffet. We wrote very phonetic poems with the College of Pataphysics.
Gilles Suchey : So is it more a matter of rythm and sound than of the text itself ?
Marc Voline : Yes, it’s a matter of sound. I also want to show that Krazy Kat uses a word instead of another. I have to feel my way along and that aspect of the French version will certainly be a little watered-down compared to the original.
Gilles Suchey : What language does Krazy Kat speak ?
Marc Voline : Besides the phonetic aspect and the confusion of words there’s slang. Herriman grew up in New Orleans and then worked in New York. The New York dialect, which is called Brooklyneese, and Yat which is the New Orleans dialect, appear to have much in common. New York and New Orleans are both coastal regions with ports and the Irish accent is an important component of both dialects. Krazy Kat speaks a blend of Irish, Yiddish, Louisiana Creole… there’s also some French, especially in the beginning. According to Herriman’s biographer Michael Tisserand, Herriman’s first language was actually French, which brings him closer to the translator ! There’s also Spanish, given that the story takes place in the Arizona desert. And German. Acctually there’s a bit of everything and little by little this blending becomes Krazy’s language. He really makes it personnal.
Gilles Suchey : The Fantagraphics books were adapted in Italian which is a language you regularly translate. Have you taken any interest in these transcriptions ?
Marc Voline : I was very curious indeed and I bought those volumes. Actually the Italian publication of Krazy Kat really started in 1965 in Linus. The translator’s choice at the time was about the same as their French counterpart a few years later in Charlie Mensuel. In Michel Perez’s translation Krazy lisps. The Italian translators use something that’s perhaps rarer than a lisp in French which is called “la erre moscia”. Some people are unable to roll their Rs and pronounce a sort of V instead. It’s very weird. In both cases there’s no actual work on the language, nor is there in the first translations, except for the alliterations because it’s not very complicated to render. Let’s add that lisping isn’t insignificant. The sexual connotation is obvious as well as the attempt to make Krazy Kat a Queen, which isn’t very satisfactory : Krazy Kat is not a Queen, he has no determined gender. Therefore I tried to work on the language but there’s always a disappointment in not beeing able to render the intention rigourously. It’s not possible and it would make it impossible to understand the text… The main idea is to make the reader want to move closer to the original version, to suggest a satisfying text which will encourage him to look further into Krazy Kat because it’s one of these great works which really deserve to be read in their original language.
Gilles Suchey : You evoked Krazy Kat’s gender…
Marc Voline : Gilbert Seldes has to be mentionned here. He was a trendy critic in the 1920’s and he’s very important historically. He wrote an article in Vanity Fair in 1922 in which he talks about Krazy Kat in rather laudatory terms. The article prefigures another one which was published in The Seven Lively Arts in 1924, a book about popular arts which evokes Charlie Chaplin as well as Pablo Picasso. He wrote : “[Krazy Kat is] the most amusing and fantastic and satisfactory work of art produced in America today” — let’s note that the word comics is never pronounced. Gilbert Seldes later became close to George Herriman. He said that “Kat can’t be a he or a she”. There’s also a famous quotation from Frank Capra’s memoirs. He worked in the studios where Herriman often went to joke around with the scriptwriters – sometimes he even put his work table up there. One day Capra asked Herriman about Krazy Kat’s gender, and Herriman answered that like many readers he asked himself the question. He then tried to make Krazy a girl and even made her pregnant but it didn’t work. Krazy wasn’t “the kat” anymore. In the end he told Capra that Krazy was “something like a sprite, an elfe. They have no sex. (…) The Kat’s a spirit – a pixie- free to butt into anything”. The way the inhabitants of Coconino perceive Krazy Kat is very interesting, espacially Ignatz the mouse, the second main protagonist who Krazy’s in love with. I’m saying “he” because Herriman uses the masculine pronoun 99 % of the time. In Ignatz’s eyes, Krazy is a cat. For instance, as soon as he talks to him about hitting on people, he tells him “ah, you’ve been hitting on babes”. As Ignatz doesn’t know about such a notion Krazy sows doubt with an evasive reply. He retorts something like “I have lots of problems with my wife, and I have lots of problems with my husband”. And actually gender isn’t the only ambiguity… Skin colour is a recently broached subject in Krazykatian criticism. It was sais that Herriman was a mixed-race person of Creole origin and that he hid his curly hair under a hat which he never took off. There’s also a lot of plays on colour. Krazy, who’s a black cat, gets hit by a bag of flour or Ignatz, who’s a white mouse, goes through a coal-black pipe. So Herriman plays with both sexual and racial ambiguities which is really daring for the 1920’s. The context is important here. At the time Herriman’s plays on colour could also be seen on stage with vaudeville, the Ziegfield Follies and the black face tradition, those actors who dressed up as black men… You can really go further in the embedding if you remember that the first black actor allowed by the Ziegfeld Follies to share the stage with white actors was hired to play a white man dressed up as a black man !
Gilles Suchey : Does the gender issue involve a particular difficulty for the translator ?
Marc Voline : No because I respect the choices of the pronouns. It’s true that in English animal nouns are neutral, which can be a problem for the French translation because in French there’s no neutral. But I keep “kat” because Krazy isn’t a cat but a Kat. Same for Ignatz. The generic nouns for animals here become proper nouns. And actually Krazy doesn’t call the mouse “Ignatz mouse” but “Ignatz Mice” which triggers great protest from Ignatz and infinate debates on grammar, plural, singular… and singularity.
Gilles Suchey : When you translate do you think about the reader ?
Marc Voline : Yes but first I think about the author. In this old debate about proximity with the text, I think what’s important is to render the atmosphere and the intentions with the means at one’s disposal. Then I think about the reader… One can do a great job but if it’s only intended fore three scholarlies there’s no point. The reader has to feel something.
Gilles Suchey : When you translate comic books there’s yet another difficulty which you don’t deal with in literature : the balloons aren’t extensible.
Marc Voline : Indeed, the space is limited and it’s a real difficulty. But I’ve been trained by journalism ! When you’re told your lead-in can absolutely not exceed 122 signs you quickly become skillfull. The point is to play with that flexibility. You’re working on your first translation and obviously you don’t see the space in the balloons, so you kind of just do it at random. Then comes the lettering and you have to talk to the person doing it to adjust your work.
Gilles Suchey : And so how does the lettering happen ?
Marc Voline : Fantagraphics provided a typography which has been created from Herriman’s style. It poses some problems because of the balance to respect. Lost of manual corrections and vectorizations have to be made. Digitalisation isn’t everything. The Spanish and Italian publishers chose the digital typographies which aren’t very satisfying.
Gilles Suchey : Who are your first readers ?
Marc Voline : I only have one reader, Nicolas Lebedel. He runs the publishing house Les Rêveurs with Manu Larcenet. It’s terrible, I could have allowed Camille to move on faster but I only gave her my translation at the very last minute , way after she told me she was ready ! Just because I wasn’t satisfied. But Nicolas reassured me.
Gilles Suchey : Will a critical apparatus come with the book ?
Marc Voline : Yes. I completed and developped the one Fantagraphics published, which was initiated by Bill Blackbeard. Michael Tisserand and a Canadian journalist called Jeet Heer continued Blackbeard’s work after he died. They only had to fill the cultural gap of time, but I also have to fill the geographical one and highlight cultural references which the French audience doesn’t necessarly understand.
Gilles Suchey : So you became an expert on the subject…
Marc Voline : Yes, I had to. There’s a domain which really fascinates me : the songs. Krazy never stops singing. At the time readers immediately recognized the tunes in fashion. Herriman draws on the classic hit songs from the beginning of the century which often have a love theme, as well as on religious themes learned at catechism. Between 10 and 16 he went to the Saint Vincent Academy, a Catholic school for boys. The famous chorus “There is a Happy Land Far Far Away “ is from a 1838 hymn by a Scottish poet and teacher close to the Church of Scotland ; it’s an evangelical hymn which is now known all over the world, in every language, every confession and every culture. It even became a Rasta hymn !
Gilles Suchey : It seems that the book is going to be encyclopedia-like. Will it be reserved to an elite price wise ?
Marc Voline : The Centre National du Livre (CNL) gives scholarships to authors and editors. The comic book comission of the CNL also made up a “list of missing works”, which also exists in other fields : it’s considered that a certain number of masterpieces absolutely deserve to be published or re-published. Books out of that list get more than a standard scholarship. Krazy Kat has been on that list for a very long time. Therefore the translation, the printing, the design and the lettering are financed up to 60 %. Thanks to this CNL aid, the first 330-page book will cost 35€. I think Les Rêveurs will make an effort to maintain an affordable price for the next books.
- Ten volumes were published by Fantagraphics up until 2008. They covered the 1925-1944 period with two years per 120-page book. Between 2010 and 2012 they took a step back with three new books for the 1916-1924 period. These books only gather the sunday full-page comic strips. The daily strips which appeared uninterruptedly from 1913 to 1944 have been partially and incompletely published by many publishers since 1977.
- At the head of Les Rêveurs : Nicolas Lebedel and Manu Larcenet.
- Futuropolis published two anthologies at the beginning of the 1980’s (translation by Hugues Wilson and frank). Then in 1991 they published the French version of the Komplete Kolor Krazy Kat (translation by Frank), the first and only volume of the complete colour Sunday pages conceived by Rick Marshall for the publisher Worldservice Books. This publication was interrupted in the US after the second issue.
- Details on the forthcoming volume : George Herriman, Krazy Kat, Planches du dimanche 1925-1929. Translation : Marc Voline. Design and lettering : Camille Aubry. Montreuil, Les Rêveurs, october 2012, 280 pages, 35€.