Guest blogger, Nora Mahony: On translating David B.’s BLACK PATHS

Par les chemins noirs by David B. particularly piqued my interest because it tells an Italian story in French. As a translator working from both languages, I hoped I’d bring something extra to the party, and the first email from Emma confirmed that this tale of an Italian poet steeped in Fascist lore was going to throw up a few peculiar challenges. ‘How would you translate the title?’, she asked.

Brace yourselves for a tough fact of life. Publishing schedules often demand that a more-or-less final title be decided upon before the translator has read the book. Translators have been known to go to the mat on title translations, but as a title can make or break a book, I try to keep an open mind. So open that my answer to that simple question covered Gabriele D’Annunzio, Dante Alighieri, blackshirts and the importance of avoiding allusions to the Satanic. It took me back to my first day in my B.A. Dante lectures with Prof. Lonergan, in which she spent a full hour on the first few lines of the Inferno, featuring the most famous cammin (chemin) of all. So no pressure, then. Emma distilled the madness, and we came out with Black Paths.

Once the real work got underway, I met the single biggest ‘standard’ translation head-scratcher. Translating cultures is at the heart of it all, of course, and Black Paths involved juggling the often competing interests of staying true to Italian history, a French author, French language imposed on Italian characters, a UK publisher, a UK and Irish readership and an Irish and American dual national translator. Making the resulting English-language characters come alive through all that muddle, in a third language that they shouldn’t by rights be speaking, 90-some years after they would have spoken, is a challenge indeed – but really, it’s Christmas come early if you enjoy the thrill of the hunt as much as a literary translator must.

As I learned when I started back on The Hot Rock, graphic novels have particular pros and cons for the translator. The visual element means that you can see the story unfold and the characters develop, which, like the size of the speech bubbles, can either help or hinder, give room to explain or curtail your translation options. David B. made greater creative use of space than other graphic artists I’d worked on, and his tight, winding banners of speech, and crowded, shouty debates were exciting to write in English as they trailed in and out and characters cut each other off in the heat of the moment.

As a translator, as in any job, I often have to turn my hand to things that are slightly outside my comfort zone, and all translators have their bêtes noir. In Black Paths, I met mine, again: songs, which are more common in graphic works than they are in straight prose. Kiki was awash with raunchy cabaret numbers, so I had already come up with a few strategies, picking and choosing loose equivalents from English-language songbooks of the day, and translating (or not) selected passages, all the while keeping inside the black lines. Thankfully, Mina stuck to a few tasteful love songs, and we got along just fine.

Black Paths introduced me to a new potential wrinkle, one that I’ve been playing around with in my current translation of Château de Sable (Sand Castle) by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters: mentally unstable characters. There are more than a few pretenders, but I think that D’Annunzio really takes the cake on the nutty Italian history front, and there was no limit to what he could dream up after a few skulls of champagne and a bit of poetry. Bombastic, creative and completely out there, he wanted armoured trains, religious relics, endless libraries, white horses, the clinically insane as advisors and so much more for his Fascist utopia. I worked to hit just the right level of crazy, so that the reader would be caught up in the frenzy, but still notice that not all of the poet leader’s henchmen were entirely caught up themselves.

Today, 16 June, marks my third year as a freelance translator. Here in Dublin, the day is celebrated as Bloomsday, the anniversary of the cross-city journey of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses. This is a city that embraces all of its characters, fictional, fictionalised, historical, literary and larger than life, a city that loves to recreate and reconsider the lives of its characters. So in that spirit, enjoy the fantastical whirlwind of a city and a character brought to life by David B.’s Black Paths, and make it your own in its new incarnation.

Nora Mahony

Black Paths will be published by SelfMadeHero on 30th June 2011.

David B. will be talking to Paul Gravett as part of the COMICA Festival in a dedicated free event at the brilliant indie bookshop Clerkenwell Tales in London’s Exmouth Market on the evening of 30th June. All supporters of SelfMadeHero and lovers of graphic novels are welcome.

Full details can be found here with RSVPs essential to

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3 Responses to Guest blogger, Nora Mahony: On translating David B.’s BLACK PATHS

  1. Luke says:

    Great post. Got here through Twitter. I had a particular interest in the subject as I’ve translated a few graphic novels from French myself and love to see the development of the medium which I can only see as becoming ever more mainstream.

    From childhood I’ve enjoyed the fine blend of imagery and succinct writing, giving an experience somewhere between novel and film. France and Japan in particular offer a lot on this front, as does America. More English graphic novels in Europe can only be a good thing, along with the slew of webcomics we’re treated to.

    I can sympathise on the title-to-be-decided-on-before-the-translation-for-the-benefit-of-the-catalogue front. Some of my other favourite challenges faced in translating graphic novels are in editing onomatopoeia that’s drawn into the panels rather than laid over as text, as well as translating rhymes and cultural humour.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, I enjoyed that 🙂

    • Nora Mahony says:

      ‘Some of my other favourite challenges faced in translating graphic novels are in editing onomatopoeia that’s drawn into the panels rather than laid over as text’ — I second that! The BIFs, BAMs and POWs (and rumbles, growls and shouts) provide no end of fun.

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