Light as a Feather: Translating a darkly political and complex graphic novel
It is an apocalyptic take on modern-day Mexico: Conquering angels rule the nation, indigenous groups stage a vicious revolt, widespread bloodshed ensues and no clear victor emerges.
This is Edgar Clément’s Operación Bolívar, a graphic novel with themes of conquest and foreign influence that resonate just as well now as when the book was published in 1990.
Amy Poeschl first came across Clément’s highly political project in a class on Latin American comic books last year. Long a fan of graphic novels, she instantly fell for Bolívar.
So for her, it was a no-brainer to use the book as the basis for a research project in senior lecturer Amanda Powell’s class on literary translation. Students were assigned to translate a Spanish text, such as a poem or part of a book, into English.
Never mind that none of Powell’s students had ever tried to translate a graphic novel before. Or that Bolívar is filled with complicated subtexts referring to the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the United States’ presence in Latin America. Or that Poeschl was committing not just to the translation of text, but making her new English-language version align with the original book’s visually lavish and often pointedly satirical images.
“I knew it was a big challenge because I had to deal with graphics as well as the words,” said Poeschl, who graduated from the UO earlier this year with a degree in Spanish. “But I adored the graphic novel so much that it was worth it.”
In Latin America, authors have used graphic novels to tackle serious subjects for decades. Through sharp writing and detailed imagery, they’ve pushed for economic and cultural reform, provided alternate views of the region’s history and pointedly criticized authoritarianism in government.
In Mexico, officials have distributed graphic novels widely to promote literacy among the nation’s citizens, particularly the poor, and to teach the country’s history. These trends laid the groundwork for the medium’s acceptance as a legitimate form of literature by a large swath of young people; they have carried that respect and love of graphic novels into adulthood and broadened the appeal of the medium.
Putting a Puzzle Together
Poeschl translated 20 pages of the 164-page novel. She started her project with comparatively strong chops in Spanish—she’s been studying the language since middle school and her family hails from Puerto Rico.
She pored over the 20 pages she translated roughly 100 times. It was like putting a puzzle together—one that helped Poeschl realize that translation is what she loves most about Spanish. “If I could do nothing but this for the rest of my life,” she said, “I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
First, Poeschl did a rough translation of a section, then she refined it over and over. She researched each word’s meaning in English and Spanish, referring to translation dictionaries and then repeating the process panel by panel. She spent days analyzing even a single image of an angel’s body before she began writing an interpretation.
“Researching words and their etymologies was fascinating,” Poeschl said.
Given Clément’s penchant for playing with words, Poeschl felt an obligation to be meticulous even with seemingly obvious translations.
Consider the phrase “la recuperación de la conciencia.” It could be interpreted as “coming to awareness” or “reawakening,” but Poeschl ultimately translated it as “the recovery of the conscience.” That might seem to be the most logical, literal choice, but it was one that Poeschl arrived at only after revisiting the important phrase repeatedly with her classmates and Powell.
Poeschl’s solution, Powell said, subtly drew attention to how Clément skewers the corporate commercialization of basic human activities like making art, healing the sick and seeking spiritual consolation. Thus the need for a recovered conscience.
Along with weighing possible word choices, Poeschl sought to craft each English sentence to match the author’s tone—which presented another layer of challenge. In Bolívar, Clément switches freely between a colloquial voice and a professorial style of the kind you’d find in a history book.
Poeschl also decoded and translated metaphors and puns that have no English equivalent, while ensuring that the translation accurately reflected the accompanying illustrations.
In one passage, Clément, in describing angels, uses a word—“ligeros”—that means both feathery and light, but also trivial or frivolous. There is no single word in English that even comes close to all these shades of meaning, Poeschl said—but the metaphor “light as a feather” fit perfectly.
“That was one that I worked on for weeks before I finally went, ‘Oh, that’s so obvious,’” she said. “You want so much to find that perfect word and you know it’s out there.”
Shades of Meaning
Powell praised Poeschl for skillfully navigating an exceedingly complex and multifaceted novel. Bolívar interweaves allusions to indigenous, Mexican, American and European cultures with Biblical references and political satire.
Translation is more than pulling out a dictionary and plugging in a word that fits, Powell said. For Poeschl’s project, it required looking at the translation within the theme of the novel, while taking into account the particularities of the Spanish language.
“Even within a language, we have instances where no two synonyms denote or connote exactly the same thing,” Powell said. “Each has a shade of meaning, and the history of usage implies a certain thing. That’s all the more true between languages.”
For her part, Poeschl hopes her research will resonate with a larger audience than simply her teacher and classmates. She wants to reach US Latinos and Hispanics who are losing their Spanish fluency, which includes some of her friends.
She chose to translate Bolívar in part because it is filled with important ideas about Mexican history and politics that, she hopes, her friends will more easily grasp in English than Spanish.
“Part of the motivation for me to do this was I had so many friends whose Spanish wasn’t great,” Poeschl said. “I wanted to make it available to them because I knew it was going to be right up their alley.”
Literary translation is valuable as more than just a research exercise, Powell said. It can serve as ideal training for a wide range of careers, including the legal, medical and diplomatic professions.
“It is one of best preparations for any field where the language is nuanced,” Powell said.
Beyond translation, undergraduates in Romance languages have pursued many other avenues of research. Some have studied French- and Spanish-speaking communities in the US, looking at questions such as bilingualism; they have investigated how language shapes communities and how communities that share a language change over time. They have delved into topics as diverse as medieval romance and postmodern performance.
Research in Romance languages also exposes students to often-overlooked parts of the French-speaking world such as Africa, areas of the Caribbean and the Middle East and regions of Africa and South Asia that speak Portuguese.
“When you learn about Africa in high school, you may learn about French-speaking Africa, but rarely do you learn about Portuguese-speaking Africa,” said Amalia Gladhart, department head. “Undergraduate research in Romance languages exposes you to new worlds you never knew existed.”
Photo caption: In Operación Bolívar, indigenous people in Mexico wage an all-out war against a ruling class of angels. The book is filled with subtexts referring to the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the United States’ presence in Latin America.
This article appears in CASCADE http://cascade.uoregon.edu/fall2016/humanities/light-as-a-feather/
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