Meet the Translator: Nanette McGuinness on translating graphic novels

Award-winning translator of over 60 books from French, Italian, German and Spanish into English, Nanette McGuinness is also an award-winning professional opera singer. We asked Nanette about her practice as a translator, and about the interplay between music and language…

Interview by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Alter Ego by Ana C. Sánchez

World Kid Lit: Congratulations on the publication of Alter Ego, which my best friend and I both devoured last weekend. This is the kind of book we would have loved as teenagers. Can you tell us about TOKYOPOP‘s Manga Girls Love series? The graphic novel is presented like a Japanese yuri manga, but was actually written in Spanish. What challenges did the format pose for you as the translator?

Nanette McGuinness: Thank you, what a great compliment! TOKYOPOP’s LOVE x LOVE  is a sweet imprint. To quote them, “One of our core company beliefs is that ‘love is love’ and all types of romances deserve to be celebrated… [in] a variety of stories and voices as diverse as our fans.”  I think this is great and am proud to be involved. Incidentally, you might be interested to know that Alter Ego writer/illustrator Ana C. Sánchez has a new LOVE X LOVE title, Sirius, which is currently on my desk waiting to be translated later this year. So keep an eye out for it in 2022.

As opposed to English-language books and comics, manga is read from right to left rather than left to right or what English speakers would consider back to front. As long as you have read manga or know that, the format is straightforward, no matter what language you’re translating from or into.

With regards to Alter Ego’s original language, I should point out that although I’ve studied and sung Spanish and have performed in Spain, Spanish is not one of my professional languages as a translator. (Those are French, German, and Italian.) When I agreed to take on this wonderful project, I asked an experienced translator colleague and native Spanish speaker, Mercedes Guhl, to check my translation. You’ll see her named in the credits.

WKL: Reviewers of Luisa: Now and Then have rightly praised your pitch-perfect dialogue. The premise of Luisa is that 15-year-old Luisa time travels to meet her 32-year-old self, and your idiomatic choices brilliantly capture the voice and attitude of these two versions of Luisa, separated by a decade and a half of experiences. I’m pretty much Luisa’s contemporary and can attest to her authenticity as a 90s kid, albeit one from small-town France finding herself confusingly plunged into noughties’ Paris!

Luisa: Now and Then

NM: Thank you for the kind words. Although a number of people have complimented my ear for dialogue, in this case, much of the credit should go to Mariko Tamaki and her adaptation. She had a specific voice and style in mind, and she did an excellent job with it.

WKL: I’ve noticed that at least one reviewer has mistakenly ascribed the translation to Mariko Tamaki, who is cited on the cover and in the book’s copyright page as the adaptor. What does it mean to adapt a graphic novel? In the translation process, did you have contact and feedback from either author or adaptor, and if so how did that work? 

NM: Thanks for noticing that. Actually, I didn’t have any contact with either, which is typical for graphic novel translation. But the process was simple: the publisher (Humanoids) sent me Carole Maurel’s excellent GN (graphic novel) to translate from the original French, telling me ahead of time that they would be sending it to “someone special” to adapt after it was translated. That “someone special” turned out to be Mariko Tamaki—quite a coup, as she’s a huge name in the field.

While having an adaptor involved isn’t the norm—typically the translator and editor do the work of adapting a text as part of moving it from the original language and culture to the new one—involving her was a brilliant idea. She’s a talented writer with a fabulous award-winning list, and as a “your own voice” author who was also a teen in the 90s like you, she gave the book great authenticity.

WKL: Given that graphic novels are, like translating a play, all about the dialogue, how do you go about translating and revising? Who do you test the dialogue out on? Do you work straight into the balloons, or text boxes? Do you have the strict space limit in mind from the first draft?

NM: Great question! The format I turn my translation in varies from publisher to publisher. Some ask for a straight Word doc, which does look a good deal like a script. Others ask for a table, and still others for a spreadsheet. Each has a preferred way for the translator to label all the text so the editor knows what goes where. For some publishers, I just need to be vaguely mindful of the length of the original; for others, I try to match the word count.

Surprisingly, perhaps, I never translate directly into the balloons. Putting text in that way is a specific skill called lettering, and I have no training in doing it. Lettering has a huge impact on the look of the text on the page and the entire book. It’s such an important aspect of a GN that there’s a separate category for “Best Letterer,” in the Eisner Awards (the biggest awards in the land of graphic novels, the equivalent of a GN Nobel Prize).

Whether translating graphic novels or “regular” ones, I make multiple passes, starting first with a “basic” translation in which I’m already working on meaning, level, and tone as much as words, often going back to the first few pages after a bit to true them up as I get to know the author’s voice.

Next I go through and edit for voice, character, and naturalness, as well as the overall feel, after which I go back and compare the rough spots with the original, making sure I haven’t drifted too far from the original meaning. This back-and-forth process can go on for quite a bit.

At some point, I ignore the text and mechanically check that I haven’t left out any balloons or frames—it’s incredibly easy to do this when you’re in the grip of translating an exciting narrative—and then when everything seems good, I make two or three proofreading passes.

Then I do what I hope will be the final read to be sure that nothing bumps. If it does, I go back, revise again, and then proofread again, polishing until the whole piece seems burnished. Ad nauseam. When I get to the point that I’m re-revising phrases back to what I had chosen on a previous pass and am starting to know much of the piece nearly by heart, I know I’m about done.

Except for the initial translating stages and proofreading/checking balloons, I always read aloud—either out loud or in my mind’s ear (part of a musician’s training). When something doesn’t sound native—because it’s so easy to start to get the phrasing or verbiage of another language stuck in one’s ear—I read the spot aloud to my husband to get his feedback as to whether it sounds “right.”

WKL: Luisa: Now and Then and Alter Ego have very different aesthetics and vibes, but they both create a compassionate space to consider female queer desire, and explore the ups and downs of understanding and accepting sexuality, and the difficulties surrounding coming out. How important is it to you as a translator to work on texts that challenge social assumptions and contribute to social justice? Why are graphic novels such a powerful medium for exploring social issues like LGBT identity?

NM: The short answer? Very. Young readers want to see themselves in the books they read. They also need to see others who are different from them. Books can be considered the original virtual reality for those with good imaginations, so part of my mandate as a children’s book translator is to let young readers see through another’s eyes and feel another’s feelings vicariously. All of us involved in children’s and YA books help open windows to the greater world and bring it closer to readers—whether that world involves identity, social justice, or “merely” another part of the globe.

As a genre, graphic novels have always presented a safe(r) haven for addressing issues that might be otherwise too challenging or controversial to touch in standard novels. I wrote about this in an article a few years ago: “Is there something about graphic novels that makes them a friendlier home for challenging issues? Perhaps so. A book in which visual art carries part of the narrative may well allow readers to identify and empathize with the characters and their problems more readily and to see beyond those characters’ “otherness” with greater immediacy than in a “regular” novel. Images immediately show how different the characters may be from the reader; yet we respond differently to faces and facial expressions than we do to “mere” words, regardless of the language.” (from Fighting the Good Fight: Social Justice in Children’s (Translated) Books and Graphic Novels,” Source, 2019)

Asterix bei den Briten, the German translation of Astérix chez les Bretons (Asterix in Britain)

WKL: How did you get into translating graphic novels? Were you an avid reader of graphic novels in your youth? 

NM: I first got turned on to graphic novels when I was an exchange student in my teens. Europe has a fabulous comix tradition: I was instantly hooked by the hilarious Asterix series (translated originally by Anthea Bell and now being newly translated by Papercutz), and there are many other fun series. When I traveled to Italy, I discovered Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in Italian, which were great fun and strengthened my Italian. When I was in Germany, I improved my German by reading new volumes of my original fav, Asterix, in German.

There was an extended period of time in my life when health issues made it harder for me to perform. I found myself drawn to writing and translating for children, as I’d never lost my love of children’s books (my doctorate being essentially a degree for writing about music history).  

I started writing and publishing articles for children and then continued, even after I was healthy and singing again. At some point, I wrote a graphic novel adaptation of an opera. Although it never got published, when I was looking for the right house to submit it to, I bumped into a publisher who needed a translator. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. I should add that even though I love GNs and they are the bulk of my translation work, I’ve also translated about a half dozen regular novels and non-fiction books, too.

WKL: Thinking beyond these two graphic novels, what are some of the challenges of translating illustrated texts? Have you ever had a situation where the artwork was amended to fit the English? 

NM: First, much as is the case with picture books, the illustrations in GNs carry at least half the narrative weight, if not more. The illustrations fill in important details and nuances, even plot points, so the reader has to combine the text and illustrations to get the complete picture of what’s happening. This becomes especially important when translating, as words can have multiple meanings and what isn’t being said becomes important in understanding the text. So sometimes the illustrations help and other times they add to the challenge.

Second, because internal and external dialogues are the primary verbal vehicles in a graphic novel, an ear for how people speak and sound is crucial. I do think that being a musician and a singer helps me out here.

When one is translating a graphic novel, every single bit of text gets translated, from dialogue and captions to onomatopoeia, sound effects, and all text in the illustrations. The rule of thumb is that if it can be read, the translator translates it—and the translation must always fit the meaning and intent of the art. For children, who may not have a reservoir of language at their disposal, understanding what the text in the illustrations means is especially crucial—even more so in nonfiction, where young readers are learning place names and scientific terms.

When a book is rooted in a specific place and time, the text in the illustrations will most often remain in the original language, since altering those will change the color of the setting too greatly. Often in books for children, though, the place names and text on the illustrations are less important to the plot and get adjusted to the new language so that young readers will know and understand what they see.  Which way to go is an editorial choice and I usually ask my editor what they want.

WKL: Now that you’re a successful translator of over 60 (!) books, can you give any advice to emerging translators hoping to translate books for children and young people? What would you have done differently with the hindsight and experience you have now?

NM: First, some general life advice: whether you’re a translator, artist, scientist, financial consultant,  lawyer, or astronaut, follow your passion and hone whatever craft you pick. Practice, observe, study, and do the work: keep growing and never stop learning. More specially, there are so many entry points to becoming a translator. We’re all different, our backgrounds vary, and there really isn’t just one way to proceed. For some useful advice, I’d recommend emerging translators read Julie Sullivan’s excellent blog post on the subject from earlier this year.

WKL: Alongside your busy career as a translator, you’re an award-winning opera singer and co-founder of the Ensemble for These Times. You’re a passionate advocate of music by living composers and women artists, and you’ve performed operas, concerts, and recitals in twelve languages on two continents in over 25 operatic roles. In what ways do you think your musical training influences you as a translator, and how are those parts of your life interconnected? What did you come to first – music or languages – or were they always concurrent passions?

NM: In addition to various types of artistic advocacy, I’ve come to realize that what I do in both professions involves transferring meaning from one medium or set of symbols to another—be it language or music expressed in written notation—and then communicating that meaning to others. Both music and language come alive as lived auditory experiences. Both singing and translating are creative activities in which I recreate another artist’s imagined vision. Further and less abstract, my musicality and musicianship contribute to my ear for language, rhythm, phrasing, rhyme, and dialogue; my knowledge of languages helps me sing in them.

As to which passion came first, the language chicken or the music egg, that’s a tricky call. I was a science-math-history kid in school who also loved music, writing, performing, and languages. Choosing which I wanted to pursue in life was challenging, as they all fascinated me. While my early bilingual experience made me interested in languages—sometime in high school or college, one of my life goals became to learn 10-15 languages, or at least study them—there are pictures of me at age two or so sitting on an organ bench, little legs dangling, pounding away (unmusically, I would imagine) at the keys.

There’s an expiration date on becoming a professional singer, and music is said to be a jealous mistress because mastering the necessary skill set takes such an immense amount of time, work, and dedication. As a result, most professional musicians make music not faux de mieux, but because we must, we feel incomplete if we don’t. I couldn’t resist music’s siren call—and yet, I accidentally managed to choose a branch of music (classical/ opera singing) in which I get to combine music and language and to work with colleagues in many languages. So perhaps the answer is concurrent, after all.

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Nanette McGuinness

Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 60 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French, Italian, German and Spanish into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her translations, Luisa: Now and Then and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas were chosen for YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens; Luisa: Now and Then was also a 2019 Stonewall Honor Book. Her translations released in 2021 are For Justice: The Serge and Beate Klarsfeld StoryBibi & Miyu #2The Sisters #7: Lucky BratChloe & Cartoon, LGBTQ YA manga Alter Ego, and A House Without Windows.