Comics in Translation: A Conversation with Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics Books

LowmoonNorwegian-born Jason has written comics and graphic novels for years in both his native Norwegian and in French. Fantagraphics first published his graphic novella Hey, Wait... in 2001, and he's been building a steady base of U.S. fans ever since.

His latest collection, Low Moon (including the chess-battle Western "Low Moon" serialized in the New York Times Magazine in 2008), has filmic moments and comic pathos that have set a new standard for me for short fiction.

None of us would ever get to enjoy the wry dialogue of Low Moon or I Killed Adolf Hitler or The Left Bank Gang without the efforts of Fantagraphics' co-publisher and translator, Kim Thompson. Jason is just one of many cartoonists that Thompson has translated for Fantagraphics Books. In fact, he says that translations represent about 10 to 15 percent of what they publish every year.

Thompson graciously agreed to answer my translation and Jason questions: How did you first encounter Jason's work, and how did Fantagraphics decide to publish it?

Kim Thompson: To be honest, I'm not sure if his Norwegian publisher sent me copies or I saw the French edition of Hey, Wait..., but I do know that the minute I laid eyes on it I knew we wanted to publish it. Love at first sight! Was he the first comic artist you translated? What others do you translate now?

KT: No, no, not by a wide margin. I was translating Freddy Milton (Danish), Franquin and Hermann (French) and others way back in the 1980s, twenty years ago.

I translate pretty much every European foreign-language cartoonist we publish except for Matti Hagelberg who is Finnish (Finnish is well outside of my area of expertise) and a couple who do their own translations, such as Max Andersson. A more or less complete list of cartoonists whose comics I've worked on in the last couple years would be Nikoline Werdelin (Danish); Joost Swarte (Dutch); David B., Emile Bravo, Killoffer, Jacques Tardi, and Lewis Trondheim (French); Nicolas Mahler (German); Gabriella Giandelli, Igort, Leila Marzocchi, and Sergio Ponchione (Italian); Jason (Norwegian or French); Max (Spanish); and Martin Kellerman (Swedish). I also translated a bunch of captions from many of those languages in our upcoming book of ANTI-WAR CARTOONS.

In case you're wondering, I don't actually SPEAK all of those languages, but I can read them, more or less in some cases. My mother is Danish so Danish is my native language. Swedish and Norwegian are so close to Danish (they're basically almost dialects of one another -- in fact Norwegian and Danish were the same language not too long ago) that with a little work any Dane can read them pretty well, as I do. I learned Spanish in high school and kept up with it. I lived for six years in Germany and also studied German in high school, so that stuck with me too. I lived for three years in Holland. Italian is my weakest language, I sort of plow my way through that thanks to French and Spanish and use of a dictionary -- but all my Italian translations I always check with the authors anyway. Translation is such an immersive experience, even more than editing, and I wonder, do you feel differently attached or connected to the works you translate than to other works you publish?

KT: Yes, at times I feel almost like a co-creator. Which is arrogantly excessive, and the feeling fades soon enough! But I'm also more invested in these books because I work so hard on them, and in many cases, of course, such as Tardi, I'm literally fulfilling a childhood dream by translating them.

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