Words Without Borders February: Graphic Conflict

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Following the Angoulême International Comics Festival, Words Without Borders’ latest issues explores graphic novels and nonfiction in translation.

Hélène Aldeguer, from ‘Après le printemps: une jeunesse tunisienne.’ Provided by Words Without Borders

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Consistently Urgent’
You never have to look far for conflict when graphic novels and graphic nonfiction are the issue. Plenty of folks inside publishing and in the consumer base will roll their eyes every time someone talks of graphic work as literature.

Following this year’s Angoulême International Comics FestivalFestival International de la Bande Desinée, which ran January 25 to 28 and has been running since 1974—Words Without Borders has released its 13th annual survey of graphic novels and nonfiction in translation.

Angoulême draws more than 200,000 people annually, and just conferred its 2019 Grand Prix on 61-year-old Rumiko Takahashi who, the festival’s organizers say, has sold more than 200 million copies of her work in a 40-year career.

IMDB reports that Takahashi is sometimes called “the princess of manga.” In her bio, we read, “Her characters often break the stereotypes inhabiting manga at the time. Takahashi takes care to portray her women to be as tough and as intelligent as her men.”

In her introduction to the magazine, WWB editorial director Susan Harris writes about about “conflict” and the question of what might make graphic works “legit” in the eyes of publishers and consumers.

“The graphic form is consistently urgent,” Harris writes, “addressing social and political issues with an immediacy that draws readers into lives and settings far from our own. “Reflecting our current combative era, the pieces here depict conflicts both personal and political.

Susan Harris

“In settings ranging from the teeming streets of São Paulo to the hermetic lair of a publisher, and with characters ranging from impoverished Korean peasants to Tunisian college students, these works reflect a striking range of existential challenges shaping lives across the globe.”

To get at what she’s talking about, Harris has curated an edition with work from five countries—Brazil, the Central African Republic, the Czech Republic, South Korea, and Tunisia—translated from four languages Portuguese, French, Czech, and Korean.

By using conflict as her organizing context, she helps us recall why young readers may gravitate so much more easily to graphic novels than older readers do. Urgency, after all, is in many ways a young person’s driver—or so many think. A part of what characterizes the maturing personality is often a more sanguine, patient bearing on life. The commitment and fervor frequently seen in young people is a reminder that much in life is actually worth some urgency and that writings (and illustration) that reflect this can be telling.

‘Existential Challenges’

The types of conflict approached in each of the translations Harris has brought together are as varied as the parts of the world from which they’re drawn.

Vojtěch Mašek

Scenes from Schlechtfreund” is fiction by Vojtěch Mašek and Džian Baban, translated from Czech by Martha Kuhlman and David Randl. It’s the first time the duo has been read in English, and a long line of awards for their work includes a new Muriel honor for Mašek’s work with Marek Šindelka and Marek Pokorný, Svatá Barbora (Saint Barbara).

As Harris writes about this one, it’s not only a lighter entry in the group but it also describes a Kafkaesque publishing house exchange.

“In a series of identical meetings,” Harris tells us, “an elderly publisher, head of the house that bears his name, rejects the tepid proposals of a timid short story writer. The writer invokes Chekhov; unmoved, the publisher counters with Kafka and a startling proposal of his own.”

“They’ll really send me to school? You mean I’ll finally get an education?”'Grass'

In an excerpt from Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated from Korean by Janet Hong, things aren’t nearly so humorous. This is a true story of sexual enslavement of a Korean girl by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. These were the “comfort women.”

Some estimates indicate that hundreds of thousands of women from occupied territories were forced into prostitution for Japanese troops. Often, as in the case of Ok-sun in this work, the women were lured by promises of education.

“And the only schooling she receives,” Harris writes, “comes in the form of the unthinkable.”

In yet another excerpt, this one from Tunisia, a passage from Hélène Aldeguer’s After the Spring: A Tunisian Youth translated from French by Edward Gauvin, Harris writes, “When Meriem pulls her headscarf back on before stepping onto her balcony, while Cheyma remains bareheaded, we sense the possibility of yet another clash.”

Didier Kassaï

In Didier Kassaï’s City of Fear, which is drawn from the writer’s two volumes of reporting on the Central African Republic’s political violence, Harris writes, “Kassaï joins our other graphic depiction of civil war in Africa, “A Whim of the Gods,” Hippolyte and Patrick de Saint-Exupéry’s portrayal of Rwandan carnage.”

It’s worth quoting from the translator’s note provided by André Naffis-Sahely.  He writes that Kassaï’s Storm Over Bangui is “a comprehensive chronicle of the instability of the Central African Republic following the overthrow of president François Bozizé in 2013 and the beginning of a civil war which continues unabated to this day.”

Kassaï, Naffis-Sahely explains, is “an artist from Bangui, the CAR’s capital, [who] takes us on a tour of his country’s recent history, depicting the rise of Séléka Muslim militias and the Anti-balaka Christian militias that arose in response to them, showing how the CAR was eventually split into two, between the Muslim north-east and the Christian south-west.”

The urgency this time, it turns out, has to do with the fact that Kassaï lost a brother to the Séléka in 2012. “This is an important feature of the book itself,” Naffis-Sahely writes, “as it is not a mere historical chronicle, or a shock-exposé, since it highlights the effects of the war on the CAR’s people and society.”

And more fiction, “A Love-Hate Relationship” by André Diniz, translated from Portuguese by Pedro Bouça, is about the author’s ambivalence toward São Paulo. He writes, “São Paulo is a hopeless love, an impossible passion. I love her, but I can’t live here anymore, or else I’ll die. She loves me too, but she kills what she loves.”

Diniz now lives in Lisbon.

‘Singular Insight’

In a subtle way, Harris’ collection of five graphic works does illustrate something interesting and maybe unintended about the work, especially in translation. Because those images don’t need translating, these works all seem short. These excerpts exist as quick sequences of panels.

“I never had any respect for short forms, it’s like taking a breath and then…Nothing?”'Scenes from Schlechtfreund'

It’s almost as if the Czech work set in that publishing house were aimed at graphic pieces with their pictures each worth some number of words, probably not a thousand but a goodly sum. In some of these passages and excerpts, you do feel like a breath has been taken, and you’re left waiting to exhale.

Is this part of the urgency of the form? Inherent in the image-supported textual nature of the work?  Or, as the old editor asks, is it something about missing stamina?

For those looking for more words than images without borders, there’s a longer read this month in the opening installment of a novella by Sang Young Park, translated from Korean by Anton Hur. Being a work of words and not pictures, it can be transmitted by audio, and you can hear Sang Young Park read “The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta” in Korean, in an audio clip.

And as for this month’s works of graphic fiction and nonfiction, Harris writes, “We think they provide singular insight into the lives and minds of others. And we hope you’ll have no argument with that.”

They do. And they do it quickly.

More from Publishing Perspectives on ‘Words Without Borders’ is here, more from us on translation is here,  and more of Publishing Perspectives’ coverage of France’s Festival International de la Bande Desinée at Angoulême is here.

Words Without Borders has an event planned in New York City for February 27. In collaboration with Symphony Space‘s “Selected Shorts” program, which is broadcast on many radio stations in the United States, Words Without Borders will feature stories by Dmitry Biriukov, Réka Mán-Várhegyi, Yalçın Tosun, and Évelyne Trouillot, all performed by stage and screen actors–in the tradition of “Selected Shorts,” which is a long-running series of themed story evenings with familiar performance artists.

In this case, translator and writer Idra Novey hosts, and Karan Mahajan, author of The Association of Small Bombs (Penguin/Viking, 2016)  and Siri Hustvedt, author of The Blazing World (Simon & Schuster, 2014) are to be featured. The program will be taped for the radio show and its podcast.  

The show will be in Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre, with tickets priced at US$22 for Symphony Space members, $26 for non-members, and $16 for students. Information and ticket purchasing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.