How a poilu came into my life... in a spectacular way

Translator Canan Marasligil blogs about the magic of creating and translating comics, her involvement in the Spectacular Translation Machine and the workshop possibilities that comics and graphic novels present. 

Poilu. I really enjoy hearing the word. Poilu literally means 'hairy' and is an informal term for a WWI infantryman. According to Wikipedia (our great source of knowledge) the term came into popular usage in France during the era of Napoleon Bonaparte and his massive citizen armies. The word carries the sense of the infantryman's typically rustic, agricultural background as beards and bushy moustaches were often worn.

I am a translator: I care deeply about words and their meanings in different languages. So when Sarah Ardizzone, the fantastic translator of Barroux's graphic novel,  asked me to be part of a Spectacular Translation Machine, I jumped in the air and said “YES!". When she told me about Line of Fire, which was still known my its French title On Les Aura! at the time, it triggered my curiosity even more. As a literary translator totally immersed in comics through various projects - from writing, curating exhibitions to translating, I  immediately loved Barroux’s illustration of this WWI soldier. This poilu was literally brought back to life through Barroux’s drawings, and now I was asked to help children and adults to bring it back to life again in another language, inside a spectacular translation machine. My enthusiasm was at its peak.

Throughout a weekend at the Southbank Centre I gave two different workshops: one aimed at children and one at adults. I have to say, when you work with comics and graphic novels, everyone can become children, and I say this in the most magical sense. Magical because when you are allowed to dive deeply into your imagination, you can make magic happen. That’s what happened inside the Spectacular Translation Machine. I did not use very different techniques with both groups and, in this case, children needed less explanation about comics than the adults. One of the kids was even writing and drawing comics and told me he dreamed about becoming a comic artist (my message to the boy: if you and your parents read this, don't give up on your dream/let him become a comic artist). In both workshops we explored the relationship between images and text, and we looked at comics in general: how they are read, how they are made…and how they can be translated.

We started looking at Barroux’s technique: the colours, the use of charcoal-like pencil and how he depicts the soldier, in a cartoonish way. So I told both groups about Scott McCloud who, in his book Understanding Comics (1993) discusses the power of iconic depictions available through cartoons. According to McCloud, the abstraction involved in the cartoon enables the audience to project their identity more readily and thus amplify involvement. "TheCartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled, an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel into another realm. We don't just observe the cartoon, we become it!” (1993:36). Comic artists utilise this power for different effects. By contrasting realistic backgrounds against a cartoonish character, an artist can position the reader inside the impactful surroundings with ease. Although not directly related to the textual component of comics, understanding stylistic choices and their underlying cultural connotations with regard to cartooning can be beneficial for the translator. In the case of our poilu, Barroux’s choice to draw in a cartoonish way helped us all to connect even more with the character. In a sense, we could all feel like a poilu.

So understanding the way the medium works greatly helps with the task of translating. This is why, during the workshops, I asked the participants (children and adults alike) to draw a sentence I read them, and to write a sentence based on Barroux's drawings. The results were, again, magic, because they were full of imagination, and it showed how different our understanding and perspectives of an image can be and how differently we visualise things in our head. Try this exercise at home and compare results; draw 'a woman is sitting in her living room and suddenly, a bird comes through the window'. You can look at this scene from so many different perspectives... I won't tell you which ones so as not to spoil your fun. 

As I said, my personal experience with comics is not limited to reading and translating but also includes curating, writing for comics, writing about comics and developing activities off the page, such as these workshops and others where I have used comics as an essential medium for creative expression. This close involvement with the medium allows me to be well-connected to the comics world and its creators, and this familiarity in turn makes me love the medium even more. And that one  of the main reasons why I plan to bring the Spectacular Translation Machine and hopefully also Barroux’s work into other places, starting with my native Turkey.

If you haven’t read Line of Fire yet, well... what are you waiting for? And in the meantime, grab a pen and paper, and start the magic!

Canan Marasligil

Canan Marasligil is a a writer, literary translator, editor & screenwriter based in Amsterdam. She works internationally, mostly in English, French and Turkish, and also in Dutch and Spanish. Visit her website here.