Michele Hutchison reports from the 41st Angoulême Comics Festival, the opportunities for, and resistance to, translation, and how the irreverent form of comics still finds plenty of time for controversy

After our enjoyable experience translating graphic novelist Brecht Evens together, fellow translator Laura Watkinson and I decided to take ourselves off to Angoulême this year. Keen to find more translation work in this genre and with a whole kit-bag of languages between us (Dutch, French, Italian, and German into English) we decided to ply our trade at the comics festival of all comics festivals. We were to discover that, although the genre has become more literary, the idea of a literary translator for comics is still rather novel.Invited to a dinner held by the Dutch Foundation for Literature who are supporting now comics, the first language we found ourselves speaking was Dutch. The great satirical artist and agent provocateur known as Willem (Bernard Willem Holtrop, 1941-) initially made his name as a Dutch cartoonist, but was charged with high treason after a 1966 caricature depicted Queen Juliana as a prostitute, and he moved to Paris and built up an illustrious career in France, combining politics with obscenity. Last year, he was awarded the Grand Prix d’Angoulême, a lifetime achievement award. It gave the Dutch the perfect opportunity to get their foot in the door.This year, Willem invited twenty comics artist from Holland to come along and produce screen-printed posters satirising French current affairs and fly-post them all over Angoulême. The project was called LA BEDE EST DANS LA RUE and was highly visible and very effective. (Do check out the posters on their weblog.)  A good deal of these artists’ books have been or will be translated into French but few are published in English. Typex’s Rembrandt was recently published by Self-Made Hero, who will also be bringing out Barbara Stok’s Vincent, translated by Laura, next month. Jan Cleijne’s Helden van de tour (Heroes of the Tour) has just been sold to Head of Zeus.As we dined with this select group of Dutch artists, attempts to ply our trade were met with incomprehension. Translators?! What are you doing here? We all translate ourselves into English. Or we write in English. Do comics need professional translators? We can’t afford them.We ended up editing Jeroen Funke’s self-translated texts at the dinner table instead. The next day when we did a tour of the stands and the rights’ centre, we encountered similar patches of resistance. One publisher translated from French himself and had an editor check it. Others used native speakers of the language being translated from rather than the other way round. Only the French, who with their thriving comics industry form an international hub and translate from many languages, were un-phased by the concept of comics translators.Unfortunately, we can’t translate into French! So it was time to relax and enjoy the show instead. Two of my favourite graphic novelists, Rutu Modan from Israel and Alison Bechdel from the US were coming to give talks, both had recent books about their family. The concept of the graphic novel as opposed to the comic was partly derived from the fact that there has been a growing trend in biographical and autobiographical works over recent years. La Cité internationale de la bande dessiné, Angoulême’s über-modern, super-fantastic comics museum bore witness to this fact too. ‘Towards the end of the twentieth century a new form arose, featuring current affairs, society, world travel. It was a way for the reporter-artist to reconfigure observed reality and offer a personal vision of the facts’.The personal is often political though and the comics genre’s history of subversion is one of its most popular characteristics (see for example Mad magazine est. 1952). Alison Bechdel, famous for the Bechdel test, said she knew how it felt to not be seen, and she wanted to render visible people on the margins of society. Her famous series Dykes to Watch Out For is a page-turning, at times hilarious lesbian soap and deliberately includes more than one black character (no token measures). The French interviewer clumsily questioned Rutu Modan on the unconventional-looking female protagonist in Exit Wounds, giving her the perfect opportunity to wonder why a woman shouldn’t be represented as very tall and not conventionally beautiful. This is what real people look like.Meanwhile, a cartoon on the front page of the local paper poked fun at the outrage from Palestinian supporters that the Israeli company Soda Stream was the official sponsor of the festival, and the Japanese ambassador had apparently denied the historical accuracy of a wonderful exhibition featuring Korean works about the enforced prostitution of ‘comfort women’ during the second world war. Check out the drawings of Tack Young-ho, Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, Choi In-sun and Jisue Shin if you can find them. Translation work may have been scarce but there was enough controversy to go round.About the authorMichele Hutchison worked in British publishing and in Dutch publishing for many years before becoming a full-time translator and blogger. Writers she has translated include Joris Luyendijk, Rob Riemen, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer and Simone van der Vlugt.  Additional informationThe Angoulême Festival website in FrenchFleurs qui ne se fanent pas – Korean exhibition on Comfort women.More information on the Sodastream controversy at the festival.Please see here for ‘Ghentish Talent‘, Michele Hutchison’s previous PEN Atlas piece for graphic novels from Flanders.