‘Blacksad: They All Fall Down-Part One’ Translator Diana Schutz: The Conskipper Interview

Multiple Eisner and Harvey award-winning graphic novel series Blacksad‘s latest installment, They All Fall Down-Part One, continues the story of the hard-boiled anthropomorphic detective John Blacksad to the delight of fans worldwide.

Dark Horse Comics English language version of the tour de force by writer Juan Díaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido sees the feline detective embroiled in another plot involving unions, the mob, and mid-century construction magnate Lewis Solomon, who wants to destroy New York City’s green space forever.

International editions such as this one need a fluent translator to make the story accessible to those who aren’t versed in the original language of the text, and this is where Diana Schutz comes in. Schutz has a long history of translating critically acclaimed international comics and she provides details about her process and the challenges of working with such a well-known and cherished series for English speaking audiences in this exclusive interview.

How did you become involved in translating fiction, and in particular, Blacksad?

Diana Schutz: As an industry veteran of 44 years (!) now, my editorial focus has always been on creator-owned comics, and that includes creator-owned international comics like Blacksad. I grew up in Montreal—a very European, mostly French-speaking city—as the child of first-generation German and Ukrainian immigrants. Though English is my native tongue, my elementary education took place entirely in French, so there were any number of different languages spoken in our home when I was young. I also studied Latin in high school, German in college, took Spanish courses at night here in Portland for several years in the aughts, and even some Italian for a time when I began editing The Manara Library, which collects the work of Italian artist Milo Manara. Honestly, French, Spanish, and Italian are all basically the same language! If you know one Romance language as well as I know French, it’s easier to pick up the others; even the vocabularies are very similar. 

As a bilingual kid in the 1960s, I read Supergirl stories in English and Tintin in French, and through the years I continued to read French graphic novels—they seemed to grow up with me—and I’d explore Montreal’s French bookstores anytime I returned there. So, during my editorial tenure at Dark Horse Comics, from 1990 to 2015, I edited as many international projects as I could—more as American readers grew more receptive. In fact, I think the success of both Blacksad and The Manara Library, first published in 2010 and 2011 respectively, really went a long way toward changing the U.S. market’s perception of European comics. 

Editor Katie Moody, my former assistant, had shepherded the first Dark Horse Blacksad volume, and I came on board with 2012’s Blacksad: A Silent Hell. Artist Juanjo Guarnido and I were already acquainted by then, having been introduced by our mutual friend, the late Tim Sale. And much to my surprise, in the course of editing A Silent Hell, I was asked by writer Juan Díaz Canales to try my hand at translating the two short backup stories we’d planned for that volume: “Spit at the Sky” and “Like Cats and Dogs.” The latter ends on a very sweet note of friendship, and it felt like that work cemented my professional and personal relationship with Juan and Juanjo, both of whom are such talented creators but also really kind humans. When I retired from my editorial position at Dark Horse, I began translating French and Spanish graphic novels on a freelance basis for a few different publishers, and it seemed a natural fit for me to translate Blacksad, especially after having worked with Juan and Juanjo all this time, knowing I could turn to them with any questions I might have about the work.

Describe the process that you and Brandon Kander used in adapting the latest Blacksad graphic novel.

Schutz: Brandon and I have worked together off and on since our translation of Olivier Vatine’s Niourk graphic novel, and I felt the English-language translation of Blacksad, with its 1950s noir themes, would really benefit from Brandon’s male sensibility. But Blacksad presents a unique challenge for translators. Juan Díaz Canales writes the original script for each book in his native Spanish, but the “official” script is always the French translation, as Dargaud is the title’s primary publisher and rights holder. So, Brandon—who also grew up in Montreal—wrote the initial translation, working French-to-English. Then I wrote the final text, drawing from both the original Spanish script and the “official” French script, all with an eye towards what would best serve the English script. Since each language is a different system, each script has different requirements for flow and readability. And of course, the final English script must also fit the space for balloons and captions, which Juanjo Guarnido paints directly in the art, so in some instances I provided letterers Tom Orzechowski and Lois Athena Buhalis with shorter alternative text in case that was necessary.

Were there particular challenges in the translation? Specific dialogue or scenes that were difficult to translate?

Schutz: The new book includes translation notes, some of which explain certain English script choices and why they were made. Puns, for example, are simply not translatable from one language to another: they depend on specific words having two (or more) meanings, and just because a given word has two meanings in one language doesn’t mean that there’s a corresponding word in English with the same two underlying meanings—in fact, the chances of that are almost nil. So, on story page 4, Juan’s Spanish script uses a nice pun involving the word gallinero, which means both henhouse and a theater’s inexpensive seating area, the cheap seats or peanut gallery. But there is no equivalent term in English with both those meanings, so we opted for henhouse hecklers there to give as much of a sense of the original as we could. 

What’s difficult about translation is not so much understanding the original script as expressing those meanings in an entirely different linguistic system—writing, in other words. Translating a graphic novel written in one language basically means writing a whole new book in English! Languages don’t correspond word-for-word. That’s just not how they work, even though that’s how they’re taught in school—which is probably why most people don’t learn them very well in school! It’s tough for people who speak only one language to understand how much writing is involved in translating fiction. 

Writing the scene with Rachel and Mr. Raffles was challenging because everything that comes out of Raffles’s mouth is meant to be taken in a flirtatious, but creepy way, and when he grabs Rachel’s butt, his line has to come across as a sleazy double-entendre based on what Solomon has just said to him in the previous panel. The whole scene was tricky, and I rewrote it a number of times before I was satisfied.

Do you feel extra pressure to “get it right” based on the fame of Blacksad in the U.S. and in Europe?

Schutz: Well, again, translation isn’t about “getting it right.” It’s about writing a good script in English—one whose overall meaning is faithful to the original, but which takes best advantage of what English has to offer in terms of its own particular literary qualities, since those differ from language to language. And the pressure to do all of that well springs from my sense of responsibility to the creators, first of all, and also to our English-language readers.

What about the series makes it stand out in your opinion?

Schutz: The art, of course, is immediately eye-catching! Juanjo is a master of watercolor painting, but he’s also worked in animation so his storytelling ability is impeccable as well. And Juan’s love of mid-century America comes through on every page. I adore the anthropomorphic characters, especially John Blacksad himself. He’s sort of a cat out of his time, you know? The Fifties were a pretty repressive decade, but Blacksad is much more enlightened than everyone around him—which doesn’t always make his life very easy!

Future projects?

Schutz: Right now I’m enjoying being semi-retired, but my translation of The Major by the legendary Moebius is currently in production, and Brandon and I will get back to work soon on Blacksad, for Part Two of They All Fall Down.

Blacksad: They All Fall DownPart One is now available in finer comic book shops and book stores everywhere. Stay tuned to Conskipper for information about Part Two soon.

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