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Translation in the time of COVID: a collaborative project to translate a topical French comic strip

11 August 2020

Over the last few months, translation has had to do its fair share of adapting. Each country affected by the pandemic has developed new words and phrases which reflect both how its language behaves and the approach the government has taken to the crisis. In the UK, phrases such as ‘lockdown’ and ‘social distancing’ may have originated amongst the general population but have since become integral to the way the government has organised the UK’s pandemic response. English is very flexible with the relationship between nouns and verbs. Simply by adding an -ing, speakers can turn an abstract concept such as ‘social distance’ into something far more active, almost a reminder to be vigilant. But what about languages which cannot chop and change the endings of its words so liberally? Exactly how easy is it to equate the various COVID phrases in different languages, and apply them in translation? These are questions the Queen’s Translation Exchange’s L’Avventura project has set out to discuss.

Fiamma Luzzati’s French comic strip L’Avventura has documented life during the COVID crisis in France and Italy from a number of perspectives. The comics themselves have been published in Le Monde as well as in the book Ressusciter n’est pas une mince affaire. We are therefore very excited to have been given permission to translate the ten most recent comic strips into English for the first time. Each comic covers characters in different societal roles and with different stories to tell, all with the consistent goal of addressing social and scientific phenomena which have arisen during the pandemic. The project to translate Fiamma Luzzati’s work has become a space both for discussing literary translation more generally, but also for addressing and documenting the changes in the world of translation in recent times. A graduating modern linguist from Queen’s myself, I have been lucky enough to help coordinate the project, headed by Dr Holly Langstaff.

The focus of the project is, in many ways, discussion. Each comic is being tackled by two teams of roughly six translators who have been meeting online to discuss the challenges of each translation and to produce an English version of their own. At the same time, our project contributors have been writing a weekly blog about the project, detailing their own impressions of the material and how they are drawing on their own experiences to translate it. This element of discussion will come to its climax at next week’s virtual Sharing Session, where we hope to welcome as many of the project’s 120 participants as possible to hold presentations on various topics connected with the comics. After that, we hope also to welcome some non-French speakers to the project as we begin to finalise the English versions of the comics. These will then be published on the QTE website throughout September.

We have been very happy to be able to use the virtual nature of the project to welcome contributors from near and far: alongside 40 students from the Oxford MML (Medieval and Modern Languages) Faculty, participants are joining in from across Europe, as well as from Australia and the USA. Running the project online has enabled us to have far more contributors than would normally be possible for such a project and has made it easier for participants to work translation and discussion around busy working schedules. For myself, it has provided an excellent first step into maintaining contact with Queen’s and Oxford as an alumnus. This has been especially valuable after being away from the University for such a long time during my final year. In many ways, leaving university feels, at the moment, less like leaving university behind.

The outreach of the Queen’s Translation Exchange has also remained as active as ever during the summer months. We were really pleased to run our first international book club for sixth formers this July. A total of fifty students from across the UK met with members of the Exchange via Zoom to discuss The Island by Ana María Matute (Penguin Classics), which has been translated into English by Queen's Spanish Fellow Laura Lonsdale. The students broke out into smaller groups for most of the discussion, which was full of lively and astute observations about the novel. We look forward to making this a regular outreach event, with another meeting for sixth-formers planned for the autumn.

Sam Davis - Modern Languages (French and German), matriculated 2016

The translation project was initiated by Dr Charlotte Ryland and Prof. Seth Whidden, and is run by the Queen’s Translation Exchange

The two comic panels reproduced here are both from Fiamma Luzzati's third comic, published in Le Monde on 9 April 2020.

A comic panel drawn by Fiamma Luzzati about a hospital worker in a Covid Hub