Hasslein Blog: GUEST BLOG: Ee Chee Wa Maa! Translating Spain's Long-Lost Ewoks and Droids Comics


Hasslein Blog

Monday, March 25, 2013

GUEST BLOG: Ee Chee Wa Maa! Translating Spain's Long-Lost Ewoks and Droids Comics

It is my great honor to welcome long-time friend and Star Wars collaborator Abel G. Peña to the Hasslein Blog. Abel recently worked with me on a translation project that I'll be unveiling later this week in an article for Lucasfilm's starwars.com. For now, Abel describes his role in the process. If you're into Star Wars, translation, Spanish lore or simply wonderfully constructed language, this is worth your time to read, as Abel is an expert on all counts. He's a truly gifted writer and a good friend, and the Force will be with him... always.
—Rich Handley

Ee Chee Wa Maa! Translating Spain's 
Long-Lost Ewoks and Droids Comics

By Abel G. Peña

"I'm not much more than an interpreter, and not very good at telling stories. Well, not at making them interesting, anyway."—C-3PO

Recently, I translated a total of 15 Star Wars comics based on the Droids and Ewoks animated series of the mid-1980s (which can be downloaded soon). These stories were published in Spain under the MyComyc imprint in castellano (which is just fancy-talk for Spain-style Spanish). In a sense, this was a project I had to do.

I grew up bilingual, speaking Spanish and English (eventually, I also acquired competency in Italian), and my association of the teddy-bear-like Ewoks to español was indelibly imprinted on me at the age of four when I first saw Return of the Jedi in the movie theaters. It was then that I heard the furry warrior Wicket exclaim "¡Ay, Chihuahua!" in reaction to a narrow miss by an Imperial stormtrooper's blaster bolt. Of course, "¡Ay, Chihuahua!"—besides being Taco Bell's and Paris Hilton's mascot, alike—is a common exclamation in Mexican Spanish (and a close cousin to Bart Simpson's '90s catchphrase "¡Ay, caramba!"). Adapted from the name of the state of Chihuahua—which was itself borrowed from a Uto-Aztecan language, meaning "dry place"—the phrase has no literal English equivalent and simply translates to an expression of surprise, like "dang!" or, better yet, "holy moly!"

Naturally, when "¡Ay, Chihuahua!" was officially written out in "Ewokese," the spelling was altered into a more familiar phonetic English. But even this is contentious. A poem in the program for "The Ewoks and the Magic Sunberries" (a 1986 Ice Capades segment—but that's another story) spells the exclamation as "Be-che-wa-wa!" This little-known source would remain largely uncontested until Star Wars films sound designer Ben Burtt would interpret the phrase as "Ee chee wa maa!" in his Star Wars book Galactic Phrase Book & Travel Guide: Beeps, Bleats, Boskas, and Other Common Intergalactic Verbiage.

I've long been interested in translation, and the challenge and ethics of it. Indeed, the byline for one of my earliest published Star Wars works, "Droids, Technology, and the Force: A Clash of Phenomena," did not bear the attribution "By Abel G. Peña" but, rather, "By Jedi Tam Azur-Jamin (Translation by Abel G. Peña)." This is the false modesty of an interpreter. Remember: C-3PO once denied his storytelling abilities, too, before putting the lie to his claim in an Ewokese fireside chat so rousing he converted a warrior people to his cause… and vanquished a Galactic Empire.

To what extent must a translator's loyalty be to the original author's intent, supposing he can suss it? To what extent is a translator's loyalty, instead, to the text itself? And does that loyalty to the text entail a literal translation, or must one's loyalty be to its "intent," severed from human agency? 1

My favorite author is Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian who, besides being a genius storyteller, was a translator with a careful perspective on the subject. Here is a brief encapsulation, from Borges on Writing:

There is a strange paradox which I thought of this morning, although perhaps I have been thinking about it for years and years. I think there are two legitimate ways of translating. One way is to attempt a literal translation, the other is to try a re-creation…. I know no Arabic whatever, but I know there's a book known as 'The Thousand and One Nights.' Now when Jean Antoine Galland did that into French, he translated it as Les Mille et une Nuits. But when Captain Burton attempted his famous translation, he translated the title literally. Following the original Arabic word order, he called his book The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. Now there he created something not to be found in the original, since to anyone who knows Arabic the phrase isn't at all strange; it's the normal way of saying it. But in English it sounds very strange, and there is a certain beauty attained, in this case, through literal translation.

Borges had an almost Platonic concept of literature. Your job as a translator was not to capture every nuance of a text, including its imperfections. Instead, he thought a translator's loyalty must be to the ideal of the text. In a sense, an original was like a rough draft for the translation. Hence, his affection for the modifications and embellishments to the translations of The Thousand and One Nights, such as the aforementioned literalization of the title as well as Galland's "Aladdin," which (along with "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves") is the best-known tale in the book and one whose actual Arabic provenance is heavily disputed. Yes, Disney aficionados: Galland didn't translate these… he made 'em up. Obviously, this granted Borges a great deal of liberty to translate as he pleased. 2

How about an allegory a bit closer to home. Recall, sci-fi fans, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country the scene in which the officers of the U.S.S. Enterprise dine with the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon and his delegation. During the course of the meal, Gorkon cracks wise to the ship's crew, "You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon," at which all the present Klingons respond with a hearty laugh. But this witticism reminds me of a translation conference I once attended in which the late professional polyglot Michael Heim remarked on his fascination with the almost mystical idea of "a translation superior to the original." This insightful possibility, this accident or ideal, struck a similar chord as Chancellor Gorkon's quip with the day's attendees, who, like Klingons, nodded knowingly and lobbed laughter of assent.

Alas, my empathy for my fellow writer runs too deeply to intentionally twist and reinvent texts wholesale, for I can't shake the sense that I'm committing some form of metaphysical violence. How would I feel if someone significantly altered my meaning in translation? But translating is as much art as it is science, and sometimes circumstances do admittedly force a translator's hand to… nudge a text.

Now, wait, wait just a magic-sunberry-pickin' minute! you might say. Why all this fuss and talk of "metaphysical violence" (and Star Trek!) over translating Star Wars comics of the mid-1980s, based on a cartoon, meant for kids in Spain? Isn't it… overkill?

Maybe. But as a writer, I love language. And as a multilingual speaker, I am fascinated by translation.

And, in a way incomprehensible even to myself, I love Star Wars.

In fact, I would've been one of those kids for whom these comics were meant if I lived in Spain at that time. Born in 1979, I was certainly the right age. And I watched the Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour, just like my Spanish-speaking compadres.

So as I said, this was something I felt almost meant to do. I am still very loyal to that kid. He is my compass.

The approach I took in translating these Castilian Droids and Ewoks comics was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a middle road. This ain't Shakespeare, after all. Literal translations have many faults, not the least of which is the frequent loss of some implied meaning of a word. But a translator doesn't want to completely scrub a text clean of its indigenous character and whimsy, either. At the end of the day, Star Wars is science fiction, and we expect our traditional notions—our points of view—to be challenged, however modestly. There are quaint anachronisms in these '80s comics, like references to droid "diskettes" (which I kept) and "printed circuit boards" (which I truncated), reminding us of the all-too-recent past before massive-memory cloud storage and flash drives (some shaped like cute little C-3POs and R2-D2s, to boot) came into our lives. In one of these stories, Artoo spools a "data ribbon" from his torso like some old business calculator. However, much like a dog goes "woof woof!" in English yet "¡guau guau!" in Spanish, in this scene the plucky droid makes Castilian onomatopoetic sounds that mimic those made by the noisy, primitive printer you used to own (or your parents did). I did my best to Anglicize yet preserve these unique robotic raspberries.

Thus, there were also cultural hurdles. In the Ewoks story "Perfect Antidote," the Tulgah witch Morag complains of her "mucosae," a common enough anatomical reference in Spain, but one hardly common among English-speaking adults outside a medical setting, let alone in a comic for children. I opted for the contextually analogous "sinuses." Likewise, the technical term "berry" is a dodgy issue in the English vernacular: Botanically speaking, watermelons are, in fact, far more closely related to blueberries than "berries" such as strawberries, cherries and raspberries. So what about magic Ewok berries? The Spanish authors chose to go with the word mora, which itself refers to either the zarzamora ("blackberry") or moral ("mulberry"). I translated mora simply as "berry."

More confusing still, these comics included intentional invocations of English that made for some tricky temptations. For instance, these Droids comics introduce two new characters who are academics (a strange phenomenon in its own right): one good and one evil. "Profesor Smith" was the former. Why choose the most omnipresent surname in the English language for one of your Spanish-speaking space scientists? Was this meant to be an exoticism for the Kingdom of España's children? Or the invocation of a centuries-old European relationship immediately understandable as at once familiar yet foreign, with all the attendant history of the once-warring superpowers Spain and Britain implied? For my part, I considered "translating" the name Smith into an equally ubiquitous Spanish surname: García, perhaps, or… "Professor González" has a nice ring to it. Even more bizarre, however, was the second scientist's name: "Profesor Broom." Broom? How can anyone take seriously a villain named after a housekeeping implement? Granted, he is a mad scientist. Here, there appeared even greater reason to back-translate—and even more temptation. Should I call him Professor Escoba? And having crossed that bridge, hell, why not Professor Escobar? Yes… with the name of the infamous Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar already anchored in the American psyche, this even contained a touch of the sinister, which fit the character well. Borges might have approved.

This is the beautiful, slippery slope of translation.

I wondered whether the original writer knew what the meaning of the word "Broom" was in English; the character certainly doesn't exhibit any qualities readily associated with a sweeping instrument. Maybe the author thought the word just happened to have that right menacing sound, like a cartoon car's vroom, that brusque monosyllabic quality pervasive in English, with which Borges himself seemed infatuated. The "oo" isn't even a known grammatical construction in Spanish; for that matter, neither is the "th" of Smith—the famous Castilian lisp notwithstanding. How were these names even intended to be pronounced by Spanish children?

All of this went under rigorous deliberation. In the end, I erred on the side of restraint, conceding the idiosyncratic charm of "Professor Smith" and "Professor Broom," and left their cognomina intact.

This is the beauty and art of translation.

But there was one other factor I had to take into consideration that I believe is atypical for cases of translation: the concept of being a part of a much, much larger, tapestry. The Star Wars canon. This is, after all, a mythology that has been expanding nearly four decades now, with multiple—even fleshed-out—fictional languages of its own: Huttese, Mandalorian and, indeed, Ewokese. Is one ever justified in translating a somewhat untranslatable Spanish insult (inútil) into not a clumsy English equivalent but instead into an Ewokese profanity (lurdo)? In one instance, at least, I felt I was. Likewise, in an act of retro-prophecy, the translation of the term fantasmas struck me as most aptly rendered not as the more common equivalent "ghosts" but the more literal "phantoms," per the title of a certain prequel.

In another quandary, what to do about a reference to General Koong? You see, a character known as Governor Koong had a regular gig on the Droids animated series. Are they the same man? Small continuity errors like this are nothing new in such a massive body of interwoven fiction. Do I translate this, then, literally as "general" or accidentally as "governor"? They both begin with "g." They both have three syllables…. Who would ever know? Surely, this is less egregious than Galland's interpolation of the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp into Les Mille et une Nuits, or American "translator" Kenneth Rexroth's sensuous invention of Marichiko and her Japanese love poems… or the beautiful blasphemy of he who added the tale of Jesus and the adulteress to the original Gospel of John…

…a translation superior to the original.

In the end, I opted for the obvious translation ("general" is spelled identically in both Spanish and English, for Chihuahua's sake), however contrary to existing continuity. After all, I consoled myself, the compound title-rank of "governor-general" was established in the 1990s in the series of Star Wars books called The Corellian Trilogy. Who is to say Koong wasn't conferred such a lofty appellation? Or perhaps he has a sibling? (Who looks like a green, pointy-toothed, humanoid monster, as he does in the MyComyc strip—but that's another story.)

Translation is made of such harrowing moral dilemmas.

Who were the writers of these Spanish Star Wars tales? Perhaps one day, we'll know. Maybe it's true that these were only stories intended for children, and maybe the authors considered this hack work. And maybe I would have been justified in treating it as such. But I had greater loyalties to which I felt beholden.

Borges passed away in 1986, the same year that the Ewoks and Droids TV series aired their final episodes. The same year these Spanish comics were published. And so this is my ode. To the master, to Star Wars, and to the bilingual boy who came to love them both.

To whom is a translator's—a storyteller's—loyalty ultimately owed?

To one's audience, surely. Be it Klingon, Ewok, droid or human.

(Click here to read a companion blog by Eddie van der Heijden, discussing his work on this project. And stay tuned for later this week, when Rich will discuss the Spanish comics in detail at starwars.com.)

Abel G. Peña, a.k.a. The Philodoxer, is the author of such Star Wars fiction as "History of the Mandalorians" and "The Story of General Grievous" and co-author of Vader: The Ultimate Guide and Knights of the Old Republic Campaign Guide. He has also written about life in translation in the anthology Italy From A Backpack. Follow him on Twitter @ThePhilodoxer and on Facebook at facebook.com/abelgpena, and visit his website, www.abelgpena.com.

1  A concept akin, perhaps, to the figurative ascription of "selfishness" to a nonsentient gene by science popularizer Richard Dawkins, who did so to make more easily comprehensible the principles of evolutionary biology.

2  In all fairness, when Borges translated his own work into English, he was also prone to modifications and embellishments not found in his original Spanish publications. In other words, such acts are, in his view, not metaphysical violences, but corrections. That said, Borges was a man racked by insecurity and doubts of self-worth, much like his literary predecessor Kafka. The nature of his empathy for his fellow writer is, therefore, suspect.

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At March 25, 2013 at 11:33 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well written Abel.

Kind of as in the same vein as the General/Governor issue discussed, and also the nod to established continuity and storytelling, there was one other nuance I found interesting in reading these 8 issues in Spanish. Having seen the finished English translations as well, I'm happy that this nuance was properly handled. Well, without a doubt it was, of course Abel knows what he's doing.

The nuance is that in 2 of the EWOKS stories (MyComyc issue #2 and issue #8) Morag, the sorceress is a main character.
However, in the Spanish text, the narration refers to Morag as a male, and later Morag refers to "herself/himself" as a male as well.

In Issue #2 (Antidoto Perfecto) loosely translated as "The Perfect Antidote", the opening text box reads:
"EL MALVADO MORAG" (The evil Morag). Sounds OK in English, but in Spanish adjectives are masculine or feminine, and EL MALVADO is the masculine of evil. Since Morag is female it should have read: "LA MALVADA MORAG".

In Issue #8 (Exposicion Pictorica) loosely translated as "Pictorial Exhibit or Exposition", in the 5th panel, Morag refers to herself as "QUE MALO SOY" (How evil I am). Again, MALO is the masculine adjective for evil. Had it referred to a female Morag, it would of read: " QUE MALA SOY".

Just thought I'd point out that bit of an anomaly in the Spanish storyline.

- Carlos Esteban Múñoz Zúñiga

At March 25, 2013 at 1:34 PM , Blogger Abel G. Peña said...

Well said, Carlos ... and thank you for the praise. You're absolutely right, there were many such small translation decisions to make. The Morag example you bring up actually makes it into Rich Handley's upcoming, exhaustive article on these comics on StarWars.com. ;)

At April 10, 2013 at 12:51 PM , Blogger Unai said...

Hi! It is great news that those 'lost' comics have come to light. And having translated Star Wars media to spanish myself as an amateur, reading this article has been really interesting for me. I think those are good choices that you made, because translation is surely no easy task.

However, could you release these comics in their original castillian version as well? It would be really nice for us of the spanish-speaking community. Thanks!

At April 10, 2013 at 1:19 PM , Blogger Hasslein Books said...

Unal: As a matter of fact... yes, yes we can. Stay tuned. :)

At April 11, 2013 at 8:07 AM , Blogger Abel G. Peña said...

Thank you, Unai. I'm glad you enjoyed this. In the most liberal view, all communication and writing is translation. To even entertain the possibility of such a perspective is informative.

We'll post a link on here to the original Spanish versions just as soon as we can!


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