For generations of French-speaking people around the world, Tintin cartoon albums have been cultural icons, read from childhood into old age.
This week Khmer becomes the 55th language into which the albums have been translated since Tintin embarked on his first adventure, written and illustrated by Herge, in 1929.
The Khmer album, which will be presented to the press and distributors in Phnom Penh on Nov 20, is “The Blue Lotus.” Tintin book collectors have eagerly been talking about this Khmer release.
The Khmer Tintin started as “just an idea” of a professor at the Institute of Foreign Languages of the Royal University of Phnom Penh. It turned into a two-year task that had students struggling with French colloquialisms, Chinese history and Khmer words for technical devices past and current.
It also took the support of the French Cultural Center, which subsidized the project through French aid and handled its commercial aspects, and the support of Editions Casterman in Belgium, which has been publishing Tintin since 1934.
The result: a copyrighted Khmer Tintin album, of world-class quality.
“I call this a little collective adventure,” said Christophe Macquet, the professor who thought Tintin an interesting project for his 1999-2001 translation class and got Etienne Pollet, publisher of Herge Collections at Casterman, to agree to it.
“We’ve been expecting [the release of the album] eagerly,” said Bo Kosal, one of the 10 students on the translating team. “We bothered so many people,” looking for information, said Sok Limsrorn, also on the team. They said they can’t wait to show the finished product.
Macquet picked “The Blue Lotus” to be the first Khmer album because, he said, “It’s the story of a friendship between a Westerner and an Asian.”
“The Blue Lotus,” which first came out as an album in 1936, takes place in China in 1931, when Japanese troops were occupying parts of mainland China and Shanghai.
While on the trail of a band of kidnappers, Tintin saves the life of a young Chinese boy, Chang, who was about to drown in a flood. Chang tells Tintin how surprised he is that a Westerner would risk his life for him. “Chang thinks all white people are bad, and Tintin explains that prejudices come from the fact that people don’t know each other,” Macquet said. Tintin makes Chang laugh, telling him about misconceptions Westerners also have about Chinese. “In the 1930s in Europe, there were few people writing [ideas] like this,” Macquet said. “In this album, Tintin is ‘politically correct’ by today’s standards.”
Tintin’s creator, Herge, devised his pen name from the pronunciation of his initials “RG”, which stood for Georges Remi, said Pollet in an e-mail interview from Belgium. Born in Brussels, Belgium, in 1907, he started doing odd jobs in the editorial department of a newspaper and, with no formal education beyond high school, got into cartoons when he was assigned to the paper’s youth section, Pollet said. He died in 1983, leaving behind an unfinished album about fake artwork trafficking.
Herge’s hero, Tintin, is a young journalist who, accompanied by his white fox-terrier Milou (called Snowy in the English translation), breezes through one adventure after the other, defeating the many villains, criminals and clowns who cross his path. He battles gangsters in the diamond trade in Congo, museum thieves in South America and follows opium traders from Egypt to India. In a double-album story released in 1953 and 1954, Tintin goes to the moon in a spacecraft strangely similar to spacecraft Russian and US astronauts piloted years later.
Even though “The Blue Lotus” is a cartoon book, it was a major undertaking from a translation standpoint. It consisted of 62 pages whose illustrations had to remain identical to the original French album. This meant that, although Khmer can take up to three times more space than French or English, the final text had to fit in the balloons on each page. Translators had to rework the copy two or three times to make it fit, said Herve Hamon, graphic artist at Les Editions du Mekong, which handled the balloons. “We thought it would take three weeks, and it took three months,” he said.
The project began at the start of the 1999-2000 school year. It was to be the school assignment of students completing their bachelor’s degree in French studies and who had selected translation as their two-year optional training .
First, Macquet and Eang Kim, a Cambodian professor now teaching Khmer at a Paris institute, prepared the work. “The pedagogic goal was to teach them [translation] methods through the work on the book,” Macquet said.
Then students got to work. The text was riddled with difficulties, said Sok Limsrorn. For instance, Chang talks about the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 in China. The story also refers to the League of Nations, which was replaced by the UN in 1945. “We had to search through [Khmer] history books of the time,” for the official translation of these names, Sok Limsrorn said.
For the translation of a rickshaw, Bo Kosal went to an elderly Cambodian who remembered this Chinese mode of transportation, a chair pulled by a running driver. This research was part of the training, Macquet said. “A translator must make sure that a word or expression does not exist,” before coming up with his own version. “Otherwise, it’s not serious work. A translator has to be an honest and obstinate person.”
The story itself took some effort to understand, Sok Limsrorn said. “The Blue Lotus” may be the Herge album that is closest to the historical events of the period. Tintin is caught in events that led to Japan’s incursions into Chinese territory; he gets into trouble in the International