30: Le petit mickey 



The News Section was a single sheet and the news was brief, to the point, uninterpreted. Jerry didn’t read it. In fact, he didn’t read anything except part of the Comic Supplement.

(Moorcock, The Final Programme p.33)




Since I began attending to Giraud’s work in French, my ignorance (still extensive) has been punctured by a number of small discoveries. For instance, I couldn’t have told you that a “petit mickey” was one of the things a comic strip was called. Giraud used the term in his 1979 introduction to Major Fatal: “PARFOiS CEPENDANT, L’ENFANT ARRiVE SANS DOULEUR, À L’iNSU PRESQUE DU DESSiNATEUR DE PETiTS MiCKEYS...

     On other occasions, my attempt to come to grips with the French language has facilitated discoveries I might otherwise not have made, because the substantive issues were obscured by translation. Episode 27 is a case in point.

     Where the fantastic events of episode 26 are illustrated with what might be viewed, in a less exuberant strip, as care and sobriety, the episode that follows recoils back toward whimsy. Orne Batmagoo and a companion are borne past a most elaborate title by four three-legged exos. Batmagoo’s attire recalls the self-conscious silliness of Samuel Mohad’s costume in episode 4’s flashback. But (the lightness of some cartoonish figures in the background notwithstanding) the linework is careful, even if the page looks visually busy.

     The second page, by contrast, is very simple: a full-page illustration of Grubert on the threshold of Room 6:



Essentially the same image (expanded and refined) that closed what was originally the twenty-third installment, it doesn’t (four episodes later) take us any further; yet I remember it as an image that, forty years ago, held my eye, and seemed to promise my fascination some ultimate reward. Now it’s time to call that promise to account.

     Grubert stands in a doorway, with a hand raised. Okania’s behind him. Both are looking out past or through the reader, into a darkened room—and what held me was nothing more or less than visual pleasure. The shading still tickles my eye. It’s by no means Giraud’s most finished, Finlayesque shading, but it captures a brief moment in time that’s lasted four decades and more. Its secret was always in plain sight, and I didn’t miss it forty years ago. But today I discovered it anew, and in a new light.

     Do not be impatient, for I shall tell you nothing. Rather, I’ll return to the beginning of the episode, in order to consider some of the varied issues surrounding the 1987 translation, beginning with


     (1) A sort of malaise


     I offer you...  


a translation of the original résumé



... against the 1987 translation




Now, really. What difference does it make? “A KIND OF UNEASE” is certainly a plausible translation of “UNE SORTE DE MALAiSE”; but if English can get closer without betraying itself, is there a good reason why it shouldn’t? The answer is one a translator is obliged to confront repeatedly. It involves tact, discretion and judgment.

     In this case, in view of the die Barnier’s been handling in the previous two episodes—and not forgetting the heap of entrails in episode 12 (evidence of a sacrifice for the purpose of divining the future)—must we rule out an echo of “sortilege” in “SORTE”? Perhaps it’s not such a strong or obvious echo that it’s a disaster if it has to be lost. But why must the malaise seep through, and not hover (“PLANE”) about (“AUTOUR”) the palace? The destruction of an airborne vehicle is its immediately precedent cause, so an airborne malaise preserves and exposes something of the free and whimsical strategies that generate the story.

     The word order regarding the presidential palace is perhaps no more than a matter of taste. Yes, French doesn’t have the possessive’s apostrophe, but English has sufficient flexibility to follow the French here, and “THE PRESIDENTiAL PALACE OF ARMJOURTH” would be as grandly suitable in a tourist brochure as it is here.


     (2) Mister President?


     When Batmagoo asks his companion, “WHAT CAN THE PREZ WANT WITH ME AT SUCH AN HOUR? ”, the 1987 version translates “PREZ” as “PRESIDENT”. When Batmagoo’s companion tells him “EVERYTHiNG iS GOiNG BADLY SiNCE SHE SAW YOUR PiCTURES”, that “SHE” refers to the individual referred to in the Marvel version (since episode 21) as “MISTER PRESIDENT”.

     Now, admittedly it’s “PRÉSiDENT” rather than “PRÉSiDENTE”—“LE PRÉSiDENT” in episode 23, “LE PREZ” in 27—but the president does appear to have breasts. It’s possible, of course, that he’s a transvestite; or else, being rather corpulent, that the fatty deposits on his chest are accentuated by his rather odd presidential attire; but I’m willing to accept the guidance of the pronoun in episode 27.

     The insistence on Mister President may be no more than deference to the American form of address—it was used also in the Heavy Metal translation—but, announcing their intention to “fix some internal inconsistencies”, the translators opted to take a walk on the mild side, changing the “SHE” to a “HE”, and pussyfooting around the possibility that the President of Armjourth was either a woman (and, by the looks of things, a homosexual) or a transsexual who might prefer to be identified as female.


     (3) The police operation


     A direct translation of what the President’s lady companion says in the next panel would be, “PRESiDENT!.. THE POLiCE OPERATiON SURROUNDiNG THE HOTEL WHERE THE MAJOR AND HiS COMPANiON WENT ARE WAiTiNG ONLY FOR YOUR ORDER TO ATTACK!. ” but in 1987 the “POLiCE” became “TROOPS”, and their prospective action was disguised and softened. Rather than awaiting the order to attack, they were “READY TO MOVE AT YOUR COMMAND!

     Despite an expressed intention to “reinstate some elements of continuity... lost in earlier American translations”, the language here shows that the Lofficiers were not above mishandling a few elements of continuity on their own account. What might be translated as “POLiCE OPERATiON” is based on the French “DiSPOSiTIF POLiCiER”, and is consistent with the President’s earlier order, at the beginning of episode 24 (originally the twenty-third installment), when she said “C’EST BiEN LUi !  METTEZ LE DiSPOSiTiF EN PLACE”—“DiSPOSiTiF” being the prearranged plan of action, whose existence is confirmed in 27. Grubert’s return has been anticipated. The 1987 translation offered only rather a vague stab at this—“IT ’S DEFINITELY HIM !  PLACE EVERYONE ON ALERT! ”—failing to indicate this plan, and rendering the close continuity between these two episodes (and indeed, in the whole sequence of action between 21 and 34) difficult to discern.


     (4) Something terrible


     Apart from the usual “MISTER PRESIDENT”, the translation of the fourth panel in episode 27 is fine—up to the point where the President says, “BUT THERE’S SOMETHING ELSE THAT I SAW IN YOUR PICTURES ... SOMETHING THAT PORTENDS VERY BADLY FOR US ALL.” This is not precise. The original is closer to:




     The difference may not appear so important; but, by having the President say she saw something, while omitting to let readers know something is concealed in the picture—something terrible—the “translators” denied readers the opportunity of making a discovery.

     I have made that discovery.

     Having discovered the secret, I shall not reveal it. If you ask, I’m prepared to tell you why the HAL 9000 computer in 2001 appeared to malfunction. I’m prepared to answer the question of whether a dog has a buddha nature. But I shall not tell you the terrible thing I discovered, beyond acknowledging that I was already aware of it, and that no one who has read the Garage is likely to be surprised by it. Nevertheless it was a genuine discovery, by which I was both startled and pleased—and by which I consider my reading of the Garage enriched. I’ll try to indicate the nature of this enrichment by analogy with a discovery made by another reader of another (and quite dissimilar) work.

     Around the middle of the nineteenth century, Thomas De Quincey proposed an answer to the riddle reportedly posed by the sphinx in Oedipus Rex—a riddle assumed to have been answered two and a half millennia earlier by Oedipus. Not so, according to De Quincey. Oedipus did not properly understand the answer he gave, and neither have we. The sphinx asked: what walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three in the evening? Oedipus said the answer was “Man”, who crawls on all fours as a child, stands upright when he has grown, but must walk with the aid of a stick when old and feeble. Hearing this answer, the sphinx threw itself from a cliff.

     What Oedipus failed to understand, De Quincey suggested, was that the true answer referred not to men in general or man in the abstract, but to one man in particular—Oedipus—who had crawled on all fours, like all men, and then walked upright; but who would walk with a stick after he blinded himself.

     Not everyone was impressed by De Quincey’s suggestion. It has been considered trivial. But it has the merit of explaining why the sphinx did away with itself. The fatality was only indirectly the result of the riddle being solved. The real reason was that the sphinx acted under a curse, and knew that when the riddle was answered, it had been confronted by a creature more monstrous than itself. It killed itself in a recoil of horror.

     My discovery likewise has two parts. The first is obvious, even if translation has disguised the fact that it is the point of the episode. And, indeed, it may be judged trivial.

     What is less obvious, and only became evident after the echo of my initial delight (I laughed out loud) died away, is that the President is correct in what she says. What is hidden in the picture is terrible.

     The terrible discovery is reflected, in some sense, by how the story ends. It is further explored in the sequel, more than a decade later. It is finally resolved only in Giraud’s last work featuring Gruber(t), Le Major.