Monday, July 22, 2013

Lost in Translation

Just got an interesting email from the translator working on MI AMIGO DAHMER, the Spanish version due in early 2014. 

Dear Mr. Backderf
I'm in the process of translating "My Friend Dahmer" for the Spanish edition. So far I haven't had any problems with your excellent graphic novel (congratulations for such a fine work) but there is one panel I would like to consult with you, because I want to make sure that I nail everything. It's the old cartoon on page 118, the one with lots of balloons. The ones I'd like to know about are the following:
Also, I would like to know if there's any sense to the recurring "pile of sticks" gag.
If you could help me with this, I'd greatly appreciate it, and I think it'd improve the quality of the Spanish translation.

The cartoon, one of the ones I drew in high school is this one, which appeared in the senior yearbook:

It's the spookiest of my surviving high school drawings, because each and every member of the Dahmer Fan Club is in there somewhere, as is Jeff himself, and virtually everything in the word balloons are "Dahmerisms"– things Jeff said and which became repeated catchphrases by my friends and I, or were phrases of our own invention that we Dahmerized, by saying them in his spaz voice. And now here's someone asking me how to translate this gobbledygook! This project never ceases to be weird, I'll tell you.

Here's what it all means.

WHAT HO! 'TIS THE HIGH LARD! One of our friends, not a member of my inner circle or involved with Dahmer, was big into the teenage branch of the Masons. He sat one table over from us in the cafeteria, ruling over a collection of bizarre high school characters. Yes, it was the Freak Table. He was a nice enough guy, but we teased him about this Mason thing mercilessly, calling him the High Lord of the Masons. He was overweight, so this mutated into the High Lard. Yeah, comic genius on display. It mutated again, as we were all Monty Python fans and the Seventies were the peak of their rockstar popularity, and we said it in English accents. My advice to the translator was to forget about this one.

GIMME FWAPPE. A favorite hangout after a movie on a Friday or Saturday was an ice cream parlor in suburban Akron, Barnhill's. We'd all pile into the place, 10 or 12 of us. As the waitress went around taking orders one evening, she came to Kent and he bleeted out in a Dahmer voice "Gimme Fwappe!" (a Frappe). We all cracked up and this quickly became a favorite catchphrase. 

CHOWALE. We were all in the band. Kent was, in fact,  a musical prodigy, and would go on to have a 20-year career in classical performance. In high school, he was the student conductor. The piece he directed for the Spring concert was Chorale (I forget who the composer was). Naturally, we quickly Dahmerized this to Chowale and would bleet it out in unison in Dahmer voices whenever he took the podium in rehearsal.

CHEW GLASS. One of the few balloons that is NOT a Dahmerism. It was a bandie thing, as I recall. "Chew glass", as in "go chew some glass." A favorite insult we lobbed at each other.

Finally, the recurring PILE OF STICKS gag. One of our number, while looking up dirty words in the huge dictionary (this guy was actually an honor student!) in the school library, noticed that the 2nd definition for "faggot" was "a pile of sticks." He found this so hilarious that he incessantly started calling all of us a "pile of sticks." So much so, his nickname quickly became Sticks. 

Not a shining moment in tolerance, I'll grant you, but, again, this was a different time. Paul Feig, the creator of Freaks & Geeks, who, of course, saw his surname Feig turned, by his junior high tormentors, into Fag, describes it best in his hilarious book, Kick Me:
I would come to find out that every guy was called a "fag" at one time or another. The only time you weren't a fag, is when you were calling some other guy a fag. The irony was that few of us had any idea what the word actually meant. The word "fag" was part of the lexicon when I grew up. Guys couldn't form a sentence without it. They couldn't articulate greetings. That and the word "dick." In some ways, "dick" was more popular than "fag."
The thing was, neither word could be said within earshot of a teacher. Some of the old biddies, who longed for the era when students were clean-cropped and mannerly,  would actually recoil in  horror and disgust at the utterance of either, and the offending pottymouth would be dispatched to the office, to a farewell chorus of hoots and howls.  Ah, but "pile of sticks", later shortened to just "pile" or "sticks," conveyed the exact same sentiment in secret code! Even the insult "flaming pile" would elicit nothing but a furrowed brow of confusion from a sexagenarian school marm.

This was the sort of nonsense we filled our days with. What can I say, we were bored stiff.

My advice to the translator was that he pass on that one, too.

I passed this on to friends Mike and Neal and they were greatly amused as well. I mean, imagine if you can, your own teenage language– we all had one, the phrases and nicknames you used with your friends and will forever will be associated with that time of your life– not only attached to a monstrous serial killer.... but then translated into German, French and Spanish! 


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