Interview with Michael Turner and Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper
Michael Turner and Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper have been translating Hergé’s works for more than 40 years. Within that time they enjoyed a very close working, and personal, relationship with the artist. Their unique insight and attention to detail ensured that many of the subtleties of humour were preserved and gave the books a distinctly English flavour which contributed to Tintin’s early success in Britain at a time when “comic books” were frowned upon.
In this interview, conducted exclusively for Tintinologist.org in March 2004, they recall some of the obstacles they encountered, their relationship with Hergé and reveal future projects.
Transcript: Michael Turner and Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper Interview
How did you come to do the job of translating the Tintin books?
Michael Turner: Methuen were one of a long list of people that were approached by Casterman and they were universally turned down by publishers and this went on for quite a while. I don’t know what number we had in the queue, so to speak, but it got much the same reaction at Methuen as it was getting elsewhere. Of course, one has to remember the situation at that time. This was the period of the reaction to American comics—the “horror comics”—and there was a horror comic debate going on. Also at that time, where children’s books were concerned, the major sales weren’t to children or their parents, but to libraries, and there appeared little hope that libraries would pay any attention to a comic strip. In fact, even after publication they had considerable difficultly with libraries, and one library—that was Cambridge city—refused to have them in the place. So it wasn’t the best time to promote anything. It has to be recalled that very few people in Britain had the faintest idea that the Belgians were producing very good comics. I knew them because my parents— my father particularly—bought my sister and me copies when he visited France. I enjoyed them at the time and in fact, my first publication was a strip cartoon, and that was following on Tintin, I think—must have been…
To come back to your question—the children’s editor was, like many editors at the time, obsessed by the library market and she couldn’t see any future. She didn’t like comics—she thought they were degrading. However, Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper, who is my co-translator, as you know, was also editor at Methuen. We thought they shouldn’t go by without any hard thought, and fortunately, the general head of our publishing division was an enthusiastic Francophile, married to a French girl and had been in France quite a bit during the war—that was John Cullen—and so he was on our side, but there was the problem of whether the thing would work commercially. The general feeling was that it wouldn’t, but Leslie and I were so anxious that we said we would do a trial translation for nothing, just to show how it would appear in English, and eventually that was accepted. We did a couple of translations for nothing (later on we were paid some derisory amount), but that’s how Methuen took on things. But the great success of the series really began with a review in the Times Literary Supplement—and that was a front page of the Supplement, an absolutely superb review, and that changed the attitude of the library world and of a lot of people, and from then on the series began to accelerate with sales, and well, you know the rest! That review was early on—when we published the first two titles, which were King Ottokar’s Sceptre and The Secret of the Unicorn—from then [on] of course, things began to go very much our way.
The French publishers Casterman made the very first English language translations in 1952 (Le Secret de la Licorne and Le Trésor de Rackham le Rouge). The translator is unknown. Were you aware of these?
Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper: They were done, I think, for the comic paper Eagle, and we were told – though I don’t know whether it was true - that they’d found an English speaking person in Belgium who’d been in Belgium for some twenty years, so the translation was not very fluent.
M.T: That was a fairly clumsy translation and when we were considering it we decided that any translation had to be started all over again
Were there any difficulties with the translations; any linguistic, cultural or technical obstacles that you encountered?
L.L-C: Well, we were given a free hand, by Hergé, to translate and adapt as necessary, because linguistically for a children’s book, you can’t just translate—the jokes are untranslatable, some of the text was in Brussels patois and had to be turned into appropriate English—there were masses of problems that we encountered. The principle one at the beginning was [that] you’ve got to fit the text into the boxes, and English and French, as languages, are not of the same word count.
M.T: We decided to Anglicise it a bit, quite simply because we felt that an English market at the time hadn’t a great deal of interest in French productions - although we did publish Barbar as well from the 1930’s onwards—[it was] Captain Haddock[’s] [name] that started [it]—the name Haddock gave us the impetus to choose a number of English names, to change Tournesol to Calculus and so forth.
What processes did you use to make up the Anglicised names?
L.L-C: The system was that I translated the books and wrote my translation in longhand in pencil, and sent it to Michael Turner. I counted to make sure every box was the correct length before it went to him, and if he had suggestions to make, he scribbled them on the manuscript. Then we sat down together and read it back to front, and back to front to each other but the names, or the swearwords, or whatever, we just invented as they came along. One of the problems was the question of length. The dog’s name had got to be of a length to match Milou, and if someone comes in and says “good morning”, that won’t fit in the box, so are they just going to say “morning” or are they going to say “good day” or what are they going to do? So some of the language was governed by placing in the boxes. The names on the whole were of fairly similar length, although Thompson and Thomson were longer than Dupont and Dupond, but those two names had been used in the Eagle translation and they were very good, and so we continued with them. Most of the rest of the names—I think almost all of them—came out of our heads.
M.T: It’s like so much of the text; it was done verbally. We felt working together on this, the best thing was to read it aloud, and I think that was one of our most sensible decisions. We would go through the text and repeat it out loud, and it was then that quite a number of the names were coined, as well as things like Haddock’s foul language. I think this was a more important step than we realised [at the time], but it certainly made a difference and we’ve followed that ever since—the aural approach as being very important. There was a lot of repetition of checks—I think we must have gone through the text several times, not only during the early stages but even after the books were being lettered, so that all the time there were slight revisions going on. Fortunately Casterman were superb to work with, I must say, and that made quite a difference. Our initial contact there was one with their rights manager—a splendid character who’d been in Britain during the war—and he, like quite a number of Hergé’s team, became quite a close personal friend.
Did your contact with Hergé extend throughout his career?
L.L.-C: Methuen did the books in the mid-50’s and Hergé came over for the first time in about ’57, ’58 and we met him then for the first time. And then he came over a number of times, we went over there—we were in touch. Usually we got in touch through the Belgian publisher Casterman. There was a very, very excellent man there, one Pierre Servais who’d been over here during the war, and Pierre could answer a lot of the questions, and if he couldn’t, he asked Hergé for us. But we often asked him direct, or went over.
M.T: Yes, at first it took a while to get to know him. He was very much an Anglophile, which was a good start anyway, and from then on the relationship became closer and closer, and it effectively gave us carte blanche to do what we wanted. We were always in touch with him and with his studio, but particularly with him. I used to go across to Brussels several times a year and got to know the team very well. It was a thoroughly enjoyable—and unusual—part of life.
Were you aware of any other translators for different languages that had that kind of contact with Hergé?
L.L-C: I don’t think so. Not that one knew of. Hergé was very proud of his English translation and full of praise for it, and in the years that we became his friends, he trusted us implicitly.
Who was it that did the lettering for the books?
L.L-C: We tried out various styles of lettering to see both what would fit, and what teachers and librarians would like. We had a man who was a civil servant, a cartographer whose name was Neil Hyslop, and he did the lettering, which required an enormous amount of patience. He lettered all the books for us. When the lettering came we had to check it —it was done on a sort of cellophane in those days—we checked it on a light box. They sent blank plates from Belgium—without the text in the boxes—and he did the lettering on this cellophane surface over the boxes to make sure they fitted. If they didn’t and we’d got too much text, or too little text, then we would adjust it for him.
M.T: He’s an unsung hero! He did a marvellous job and he got better as time went on. Unfortunately, we can’t use him now—things have moved on—hand lettering has, unfortunately, effectively disappeared. It’s computers now and I must say, I think that is more tiresome than doing the lettering, frankly.
What is, or are, your favourite books?
L.L-C: Well, I suppose Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. [Also] The Calculus Affair is immense fun as is The Castafiore Emerald. But one always enjoyed all the books. Some were more difficult than others, but they were all fun to do.
M.T: Ah! The Castafiore Emerald is my personal [favourite], largely because it isn’t an adventure story. Actually I think the attraction for me is the wit rather than the excitement, so to speak
I understand that you are now working on some of the early versions of the books.
L.L-C: We’ve just done America and Michael Turner is doing Cigars at the moment. There are, I think, six or seven unpublished facsimile books and no doubt they’ll take a look at how this goes before embarking on the others. We’ve [also] just retranslated the one Hergé was working on when he died, which was Tintin and Alph-art, and that’s been done by our usual method of me doing it and Michael going through it and so on.
M.T: I’m working on Cigars of the Pharaoh at the moment and the text is quite different in style from the later books. It’s a real challenge and it’s not at all easy. It’s not the French that’s the problem; it’s rather more mechanical things like copy fitting within the space available for the English edition. That is not at all easy and it takes up a great deal more time than the initial translations we did. But still, that's the challenge. America we did last autumn, based on the original edition, which is being done as a facsimile by Casterman. We finished that, I suppose, around about October-November, and it’s in production at the moment. Egmont, who took the lists over from Methuen, were offered them, but they don’t feel it would be a sufficient market for them to handle. I think they’re wrong.
In your working method, do you usually translate the entire thing first and then try to fit it within the speech balloons?
M.T: Originally yes, now no. In fact, it’s [now] frame-by-frame translations. It’s more convenient to do it that way. One could translate the whole thing, but as copy-fitting is so crucial because of the computerisation, it’s something that the translator effectively has to do, so it’s easier to do it as you go along. It means that my rate of progress is something like 2 to 3 pages a day only, simply because the text is being reviewed and altered because of the demands of space, rather than the message that you’re trying to put through.
Lastly, I have a short list of books in their release order in this country. Firstly, the moon books, did you find those technically difficult?
L.L-C: Well they were fun. We enlisted the help of Patrick Moore. He was very, very good and we checked the moon rocket with him and the sort of dialogue we should have—we didn’t actually have, at that stage, the term ‘mission control’. No, they were not technically difficult but we checked the scientific side with Patrick Moore.
M.T: We had a lot of very good contacts and also our relationship with the Studios Hergé was very close indeed, we had a lot of help there. After all, Hergé’s team—Hergé himself—did a great deal of research and that applies to almost any album published after the 30’s and began in the 30’s. I think it was the contact with China that encouraged Hergé to get things absolutely right, so far was possible, and certainly a vast amount of research did go on. The extent of that research I don’t think has ever really been made public. It has been a feature sometimes in articles, but it’s not until you actually see the work that went into these books that you realise how detailed and how deep it was. A lot of this will, I think, come into the public domain as Moulinsart continue with their plans.
The Black Island was originally published in French in 1937, and completely redrawn for the English edition, which was released in 1966.
M.T: Ah yes, that was one of the most fascinating ones because we felt that should be updated, if possible. In fact that edition that we did was done specifically at our request. Hergé was all for it—and sent one of his people, Bob De Moor, over here with a remit to get the background detail—the settings, the uniforms, the clothes—absolutely accurate, and we helped a great deal in that. That was really fascinating. The contacts with, say, the police and the railways—the police wouldn’t give us sanction to provide details of the uniform, for instance, whereas the railways were only too glad to do so—it was things like that which made it fascinating.
L.L-C: Well, it wasn’t going to do for the English market as it stood and so we spoke with Hergé about it and he sent an artist over here to [make sketches]. Of course by that time Tintin had got a considerable following and it would have been a mockery to publish a Tintin book that was so very inaccurate about this country. So he redrew it for us.
Land of Black Gold was released in French in 1950, but not published in English until 1972.
M.T: That brings up another subject, and that is the revision of politically embarrassing things that were included in the earlier versions. Hergé made quite a number of alterations, partly with our help, partly with his own research, and that applied to anything set in the Middle East, effectively.
Yes, because the British Mandate of Palestine was one of the locations in the original version of Land of Black Gold.
M.T: That’s right yes, and then the British army turned into… [Arab soldiers from the fictitious country, Khemed]. The kilts disappeared and different uniforms appeared. That was quite interesting, but it has been suggested that it was forced upon Hergé by us, and that’s totally untrue. He was a bit uncertain as to whether we should publish them and was very willing to update them—so to speak, because they couldn’t be totally updated.
L.L-C: It was changed because English children weren’t going to understand at all what British troops were doing out there, so Hergé redrew about half a dozen pages for us.
In a similar way, The Blue Lotus, which is set during the Japanese occupation of China, was held back for quite a while, wasn’t it?
L.L-C: That was held back because it could have been seen as controversial and Methuen wanted to get the series absolutely established. The caricaturing of another country and its peoples had to be fairly carefully handled, so there was no need to do the book early on.
M.T: There were always fears about how the texts would be seen by overseas buyers in the trade and also the public. And there were considerable fears about how the Japanese would take it. In fact the Japanese accepted them completely and I think Japanese sales are very high in the world picture. They’re very popular in Japan.
The last one I have on the list is Alph-Art.
M.T: Ah, now that’s the kind of thing which produces a lump in the throat, mainly because this was Hergé’s last work. In fact Leslie and I have been [not redoing, but] checking through, making alterations where necessary on the text. That fresh edition, which is a customer edition, is due for publication in the next month or so, and Egmont are handling it in this country. We did an earlier version of Alph-Art that did not include the text alongside the pictures, but it was a separate booklet, which was put under a flap. For the first time, the text set out rather like a stage play with the text set out on the same page as the [pictures.] [The first version was,] I think, a slight muddle; I mean that’s my personal view. But it’s certainly quite spectacular, and that was a chance to polish the translation a bit. And that was inevitable in the process of turning it into something that looked like a stage play.
Yes, I quite like the extra material that’s in the new version, which shows Haddock could possibly have completely changed his character.
M.T: Yes, you mean at the end. Of course, that was absolutely typical of the way that Hergé worked. Rather like Enid Blyton, he often didn’t have an idea of how a story was going to end, and towards the end, [he] cobbled it together a bit. Not always, but certainly it was the case with Alph-art.
Is it true that Hergé was really getting a bit fed up with doing Tintin by the end?
L.L-C: Well, he went through a period where he didn’t want to draw it for some time. He became very depressed and so he simply didn’t do any new books. But he never—what I call—renounced Tintin, or turned against Tintin. He felt Tintin had taken over his life to some extent, and that of course was true. I mean it was a life’s work.
M.T: I got to know him pretty well and used to buzz across to Brussels fairly often and certainly he let his hair down on that subject. He told me how he had fallen out of love with Tintin but in the end couldn’t let him go. It was largely [because of] his feeling—deep feeling—for the character which he very much conveyed to Fanny, his wife, that [he said] there should be no attempt at post-Hergé books. About Hergé, whether it was uncertainty on his part, humility, I don’t know what—certainly he kept a very close hold on what they did, and the archive they have now is absolutely stunning—it really is astonishing—virtually everything, every drawing is there. Hergé was not one to splash originals around—he would do a quick drawing of Tintin and Snowy—most of the time that’s about as far as it went. From time to time, I’m asked by auctioneers could I help with identification [as to] whether a so-called Hergé drawing is original or not—whether it’s a forgery—and I have yet to be shown one that has turned up for sale at an auction which is a true Hergé. I possess a true Hergé as it happens, quite a large one. But that was a gift, as normally he didn’t give examples of his work away. I can’t imagine there are many artists who worked quite the same way as he did. And the way in which the studios worked—that’s an absolutely fascinating topic, because quite a number of the people who worked in the studio did their own work there. It was almost a kibbutz in a way—the whole feeling was of friends working together, it was a most astonishing thing. You can see how one gets hooked on something like that. Hergé also—although in many ways he was very uncertain of himself and worried about his work—managed to give a really warm and lively feeling to the operations within the studios. I’ve never come across anything quite like it. He was leader, but he was never king – it’s a very strange thing this. Somehow, the feeling in the place—they had their disagreements from time to time of course—was one of enjoyment, and certainly, to go to Brussels was a treat.
Text © 2004 Chris Owens.