Q&A with author-illustrator Jarod Rosselló and translator Eva Ibarzabal

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Interview by Romy Natalia Goldberg

Please enjoy this interview with Jarod Rosselló, the author and illustrator of the Red Panda & Moon Bear graphic novel series, and translator Eva Ibarzabal, who helped create the Spanish version, Panda Roja y Oso Lunar

Romy Natalia Goldberg: First of all, congratulations on both versions of Red Panda & Moon Bear! It’s exciting to have another Latinx graphic novel to add to our shelves, especially one with a Spanish translation.

Jarod Roselló: Thank you! I’m so excited to have it in the world. I immediately sent a copy to my abuela! 

The original English version, Red Panda & Moon Bear, was published in July 2019 and Panda Roja y Oso Lunar was published in July of 2020. What was the genesis of the Spanish translation? Was it in the works from the beginning or did the opportunity present itself further along in the process? 

Jarod: It wasn’t an original plan, or at least not one that was shared with me at the time I was working on the book. Shortly after Red Panda & Moon Bear was released, IDW Publishing (Top Shelf’s parent company) announced a new Spanish-language initiative, and then I got an email from my editor that my book had been selected by IDW to be translated as part of the first wave of Spanish-language books. 

Beforehand I said “original English version” but that begs the question – when you created these characters and wrote the original manuscript was it all in English in your head? Or were there some scenes or phrases that naturally popped into your head in Spanish first?

Jarod: English is my primary language, despite the fact I was raised in Miami by my Cuban family, and spoke Spanish with certain family members who didn’t speak English. We didn’t speak Spanish much in my house, with my siblings and parents, but still, there are certain words, expressions, and phrases that only exist in Spanish for us. I think it’s easy to explain that growing up bilingual or in a bilingual setting, means that you “switch” between languages. But when I use Spanish terms—in my books, or in real life with my own kids—it doesn’t necessarily feel like two separate languages. I wanted the English edition to feel that way as well, that when Spanish appeared it wasn’t a breach in the English, it’s just the way language developed and is used in these communities and families. That matched my own experience growing up and felt true for me.

I’m curious about the process for creating a translation. In addition to yourself, who else was involved? 

Jarod: It started with my editor letting me know they were looking for a translator. We decided early on, that someone else would translate it, and that we would look for someone who was either Cuban, Cuban American, or spoke a more Caribbean Spanish, so the setting would hold. 

Eva Ibarzabal: When they contacted me for the first time I had serious doubts. I had already translated fiction and biographies for young readers, but graphic novels were way beyond my comfort zone. The approach is completely different, you have space constraints and a unique style, but then I read the English version and fell in love with the characters and the story. I’m very happy with the outcome.

There are so many variations of Spanish out there. In Spanish translations, this is something that really comes through in figures of speech and exclamations. I learned some new ones reading Panda Roja y Oso Lunar, which I assume are specific to the Caribbean. Did everyone speak the same “type” of Spanish? If not were there particular scenes and word choices that generated debate?  

Eva: Jarod and I have something in common, we are both Cuban-Americans. I lived in Miami for a short period of time before moving to Puerto Rico, and my family was very attached to their roots and ancestry. I guess that helped me capture the essence of the characters and their way of speaking. I just had to dust off some memories of my own childhood and the comics I used to read back then. Other than that, some sounds and the use of onomatopoeia are the most difficult to translate because in Spanish we tend to use lengthy descriptions instead. 

Jarod: There were also some interesting conversations after we got Eva’s script, because we also had a Spanish-language editor working on it, and they had notes about some of the expressions and suggestions for changes. But sometimes, I’d never heard of the expression the editor wanted to use. In the end, my editor let me cast the tie-breaking vote on which one we would use. 

This book feels different from other translations I’ve read. It’s clear you had a specific goal in mind. 

Jarod: This stemmed from an early conversation with my editor that it shouldn’t just be a translated book, but that the Spanish edition should be a Spanish-language universe, and it should be read that way. 

Eva: I think the best compliment a translator can receive is that their work does not read as a translation. You have to digest all the ideas and convey the meaning in the most natural way possible; the text should flow. In the case of a graphic novel, an additional challenge is to be concise, because Spanish tends to be more wordy. I was counting words and measuring spaces all the time to be sure the new text would fit and not take space from the illustrations. It’s definitely like a parallel universe, as Jarod says.

Jarod: And you did such a fabulous job with that, Eva. I loved how you were able to preserve the puns and references, and still capture the spirit and energy of the book. 

It sounds like there were two different processes you had to go through – translating the copy and adjusting the content. Let’s talk about the copy first. For a panel where you had a basic sentence that needed to go from Spanish to English, what did you do? I assume it wasn’t as easy as just copying text from a Spanish script and plunking it into your text bubbles. 

Jarod: As Eva mentioned, Spanish tends to be longer, not just in the construction of sentences, but individual words can be very long, which created some visual challenges fitting them into the existing word balloons. 

One benefit to being both the letterer and the original artist was that I could adjust the word balloons to accommodate the Spanish, just how I write out the English first, then draw the word balloon around it. It’s not quite that simple, either, though, because the word balloons take up visual space in the panel. So, often, I had to redraw certain panels so that relevant imagery wasn’t being blocked or so the visual composition still looked the way I would want it to look. 

I wanted to put the same care and attention to detail in the Spanish edition. And I also really love that the English and Spanish editions are not exactly the same: some drawings are new, some panels are modified, and even corrected a few tiny mistakes I found along the way!

Now let’s talk about what sounds like a much more complex process – altering content, both the text and actual images, that simply would not make sense if translated directly into Spanish. 

Jarod: A good example of this was in chapter 7. The kids and the dogs head to the library. The kids are reading a picture book in Spanish and the dogs are curious because they don’t know Spanish. There’s a brief conversation about how the kids’ Spanish is a little rusty, and that they need to practice more. In the Spanish edition, though, it’s a Spanish-speaking world, so this conversation wouldn’t have made any sense, because the dogs are speaking Spanish. 

So, I rewrote the opening pages to that chapter so that the characters are talking about how comics are real books, and reading comics counts as reading. I redrew a few of the panels as well and edited the others. And we sent that scene separately to Eva to be translated, and then we went back in and swapped pages to put it all together. 

Eva: And I was glad of that decision because I already had a big question mark on that page! That’s the advantage of all the team working together and communicating all along. I think the solution was perfect.

Red Panda & Moon Bear: The Curse of The Evil Eye is slated for January 2022. Will there be a Spanish translation as well? Did the experience of translating the first book alter the way you’re writing and drawing the second installment at all? 

Jarod: I don’t know if they’re planning a Spanish translation of The Curse of the Evil Eye, but I really hope so! The experience of relettering and sitting with my book in Spanish definitely affected how I approached book 2. The Spanish and Cuban roots of the setting are more visible, there’s a lot more Spanish, too. I feel like reading Eva’s translation taught me what this world looks like in Spanish, and even gave me a little confidence to use more of it. I feel like I can hear the character’s voices more clearly, and that’s helped me understand them and their world better. 

Eva: From my point of view, it was a great learning experience which I really enjoyed. So I hope to be part of the team again if the decision to have a Spanish version is made. How about a simultaneous launching? That would be awesome!  

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Jarod Roselló is a Cuban American writer, cartoonist, and teacher. He is the author of the middle-grade graphic novel Red Panda & Moon Bear, a Chicago Public Library and New York Public Library 2019 best book for young readers, and a 2019 Nerdy Award winner for graphic novels. Jarod holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Curriculum & Instruction, both from The Pennsylvania State University. Originally from Miami, he now lives in Tampa, Florida, with his wife, kids, and dogs, and teaches in the creative writing program at the University of South Florida. You can reach him at http://www.jarodrosello.com and @jarodrosello (Twitter & Instagram)

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Eva Ibarzabal is a Cuban-Puerto Rican translator, writer and media and language consultant. After completing a BA in Modern Languages and a MA in Translation, Eva worked in print media and television for 20 years, winning multiple accolades for the production of Special News Programs. A few years ago, her love for Literature made her switch to Literary Translation. Her works include biographies, fiction and children books. Her English to Spanish Translation of El mundo adorado de Sonia Sotomayor won the International Latino Book Award in 2020.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER: Romy Natalia Goldberg is a Paraguayan-American travel and kid lit author with a love for stories about culture and communication. Her guidebook to Paraguay, Other Places Travel Guide to Paraguay, was published in 2012 and 2017 and led to work with “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and The Guardian. She is an active SCBWI member and co-runs Kidlit Latinx, a Facebook support group for Latinx children’s book authors and illustrators.

Three Reasons Why I Use Spanish Phrases in My Writing

By Noemi Gamel

 “Motherf—s will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”
 — Junot Diaz, Professor of Writing at MIT

Junot speaks plainly. This quote was the MIT professor’s response when asked why he used Spanish phrases in his writing. As a Mexican-American writer, whose first language was Spanish but was educated entirely in English, this topic strikes a raw chord with me.

I write in English, even the dialogue that is spoken by primarily Spanish-speaking characters, but I often interject Spanish phrases in my prose. From a strictly technical perspective, I do this because my cognition is in English and my Spanish writing level is poor. To remind the reader that the character speaks Spanish, I interject occasional phrases in Spanish that serve as electric literary language shocks. From a social and emotional perspective, there are three more complex and profound reasons for my use of Spanish phrases in my writing.

1. Because I must.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.
— Maya Angelou, Author and Poet

I blend Spanish with English because the language is an indelible part of me. It was my first language. I also use Spanish phrases to reflect the reality of the marriage of both languages in characters that grew up along the Texas-Mexican border, as I did. I may think in English. I may write better in English. Heck, I think I even speak English better than I do Spanish (but please don’t tell my parents!). In spite of the effects of American assimilation, Spanish is the untold story I bear inside of me. The Spanish words flow out of my hands just like carbon dioxide flows out with my breath. It is effortless, inevitable, and life-sustaining.

2. To teach children that speaking a second language is a gift.

“We need to help students and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens this community – and this nation.”
— Cesar Chavez, Mexican-American farm worker and activist

I attended an elementary school in the south side of McAllen, Texas. McAllen is a small city less than 10 miles from the border with Mexico. There were maybe two children in my grade level whose parents spoke English at home. Most of the teachers at the school were of Mexican descent. Yet, we were not allowed to speak Spanish at school. The Spanish language was treated as a blemish that had to be obliterated.

Fast forward two decades (OK, maybe three) later, and I am astonished to see how many Texas public schools have dual language programs. My children attended a private Montessori school that included Spanish in the curriculum. Private Spanish immersion schools are popping up everywhere. Finally, the Texas education system has received a clue from the words of Cesar Chavez. The power and value of speaking two languages is fully recognized. Most importantly, educators no longer treat Spanish as a shameful entity. Latino children are given the freedom to be proud of their native language.

I interject Spanish phrases into my writing to reinforce that sentiment. I want Latino children to feel the same pride I felt when I first heard Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” on the radio. The more these children see their native language in the media, whether it is books, television, or movies, the more that sense of pride and belonging is reinforced. Speaking a language in addition to English is not something to be swept under the rug. They should display it with pride.

3. To share the beauty of the Latino culture.

“A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.”
–Muslim Proverb

Growing up as the daughter of immigrants and living as an expatriate in Costa Rica as an adult has taught me about the intrinsic importance of language in cultural adaptation and acceptance. I use Spanish phrases in my writing to share the beauty of my culture with others. Spanish is just one of the flowers that make up the bouquet of diversity in America that adds to the natural beauty of the people that make up its population.

Spanish is a rhythmic, flowery language filled with metaphors. I often can capture an emotion better with a Spanish term or phrase than I can in English. I hope that when I do that, the reader, especially if they are not Latino, catches a glimpse into the colorful Latino culture.

In the recent months, the lack of diversity in children’s literature has taken the spotlight in part as a result of the formidable efforts of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks team. As a writer, I have felt validated by this group regarding my use of Spanish words and phrases in my writing. I hope other writers follow suit. As a reader, I am excited to think that I may now encounter other languages in the books that I read. There is no reason to be afraid.

NoemiNoemi Gamel was born and raised in south Texas along the Mexican border. She practiced as a physician for eight years before putting her career on hold to write diverse children’s fantasy books and to travel the world with her partner, Chris, and their two children. She wrote The Black Rose and Other Scary Stories That Happened To Me! as an homage to the Mexican folktales of her childhood. The Iris of Issoria, a children’s fantasy novel, will be available October 7, 2014. For more information, visit her at www.NoemiGamel.com or follow her on Twitter at @NoemiGamel.