An Italian comics masterpiece is coming to America in a big way this year: Under the Sign of Capricorn, the first of twelve volumes of Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese comics, is coming this month from IDW Publishing's EuroComics imprint.
The new trade paperback volumes feature fresh translations by Simone Castaldi of Hofstra University and Dean Mullaney, editor of IDW's EuroComics imprint, as well as new scans of Pratt's original artwork. Pratt (1927-2005) is a Will Eisner Hall of Fame inductee and is best known as the creator of Corto Maltese, a philosophical sea captain and champion of the underdog whose fictional adventures take place alongside historical conflicts of the early 20th century.
Corto Maltese takes his readers along as he travels from Manchuria during the Russian-Japanese war of 1904 to the Samoa Islands in the South Pacific around 1913 and to places far beyond as he searches for the treasure of Alexander the Great, suffers mutinies, encounters historical figures such as Rasputin and the novelists Jack London and James Joyce—and also manages to find the time to romance beautiful women of every conceivable background.
PW Comics World: Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese have been huge in Europe for many years, but are unknown here. How will IDW promote such an important series?
Dean Mullaney: Introducing Hugo Pratt to an American audience presents its challenges but we are wholly dedicated to making it a success. I personally consider this one of the most important projects I've ever edited. In the U.S., Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese are primarily known by professional comics writers and artists, who have eagerly "enlisted" in spreading the word to their fans. With Patrizia Zanotti, Pratt's longtime assistant, we are putting together a Pratt presentation at the Society of Illustrators [in New York] in cooperation with the French Embassy. And Corto benefits as the premiere title in our new EuroComics imprint.
PW: Your initial offering is actually the third book in the series. Why start there?
DM: We’re beginning with the third book because the poorly-received Rizzoli edition of “The Ballad of the Salt [sic] Sea” (chronologically the second book in the series) is still in print. We’ll cycle through the rest of the books, and then double-back to present “The Early Years” and “The Ballad of the Salty Sea.” “Under the Sign of Capricorn” is a good place to start because it’s with these inter-related short stories from the early 1970s that Pratt established most of his primary themes and characters.
We will also issue six oversized, limited edition hardcovers, each containing the contents of two trade paperbacks. These hardcovers will include many "extras"—essays, artwork, and photographs that provide background on the stories and Pratt's intensive historical research. The covers of the hardcovers will feature Pratt's watercolors.
PW: Can you describe what is involved in translating a beloved fictional work set in very specific historical periods, that is also carefully riddled with often recondite literary allusions?
Simone Castaldi: I do a first basic, literal translation indicating all idiomatic instances and uses that are proper to the Italian language and suggest possible ways to adapt them into English. This way Dean has a good starting point to smooth everything out in a coherent and uniform style. Then Dean and I compare solutions and make sure that the literal meaning and stylistic flavor is preserved. The challenge we face is that of rendering the peculiarities of Pratt's style and the laconic "hard boiled" dialogue in Pratt's stories. Corto is part a Stevensonian and part a Chandlerian character.
DM: It's not our place to show the reader how clever we can be. My job is to make you believe that you are reading Hugo Pratt's dialogue in English. If I can capture the cadence and rhythm of Pratt's narrative, then our translation is a success. It was imperative that we went back to Pratt's original Italian scripts. Previous English editions were translated second-hand from French. It's like the old game of telephone—the original message changes with each retelling until eventually the meaning completely veers off course.
PW: Can you speak a little about the uniqueness of Pratt's content in comics, for instance his critique of capitalism/imperialism?
DM: It must be remembered that Hugo Pratt's comics reflect his own peripatetic experiences. He came by a humanist outlook honestly—from his youth in Ethiopia to his many years in Argentina. That his stories resonated with a late 1960s and early 1970s audience—and still resonate with us today—is because he writes of the universal struggle for human dignity, and did so in the context of a classic adventure narrative.