"Surrounded by Stillness and Quiet": Translation, Transparency, and Genre in Jason's Jernvognen
Norwegian cartoonist John Arne Saeterov, or "Jason," is arguably the most Westernized artist in the international comics market. In saying this I submit myself to what may be read as an egregious assumption about the artist, his practice, and his influences, but an assumption that is informed nonetheless by his superimposition in nearly every industrial and independent forum. With the assistance of Fantagraphics, Jason has infiltrated several rather exclusive establishments: he has seen mention in Time, and found a brief run in The New York Times, two remarkable gigs for a cartoonist of any stature. In Angst: Volumes I and II, two recent anthologies exhibiting contemporary Norwegian cartoonists, Jason's work needs virtually no transcription: surrounded with entries driven by dialogue and regional references often lost to translation, Jason's mute, expressionless figures seem not only familiar, but strangely iconic. Even in his works that contain dialogue, it would seem that his stories are specifically crafted with translation in mind: his characters cite popular Western films, they populate and interact with identifiable landmarks, and they even borrow costume and cliché from other illustrative media. Informed as much by Hergé as by Schulz, Jason's form seems a distillation of Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse strips, his work often featuring anthropomorphic characters performing rudimentary activities with simple successes and predictable failures that nevertheless convey something beyond the sum of their silent actions.
Yet for his seemingly simple approach, Jason's work is surprisingly difficult to classify. In Why Are You Doing This?, the plot plays out like Godard's Détective set in ligne claire style; in The Last Musketeer, a disenfranchised Athos finds himself, after centuries of unemployment, placed in Frederick Stephani's Flash Gordon series; in The Living and the Dead, George Romero is given the romantic comedy treatment. While parody seems to play a significant role in Jason's work, his collection of pop culture icons, Western film tropes, and literary references seems to perform something beyond the conventions of his choice of genre. Against the constraints of genre – whereby the structure and meaning of narrative is informed by its imitative components – Jason seems to use these familiar narrative modes to explain something about what the graphic medium changes about how we translate and, perhaps more subtly, how we read.
Here I intend to argue that Jason represents a particular repurposing of comics as a means of collapsing genres, exploring the capacity for the breakdown and reconstruction of storytelling enabled by and accomplished in comics that are repurposed in translation for international audiences. As a conduit for Jason's clever pastiche, the comic is also a forum for multiple stagings and transformations that are made possible only through the junction of text and image. In other words, Jason's work seems to transition out of the very conventions that necessitate writing in genre (minimizing text to stress communication through image, utilizing familiar design structures that are visually easy to identify) to using genre as a means of understanding something about the ubiquity of particular Western genres and their corresponding translations. In looking at works such as Why Are You Doing This?, The Last Musketeer, and I Killed Adolf Hitler, readers are confronted with a mix of graphic, almost "cinematic" styles – mystery, serialized slapstick, science-fiction, Hitchcockian suspense – that, while easy to recognize, become tough to untangle and trace to their generic origins. In particular, I will examine Jason's least accessible work Jernvognen (The Iron Wagon) in order to make this self-fashioning much more apparent. As an adaptation of Stein Riverton's turn-of-the-century Norwegian novel about cultural transition, Jason's "translation" emblematizes his other works that engage in the selfsame tasks of collapsing genre and of playing with the otherwise diaphanous divide between linear and tabular approaches to reading. If these conventional narratives inform an international comics market – in a sense, the international reception of a volume depends on its conformity to familiar narratives and genres – then Jason's work seems to be not only playing with those conventions, but collapsing them altogether. Jason reveals not only the ubiquity and pervasive use of genre in comics, but also the transparency of those genres as structures targeted for international audiences. In demonstrating the devices that frame and populate his work, Jason does more than demonstrate his versatility in collecting and reworking images; he reinforms the cultural significance of the medium in a transnational and translational context, stresses comics as narratives that function to remap devices and conventions, inserts representational significance into a medium that has long alluded representation, and complicates "reading for" by interposing "reading as" in his work. In the interpellation of Western consumer culture, television and cinema in Jason's work, the titles each become derivative of the genres they critique, but necessarily so; they operate as indulgence and critique simultaneously, as functioning genre pieces as well as arguments about the pervasive use of Western narrative tropes.
In Jason's work, it would appear that image takes precedence over text. The immediacy of each PANG!, KRACK!, and BOUM!, as the only textual elements in "silent" works like Sshhhh! and Tell Me Something, nevertheless registers each sound as a visual element. In a later work like Why Are You Doing This?, a story driven by dialogue, these same onomatopoetic sounds punctuate silent sequences, reminders of previous wordless works that reinstate the visual immediacy of their presence in the text. It would appear that the relative ease with which Jason has been introduced to the European and American alternative comics markets is due not only to the conventions of narrative incorporated into his work, but the economy of these illustrations – as Jason suggests, these narratives present a series of images with "certain expectations that you can choose to fulfill or not" (Wivel, 59). Jason's pantomime has frequently been addressed as a technique of translation. In an interview with Jason in The Comics Journal #294, Matthias Wivel suggests that Jason's "silent approach" is a universalizing element: drawing inspiration from "Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy," Jason's stories operate via mechanics that, in an overt nostalgia for silent cinema, narrate to the reader through motion (Wivel, 44). In an interview with LJ Douresseau of The Comic Book Bin, Jason speaks about the lack of dialogue in his works:
[Translation] was one of the things I had in mind when I started doing wordless comics, Norwegian not being a major language. The reason I still like working in that style is that those comics leave more for the readers, they have to go into the story and do their own interpretation, much more than in comics with dialogue, I think. Besides, the dialogue has for me always been the hard part. I think more in images than in words. Just skipping the words has made it easier to tell stories. (Douresseau)
As a means of opening up his works to a larger audience, Jason pares down his illustrations to their essential visual elements, effectively stripping them down and leaving the rarefied pieces of the narrative itself. As Charles Hatfield writes in "An Art of Tensions," reading and seeing are commonly discussed as oppositional modes of "reading" comics; page by page and panel by panel, the reader is divided between seeing a sequence of successive events (each panel "a 'moment' in an imagined sequence of events") and apprehending each panel as discrete image, "a graphic element in an atemporal design" (Hatfield, 139). Most comics do both, "encouraging a near-simultaneous apprehension of a single image as both momentum-sequence and design element," while maintaining a need for the work, in order to be understood, "to be seen and read in both linear and nonlinear, holistic fashion" (Hatfield, 139-140). However, Hatfield, citing Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, suggests that the tension between the sequential ("linear") and nonsequential ("tabular") reading of comics poses a problem for reading that goes beyond narrative. For Hatfield, both inform genre: "comics exploit format as a signifier in itself; more specifically, [...] comics involve a tension between the experience of reading in sequence and the format or shape of the object being read" (144). More than merely informing what we're reading, the "format or shape of the object" questions the act of "reading" a comic, especially when the content appears to critique its own generic structure.
It is innocent enough to suggest that Jason's approach to illustration is informed, perhaps inadvertently, by translation. However, it is immediately evident that Jason's work is primarily visual, and that his generic contexts are intentionally easy to recognize for all audiences. Accordingly, transcription is minimal in translating Jason's work. In describing the history of translation in manga and in comics, Federico Zanettin argues that digital transcription technologies have changed the meaning of translation in graphic mediums: while erasing, relettering and retouching were once performed on the source text itself (as Zanettin notes, erasing "the source text with a shaving blade" and manually rewriting the translated target text), digital editing has enabled translation without physical alteration. Borrowing the phrase "constrained translation" from Christopher Titford's 1982 article "Subtitling, Constrained Translation," Zanettin suggests that translation in comics further separates textual/written meaning from visual meaning:
Although 'constrained translation' approaches stress the semiotic dimension and the interdependence of words and images in comics, they remain primarily concerned with the translation of verbal material. Words are seen as subordinated to the images, and the non-verbal components of comics are discussed only in so far as they represent visual constraints for the translator of the verbal components. This approach assumes that pictures in translated comics are not modified, and thus often restricts the scope of investigation to linguistic analysis. However, comics are primarily visual texts, and meaning derives from the interaction between images and written language, both within and across panels and pages. (Zanettin, 39)
As Zanettin writes, while translation principally concerns language, the images are just as important – "comics are," after all, "primarily visual texts," and the independence of the two forms means distancing the reader from their interplay (39). Accordingly, Zanettin notes that the "paratext" of international comics has changed as a result of new transcription methods; for Zanettin, artists looking to adapt their works for an international audience structure their texts on familiar, "translatable" visual resources.
In this sense, transparency is a key point of Jason's work; even if translation is not foremost on the artist's mind, the collusion of genres and tropes suggest an author behind the text well aware of the devices at play in the foreground. In The Translator's Invisibility, Lawrence Venuti uses the term "invisibility" to identify the unseen role and assumed responsibilities of the translator. For Venuti, "invisibility" is a function of authorship desired by translator and publisher alike; however, it is "an illusionistic effect of discourse, of the translator's own manipulation of English" as well as the concretization of "the practice of reading and evaluating translations that has long prevailed in the United Kingdom and the United States" (1). Translated texts are, in Venuti's reading, changed by the conventions to which the text is made to conform in order to fit in translation:
A translated text, whether prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, is judged acceptable by most publishers, reviewers, and readers when it reads fluently, when the absence of any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities makes it seems transparent, giving the appearance that it reflects the foreign writer's personality or intention or the essential meaning of the foreign text – the appearance, in other words, that the translation is not in fact a translation, but the "original." The illusion of transparency is an effect of fluent discourse, of the translator's effort to insure easy readability by adhering to current usage, maintaining continuous syntax, fixing a precise meaning. What is so remarkable here is that this illusory effect conceals the numerous conditions under which the translation is made, starting with the translator's crucial intervention in the foreign text. The more fluent the translation, the more invisible the translator, and, presumably, the more visible the writer or meaning of the foreign text. (1-2)
As Venuti argues, the "illusion of transparency" in the translation assumes that the "original meaning" of the author's text has been preserved in the translated work. The translator's "intervention" is typically concealed by the process of translating, a process meant to obscure the secondary meanings inevitably produced. However, in works that are principally wordless – works that require minimal, if any, textual translation – the "original meaning" is no longer a textual issue, but a visual one. Given a work that exhibits references, inspirations and influences that are easy for international audiences to recognize, translation loses valence as a concern for the work's reception in an international market. Instead, which genres have informed the work, and how, becomes much more important, and this is no longer a matter of translation, but of the artist's own use of transparency.
For Jason, the transparency of genre – the overt and obvious ways that his interests in ostensibly different narrative tropes inform his stories – reveals the way we identify comics as narratives. That we identify by familiar ("generic") structures is also our criterion for understanding works, especially in the context of translation. In reading Jason's comics looking for genre, we are pulling from the information provided to us as readers, information that mediates our own experience of American film and comics. Ultimately, however, Jason's work depicts a collapse of generic divides that, in translation, further complicates reading. To close this reading, I discuss Jason's least accessible work, The Iron Wagon, to make the issue of translation apparent.
In The Iron Wagon, Jason imagines Stein Riverton's 1909 novel Jernvognen as a city without a name or history, recapturing 19th-Century Oslo in a time of transition and change. In a novel unknown outside of Norway, the very idea of translation is central to the work itself: marked by Riverton's wordless exchanges and minimalistic descriptions of a balmy Kristianian summertime, the failure of language in Jernvognen is conveyed in Jason's work through scenes of silence and a perceptible stillness set in the faces of a town beset by death. By readdressing The Iron Wagon as a text eminently concerned with the issues of translation, we find Jason concerned with the ontological function of translation as a tool for knowing and understanding genre in comics. Unlike works by Jason that exhibit "genre transparency," The Iron Wagon requires closer reading to understand not only Jason's intentions for the translation, but the meaning of the original text as well. As the only translation of a work characterized by its resistance to translation, Jason's The Iron Wagon recaptures a text otherwise thought untranslatable by purely prosaic (here, "literary") means.
In representing a novel in which miscommunication and silence are conveyed through glimpses of consciousness and stretches of pastoral countryside, Jason takes to task the problem of Norwegian translation by complicating it. Although he frequently stresses nonverbal pacing, stillness and humor in his other works, in The Iron Wagon Jason pairs wordlessness with words; accordingly, most of the novel is driven not by character-to-character conversation, but instead by the spaces left in between. As Jason notes in his interview with Douresseau, "when you remove the dialogue, you remove an important part of comics, but you also gain something, a more magical quality that makes the reader in a bigger degree participate in the story" (Douresseau). By repositioning the dialogue as a recursive device instead of the pilot for plot, Jason here invites us into the mystery of the plot, to participate in the translation itself.  Accordingly, The Iron Wagon is Jason's most verbose work, and an adaptation that finds much of the text edited, cut, or repurposed in its "translation" to a graphic narrative. As Jason tells Wivel,
I made the choice to not include the narrative voice used in the book. In the first, realistically drawn version I kept it, but not in the animal-character version. I took it out. An important part of the ending of the book is lost by that, but it's still clear who the main character is. [...] There are some great passages in the book, descriptions of nature that create a very dark, haunted atmosphere. These were painful not to include, but they had to go. The story had to work visually, as a comic, and not just be illustrations to the text. (Wivel, 47)
Jason's decision to cut out most of the text in translation seems much more excusable in light of the transition from one medium to another. For The Iron Wagon to work not merely as "illustrations to the text" but as a translation of the text itself, the "atmosphere," the "magical quality" that "makes the reader in a bigger degree participate in the story," needs to be "translated" through the appropriate format. The fact that much of the comic contains silent panels suggests that, in its "transcription," the loss of text signifies the translator's recognition of a crucial theme in the novel.
Jason's (Riverton's) protagonist is a middle-aged author idling in Hvaler in the summer of 1909. Working on his latest novel, he is sequestered in a cabin on the moors, away from town and its inhabitants. Sparse, rust-red shorelines and the black shadows of wilderness occupy the background as Jason's rabbit-eared protagonist stands pensive. His days are spent at the Gjaernes mansion and the adjacent hotel, his nights at parties hosted by Carsten Gjaernes and his daughter, the bird-beaked Hilde Gjaernes. On an evening walk to the Gjaernes mansion, the protagonist hears a clattering noise, and when the body of visiting game warden Blinde is found the following morning in a field, the legend of Old Man Gjaernes and his chariot, "a wagon of solid iron [...] with two wheels and a wide shield across the front, like the war chariots in picture bibles," is rehearsed for audience and protagonist alike (Jason). Part Nordic folklore, part metaphor for technological change, the titular iron wagon is said to be piloted by the ghost of a deceased ancestor who at nightfall mounts the vehicle and rides it throughout the moors, killing whoever he comes across. It is also reported to leave behind no tracks whatsoever, thereby making it impossible to trace. Upon the arrival of detective Ashbjorn Krag, the protagonist begins to have strange dreams regarding The Iron Wagon and visitations from the recently-deceased companion.
Detective Krag's investigation uncovers secrets throughout Hvaler. Most notably, when the body of Old Man Gjaernes is found in the moors after the clatter of the Iron Wagon is heard, Krag discovers that Old Man Gjaernes was never really dead to begin with, but had instead faked his death to secure life insurance for the Gjaernes farm. After the fact of the deceased game warden's courtship of Hilde is revealed, Detective Krag believes that the warden was murdered to cover up the family secret, a secret that required the legend of the Iron Wagon to mask a series of murders leading back to Carsten Gjaernes and the farm.
Yet who is driving the iron wagon? If Old Man Gjaernes killed the game warden, who killed Old Man Gjaernes? Whereas the plot may seem transparent, Jason's choice of novel is made clearer in a series of twists. The sound of the iron wagon tears through the moors again the following evening, its audible creak represented by visual marque cutting frame by frame. However, its clatter is soon extinguished by a violent crash nearby. In the novel's most interesting turn, the wagon itself is dredged from the river, and found to be, not a wagon at all, but instead the hull of an airplane. Dredged from the bay, the plane is revealed to be a test flight by German engineer Dr. Brahms, who accidentally struck Old Man Gjaernes on his secret return to the mansion, and subsequently crashed the plane into the water.
Jason appears to have picked this text not only for its cultural resonance with a time of enormous change and transition, but for the difficulty faced in translation. Unlike in his other works, the translation of the novel requires Jason to work with the genres present in the novel itself. However, the translation is not a pure distillation of the text, as it would seem that his excision of text, inclusion of passages, and even the way that he renders a particular scene suggests the influence of Jason's preferred genres. It would appear that the subtlety of Jason's own translation stands within a text meant to inaugurate transition as an event problematized by language. In Jason's most sophisticated work (and perhaps his most underappreciated), the devices of storytelling are refocused on the significance of translation as a device located in cultural transition and change, a device that seems to be effectively wordless. Yet with the presumed inscrutability of the text aside, one can't help but feel caught in a web of genres.
 For example: In a series of untitled strips from the first issue of Mjau Mjau (1997), Jason engages in a dialogue with one of his familiar, interchangeable cat characters. In one particular strip, the artist and his character produce a list of celebrities to execute upon becoming "rulers of the world," a list that includes Radiohead, Michael Bolton, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Ryan Seacrest, Carson Daly, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Osama bin Laden, Peter Greenaway, "anyone with a goatee," "anyone who positions himself in the background of TV interviews on the street," "anyone who buys Cathy books," and "everyone who thinks Wild at Heart was better than Blue Velvet." In the last panel, the artist is greeted by a character dressed in bowler hat, dark glasses and a trench coat, who subsequently executes Jason. It is worth noting that, in a footnote concerning the translation of this strip, Jason writes that "some of the targets in the original version were Norwegian annoyances which Kim Thompson [vice-president and co-publisher for Fantagraphics] changed to more internationally known annoyances" (Pocket Full of Rain). Other strips in this series include references to the Alien tetralogy, Juliette Binoche, Nastassja Kinski, Ernest Hemmingway, Olof Palme and Aki Kaurismäki, references that were not changed in translation.
 Another reading (commonly invoked in interviews) would suggest homage to the given artist or genre deployed. For example, the influence of Hergé in Jason's Why Are You Doing This? could be considered an homage, as Jason appears to use the French cartoonist's iconic style as an aesthetic choice. However, the distinction between parody and homage becomes problematic in titles that appear to borrow not only aesthetic choices but identifiable narrative structures as well. Considering that Jason seems to equalize pop culture and high culture, it is difficult to ascertain which elements are meant as homage, and which are meant as parody in works that imitate both pop and high culture. For an "homage" to Hugo Pratt, see Jason's Corto Meowtese, while for a "parody" of Basil Wolverton's Spacehawk, see Spacecat, both from Mjau Mjau #2.
 Jason represents a growing internationalism that seems, at the very least in Scandinavian culture, to have expression only in comics. As Erik Ildahl and Ingemar Bengtsson write in the introduction to the comic anthology, Gare du Nord, the market for comics and graphic novels is different in Norway than in the rest of Europe and the United States:
Norway's comics market is mainly comprised of periodicals, which means that albums are harder to sell. This tendency shows no sign of weakening. Established comics publishers do not seem much interested in issuing albums, and accordingly Norwegian [...] albums are published to an increasing degree by traditional book publishers. The daily press comic strip seems to be a haven for an increasing number of creators. (Ildahl and Bengtsson)
Unlike the United States, Norway only has a few commercial publishing companies, many of which are devoted strictly to the periodical format. According to Ildahl and Bengtsson:
the broadest spectrum of titles is published by Semic, which in this sense has long been the most important comics publisher in Norway. Bladkompaniet for many years has been the largest publisher of Norwegian material through the magazine Pyton (which also exists in Swedish and Finnish incarnations), a rather adolescent humorous title aimed at a teen audience. (Ildahl and Bengtsson)
In general, comics are treated as more juvenile fare in Norway than in the United States, as children's magazines like Norsk Barneblad have seen a notable increase over the years in the introduction of comics. While possessing a talented and vast body of cartoonists, Norway does not yet offer the same options for publication as the United States. This has led many Norwegian cartoonists to approach their work with the idea of international appeal in mind, seeking forums such as NBM, Fantagraphics, and Jippi for translation, publication and distribution (Wivel, 37).
 As James Sturm notes in his introduction to Jason's Pocket Full of Rain, "I have little doubt that in the near future, at dinner parties, classrooms, hair salons, and online forums, citizens of every civilized nation will engage in passionate debates over which Jason story is their favorite" (n.p.). Sturm's point resonates with the adaptability of Jason's work – namely, that his stories have the potential to supersede their points of reference, and operate not only on the level of pastiche but as genuine works in their respective genres.
 "In other words," Hatfield writes, "there is a tension between the concept of 'breaking down' a story into constituent images and the concept of laying out those images together on an unbroken surface," of seeing each panel as a discrete image, against setting each image within the greater framework of the page design (140).
 In Matthias Wivel's lengthy interview with Jason in The Comics Journal, Jason states that the choice of mixing genres is on his mind when composing his stories:
But where's the fun in that? To do a straight crime story that's already been done a million times? And what do I know about being a criminal? I've never stolen anything in my life. Well, some erasers and stuff like that when I was a kid, but leave that aside. If you're going to do a genre story you should bring something new to the table. At the same time, doing straight social realism doesn't interest me either – the Mike Leigh/Ken Loach approach, telling stories of unemployed coalminers. If I catch one of those movies on TV, I turn it off after five minutes. I find it boring. It's bringing those two worlds together – juxtaposing them – that's interesting. (35)
It is interesting to note that most of Jason's narratives employ visual and textual tropes from at least two different genres. The familiarity with, and ease by which Jason can manipulate, these tropes further suggests that his work increasingly concerns international audiences.
 See Heidi Broadhead's interview with Fantagraphics vice president, co-publisher and translator Kim Thompson for insight into Thompson's transcription work with Jason.
 I cite Venuti's text primarily to introduce the term "transparency" from translation studies into reading comics, acknowledging that Venuti's reading takes further steps towards identifying and distinguishing translation ideologies as well as processes.
 See Thierry Groensteen's "Restrained Arthrology" in The System of Comics for an explication of the sequencing of panels and of the "intrinsic narrativity" of comics.
Broadhead, Heidi. "Comics in Translation: A Conversation with Kim Thompson of Fantagraphics Books." 3 July 2009. 12 June 2010. http://www.omnivoracious.com/2009/07/comics-in-translation-a-conversation-with-kim-thompson-of-fantagraphics-books.html
Douresseau, LJ. "Interview with Jason." The Comic Book Bin. 15 June 2004. 20 June 2010. http://www.comicbookbin.com/charlie32.html
Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Hatfield, Charles. "An Art of Tensions." A Comics Studies Reader. Ed. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. University Press of Mississippi, 2008. 132-148.
Ildahl, Erik and Ingemar Bengtsson. "Introduction." Gare du Nord. Ed. Rolf Classon. Stockholm, Sweden: Tago, 1997.
Jason. Why Are You Doing This? Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2005.
Jason. The Iron Wagon. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2003.
Jason. Pocket Full of Rain, and Other Stories. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2008.
Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation. New York, NY: Routledge, 1994.
Wivel, Matthias. "The Jason Interview." The Comics Journal 294 (2008): 28-77.
Zanettin, Federico. "Comics in Translation: An Overview." Comics in Translation. Ed. Federico Zanettin. London, UK: St. Jerome Publishing, 2008.