I went to an interview with the famous American cartoonist R. Crumb in Bilbao in October, because one of my American friends here idolizes him, and also because at times in Spain it’s worthwhile to have a taste of arts and culture instead of wine and pintxos. And it was free, so why not? The interview took place in English, so I can say confidently that I was about one of three in the audience who could fully understand the cartoonist’s wry humor and subtle jokes.
Although R. Crumb was an entertaining interviewee, the interview itself was rather painful. Definitely lost in translation. About half the audience attempted to listen and understand the English, while the other purchased headgear that translated the interview, with a bit of delay, into Spanish or Euskera. So picture it: R. Crumb makes a joke, two other Americans and I laugh, maybe one Basque who had a strong bilingual upbringing, and then . . . five seconds later . . . once he’s already onto a new topic, a bit dismayed that his great punchline didn’t get a reaction, the audience explodes into laughter, because the headphones just reached that point in the translation.
About the only time the audience laughed at the appropriate moment was when R. Crumb included “fuck” in a sentence. This really seemed to rile the crowd, and at one point there were even cheers. Nothing like a little cursing to lighten the mood. It’s true what they say (just ask my high-schoolers): swear words are the first learned in any language.
It then came time for the audience to ask questions. A very quiet, shaky man with a high and squeaky voice cautiously accepted the microphone and began to mumble something that, when mixed with his thick accent, came out sounding like, “I’ve brought a b-b-bomb.” R. Crumb looked a little taken aback, though tried to maintain composure, and we Americans in the audience suddenly perked up, but the rest of the crowd didn’t seem too shaken because they couldn’t understand him in the first place. He then proceeded, “Robert Crumb, I want to honor you today with a little something special. It’s just something I brought for you, and I want to give it to you personally.” At this point, my mind was racing. This man is part of ETA! He’s honoring this American author with his twisted version of a Basque greeting, a homemade bomb! Two weeks in Bilbao and I’m already going to perish! It was a combination of things, I think: the man’s off-putting, almost suspicious demeanor; his poor grasp on English and his misquotation; my exaggerated paranoia after a year of horribly violent casualties in the U.S. (Sandy Hook and Aurora movie theater, among many others.) But, irrationally or not, my heart started thumping and my American friend and I bolted out of the auditorium. It’s either a testament that Americans are now weighed down by a constant fear of terrorism, or a sign that English pronunciation abroad could stand to be improved.
In the end, the man merely handed R. Crumb a book he had illustrated—book, not bomb—and my naive presumptions about Basque terrorist activity have since been dismissed, as anyone who’s spent more than three days in this place will tell you how peaceful Basque Country really is. But this interview showed the perils of getting lost in translation, as it was at once painfully awkward and unnecessarily terrifying—two outcomes I’m pretty sure the Arts and Culture committee wasn’t going for when they had the idea to invite the American cartoonist to Bilbao.