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Translating Comic Books – Borderless Storytelling

Translating Comic Books – Borderless Storytelling

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With the current globalization of comics, there is an increased demand for countries to translate their local comics to other languages
to capture a much larger audience. Translated literary work is nothing new, however, comics certainly pose many challenges, especially as they are primarily visual. This demands, in certain situations, that the art be reworked for its target audience for it to accommodate the translated written text.

We will explore some aspects that translators need to consider when working with localizing comics in this article, and to see how they overcame some of the more complex challenges.

Why is sequential art difficult to translate?

When translating, comic books present not only the constraints of language, such as idioms, double meanings, and so on, but also the added restrictions of space. Structurally, some initial complications include fitting the translated text into the text bubbles, reading directions of the panels, redrawing the onomatopoeia (sound effects), and sometimes even stretching or condensing the art pages to better suit the differing print formats.

A great example can be seen below, where they translated a page from the classic Japanese Manga Dragon Ball from Japanese to English. Not only did they have to compensate for the vertical language and reading from right to left. But they had to redraw the sound effects and clean up the art below it so it would seem natural and not hinder the reading experience.

Disney is written literally in Chinese

Figure 01 – Dragon Ball Volume 01, Chapter 08, Page 06
However, in most Manga translation practice of today, onomatopoeia would be more likely left in Japanese script in the drawings and printed with approximate transcriptions or translations in footnotes next to them. As they tend to have it drawn and integrated within the artwork, redrawing it would become quite costly.
Virtually all comics (excluding the somewhat unusual ones that contain no text) are multimodal works; the narrative is told through a series of images and written text. Speech and thought bubbles are fundamental to the narrative, displaying the speaker’s intent, as well as the sequence of the interaction.
As a medium, comics combine text, image, gesture, facial expression and colour to set the tone and feel of the narrative. While the all-important speech bubbles afford the reader access to the character’s voices – both their private inner thoughts and their public vocal expressions, sometimes even written in unusual font types to indicate a unique dialect or a foreign language.
Below you can see how a character is “translating” Roman Latin to Gaulish (using a different font) and to Ancient Egyptian (using hieroglyphs), this is both done to a comedic effect for the reader.

Disney is written literally in Chinese

Figure 02 – Asterix the Legionary, Page 20, Panel 02
This means that the translator must confine their translation to the limited amount of space provided. It’s important to remember that, generally, the original author was not thinking about how their work might be translated, so some creative liberties must be taken.
All of these different elements need to be considered when undergoing translation, so as to maintain the story that the comic is trying to tell.

Formal equivalence vs Transcreation

Formal equivalence (a term coined by the linguist Eugene Nida), is a literal, word-for-word translation. The goal is to stay as close to the original text as possible, as it allows for untranslated idioms and strives to avoid localization. This can be a faster and cheaper way to translate the text directly, but a lot of cultural references, language structure, humour and ideas would be lost in the process.
Culture-bound humour presents a dilemma however: you can either lose readers with a cryptic allusion or you can burden the text with explanatory footnotes. In an increasingly English -speaking world, the best solution is sometimes to just let it stand as seen below.

Disney is written literally in Chinese

Figure 03 – Erased, Chapter 27, Page 27, Panel 04
Literary translator Aaron Coleman has said, “I think we all want to have translation work as a process of reproduction, but it’s a process of transformation.” Comics begin to change once they shift from formal equivalence to transcreation
Cultural references can cause difficulty as pop culture figures, books, movies, or everyday phenomena may be misunderstood by a foreign audience, making a direct translation not the most advantageous path forward.
This is where transcreation comes in. It is used to preserve the response of the reader, where the reader’s response to the translation should be the same as the reader’s response to the original. Maintaining the original syntax and grammar can make the translated text difficult to read, so the translator’s job is to make sure it doesn’t seem too foreign to the target audience.

It’s not funny how hard it is to translate comedy

Comedy is generally the hardest to translate, as often, the target audience is not familiar with the source language or culture and needs idioms and references localized and transcreated to make sense. Nothing is worse than killing the joke by over-¬explaining it.
When complications do arise, they are usually caused by one of two tricky areas: puns and wordplay. They are not the only roadblocks translators may encounter while translating comedy. Allusion, verbal irony, subtle uses of humour, and cultural references can all fall flat after being translated.

Disney is written literally in Chinese
Disney is written literally in Chinese

Figure 04 – Asterix in Switzerland, Page 20, Panel 01
Take for instance, the above example. In the original version, the owner of the workshop is the mascot of the French mineral oil group “Antar”. When the comic was translated for a British audience, it was more than obvious that the English readers would not get the joke. Therefore, they retouched the page by replacing the Antar-mascot with Bibendum (the mascot of “Michelin”).
The comic Asterix truly managed to tick every box of a successful comedic translation. It was widely known in France at the time, that it was “too French, and impossible to translate.”
However, literary translator Anthea Bell, took upon herself the challenge and started localizing the comic for a British audience in 1961. With her skill, the comic grew to become an international bestseller, and sales have shown that Asterix easily translates all over Europe. By 2021, 385 million volumes have been sold worldwide since the first book was released. Having talented translators faithfully localise the work, can definitely prove successful when brought to foreign markets.

Translating not only language, but also context

Even though those translations proved successful in Britain and Europe, on the other side of the globe however, Bell’s translated versions did not garner much commercial success in America. She has commonly said that the Americans have a very different sense of humour, and just don’t understand irony as much as Europeans.
There has been a recent attempt to localize the comics with new American English translations by publisher Papercutz, using simplified language and slightly cruder humour. They hope that a looser, more Americanized language will attract younger readers, so they reissued the entire series with new translations by translator Joe Johnson.

Disney is written literally in Chinese

Figure 05 – Asterix the Gaul, Page 03, Panel 02 & Page 01, Panel 09
The Panels above are from the British version, while the panels below are from the American version. The changes may be slight, (The most significant changes were made to the drawn onomatopoeia.) but translating directly from the French source material, and adapting them for their target audience, (even though both are in English) gives the work a better opportunity to resonate and gain popularity with their respective readers.
The new Papercutz editions have proven to be much more successful than Bell’s so far, and the later French volumes are currently being translated, with improved art and adapted to fit American print sizes.

Final Thoughts

There is a lot to consider when translating comics. We firmly believe that making comics more accessible for everyone and giving them the options of discovering the version they prefer, is better for the industry as a whole. This allows for interesting discourse between people of varying cultures that can connect over a shared narrative they may have grown up reading.
We hope that you stayed until the end and enjoyed this article. If you happen to have a comic in dire need of translation, at Pangea Global, we would be happy to help out. Our talented and dedicated team of professionals can make sure your French puns will be understood, and laughed at in any language.
Does that sound good to you? If so, get in touch here.
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