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What do you know about the translation of comic books?

November 24 , 2021

What do you know about the translation of comic books?

by Target Language Translation Services

- November 24 2021

translation of comic books

The different types of translations have different types of complexities. Much like literary translations, comic book translation is often a complex process, presenting their own unique challenges, which we will discuss later. Before we delve into the challenges comic book translators are likely to face, let us look into the history of comic books and who started it all.

Comic Book Day

September 25 is Comic Book Day, which honors the father of the comic strip, Rodolphe Töpffer, and is observed to honor the succeeding works by other cartoonists and authors who his creation.

Credited as history’s first comics artist, Töpffer was born in Geneva in 1799. He was an art critic, a schoolmaster, landscape draftsman and university professor. Töpffer was ahead by 60 years before comic strips were featured in American newspapers. He had poor eyesight and developed a doodling style with spontaneous and broken lines that formed figures in a constant state of activity. Surreal narratives and ironic captions accompanied his strips. He created eight picture stories depicting characters comprising a crazy family that soon became folk heroes. The stories were a mix of myth and social satire, depicting European and Genevan culture during Mr. Töpffer’s time. He called his strips little follies, which he did not want to publish at first. When he finally decided to have them published, they became an instant hit, which led to imitations and plagiarisms all over Europe as well as in the United States.

History of comic books

Comics partly originated in Japan during the 18th century from the works of ukiyo-e artists, but the comic books became popular in the United Kingdom and the United States around the 1930s.

However, the earliest known comic book was “Histoire de M. Vieux Bois” by Rodolphe Töpffer, which was published in 1837 in Europe. No word balloons were used in the comic strips but each panel had text underneath describing the strip’s story. The comic book had 40 pages, printed on 8 1/2” x 11” paper and side stitched. Each page contained six to twelve panels. It was made available in several languages.

In 1933, the United States published the first modern comic book, called “Famous Funnies,” which is regarded as the first true comic book from the United States. On the other hand, Obadiah Oldbuck is referred to as the first comic to be created.

Oddly, the term “comic” usually connotes something humorous, but more often, comics were applied in telling various stories. Many people debated whether comics are to be regarded as literature, but that was settled when “Maus” was published. Maus is the work of Art Spiegelman, an American cartoonist. The graphic novel was serialized for 11 years (1980-1991), which depicted the artist interviewing his father who survived the Holocaust. Instead of people, Spiegelman used animals, with pigs as Poles, cats as Germans and mice as Jews. The work was classified by critics as an autobiography, history, biography, memoir and fiction. It became a Pulitzer Prize winner, the first for a graphic novel. Moreover, Maus showed that a comic book is not only about humor, but can cover difficult subjects which can be told in a more approachable way without veering away from reality.

Challenges in comic book translation

Here are some important challenges which may face a translator of comic books:

Tackling the limited space

Comic books represent not only the typical constraints of language (idiolect, double meanings, idioms, et al.) but also space limitations. As we all know, comics provide information not only through words but they are also linked to an image and the translator should confine translation to the space they have. If the target language text is longer than the source language, the words will not fit into the available space. Although the spaces could be enlarged or the font size could be made smaller, these changes can greatly impact the aesthetic quality of the comic.

Therefore, in order to provide a more or less acceptable translation that is as close as possible to the original, translators have to remove any merely accessory content which is the same that happens with subtitling, for example, which also has strict space limits.

Unfortunately, this type of translation, there will be occasions when vital text will be eliminated because there is no possible way in the target language to translate the original idea in the limited space available, which is quite frustrating for translators who knows that the reader will not receive the full information; however, this is something that has to be understood as a part of the work.

Dealing with onomatopoeias

Perhaps one of the trickiest challenges is the varying onomatopoeias in comics, or words that mimic the sounds of the action they refer to, both which are not inside the bubbles but also those in the animation, since, in general, they tend to be highly characteristic of the use of country of origin but for the reader from another country they may have no meaning. It is important to focus on how to ensure that each sound is properly represented. The solution in these cases is usually a change to the design but in addition to being quite expensive, it brings into question the extent to which the work of the cartoonist, who is an artist whose work should be respected, should be amended. In most cases the original is usually left or other solutions, which are normally unsuccessful, are used, such as attempting to put the translation in the blank space left between bullets or add a small sign next to the onomatopoeia.

Translating humor

Translating humor can be quite a challenge with books, and this is especially true for comic books. Differences in culture, values, ideology, and other factors make it hard to properly relay comedic elements. Conversely, those differences can make a reader laugh at something that was not intended to be humorous in the source language. In addition, since comedic language is idiomatic, it can be difficult to interpret it. Translating humor in comic books requires carefully choosing words and phrases to make sure that a joke stays intact, and within a significantly lesser amount of space than a different type of book.

Examples of successfully translated comic books

There are plenty of examples to suggest well translated comic books can go on to become highly successful and achieve a life of their own in international markets.  For instance, The Adventures of Tintin was translated into English starting in 1951, and it has since been translated into more than 50 languages. One of the main challenges was translating The Black Island (vol.7, The Adventures of Tintin), which is set in Great Britain. After a decision was made that the book did not precisely portray Great Britain, the entire book had to be redrawn.

Along with Tintin, another example of turning a challenge into a success is Asterix, another series of French comic books. Translated into more than 100 languages, one of the main challenges was ensuring that the comic would be funny in English as well. It also required the translation of some 400 character names, so as to be contextually impactful in the new language.

This article is reprinted from Trusted Translations, Day Translations and ulatus.

If there is a copyright, please inform us in time, we will delete it right the first time.

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