Comic Books Are a World Unto Themselves. Here’s Comic Book Translation 101

Much like literary translations, comic book translations present their own unique challenges (imagine trying to translate words like “Blam!”). Along with cultural sensitivity, double meanings, and idioms, a key factor with comic books is the limited space available. Moreover, the nature and format of comic books do not allow for the inclusion of additional information elsewhere via footnotes or an explainer, meaning everything needs to be communicated within the storyboard.

Here are some important challenges to consider when deciding to embark on comic book translation:

Addressing Onomatopoeias

Perhaps one of the trickiest challenges in comic book translation is working with onomatopoeias, or words that mimic the sounds of the action they refer to. To describe actions or noises that are occurring in a comic book, cartoonists can choose from quite an array of words, such as whiz, buzz, and bang. Because onomatopoeias are often specific to a region, translating the words is particularly difficult. For example, many onomatopoeic words might be frequently used in comics in the United States, but they mean nothing to readers in other countries. Since different languages signify sounds in their own unique ways, it is important to focus on how to ensure that each sound is properly represented. Even if a specific sound is heard in a similar way by people of various cultures, it is often represented by unique strings of consonants in different languages.

Working with Speech Bubbles

Speech bubbles are useful not just to express a character’s thoughts or dialogue, but also, via formatting, to indicate the verbalized aspects of speech, including volume, diction, and tone. Of course, much like the use of onomatopoeias, one of the primary issues with speech bubbles is selecting the words that convey the same meaning. An additional issue is the space that the speech bubble allows, when compared to its source language counterpart. Carefully selecting fonts and applying formatting for the speech bubbles helps overcome this obstacle.

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 difficult 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 hard to interpret it. Translating humor in comic books requires carefully selecting words and phrases to ensure that a joke stays intact, and within a significantly lesser amount of space than a different type of book.

Handling the Limited Space

Working within limited space is one of the most complex technical issues when translating comic books. Because the text is integrated with images, the translated content should remain about the same length as the source text. 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 affect the aesthetic quality of the comic.

Turning Obstacles into Success

There are numerous 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 example, The Adventures of Tintin was translated into English starting in 1951, and it has since been translated into more than 50 languages. However, before that success could be achieved, obstacles had to be overcome. One of these 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 accurately 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.

Comic books haven’t fallen victim to the reader fatigue or contemporary consumption trends. One only need look at attendance figures for Comic Cons in San Diego and around the world to know that the comic book industry remains a thriving one. As with all other content, effective translation and internationalization will only contribute to its growth.

Share your thoughts