An Oracle blog about translation

Comics: Translation and other Cultural Points to Consider

My Stand Up for Comics post garnered a lot of hits and comments. One of the references made in the comment section is to the  Duke University School of Law Center for the Study of the Public Domain's (CSPD) comic about the basics of copyright law, Bound by Law.

The comic is available under a Creative Commons license that allows you to also translate the comic into your language. Examples of French, Portuguese, and Italian versions of the comics are already available. Perusing the translated examples, and the "translation kit" sources it became clear that whereas the text on the cover, in speech bubbles, and in a few other places, is easily translated, other text (such as the names of creators and their work) is not, and the comics characters and their interactions themselves remain constant across all language versions.

Duke CSPD Italian, Portuguese and translation templage for Bound By Law  comic

Comic pages courtesy of the Duke University School of Law CPSD

So, arising, from all this, a number of questions arise for all aspiring comic creators and translators:

  • What is the best (in terms of ease or process compliance) translatable source? For example, are PhotoShop layered files (PSDs) the way to go? How about JPEGs? or XML? 
  • What translatability considerations have been made in the source content? For example, can the speech bubbles be resized to cater for text expansion, or contraction without obscuring the characters or other information?
  • How culturally applicable are the characters, the rest of the graphics, and even how the the action is portrayed? Do they need redrawing, replacement, or any other considerations? How will the comic's use of Onomatopoeia (those Ker-Pows! and so on) be handled? Check out this piece on how a Marvel Captain America comic was localized into French: "In other words, they are trying to translate the American Visual Language closer to French Visual Language.
  • What of the actual information being conveyed? Does it make sense once translated? The CSPD does offer the advice that translators to either rewrite relevant portions of the legal discussions to make them reflect the law of your jurisdiction, or post a warning conspicuously they are offering a translation of a comic book that discusses the situation of documentary filmmakers under United States law. Sounds like comics need localization, doesn't it?

Clearly, a fully-translated and culturally-applicable comic book delivery can be a significant, but worthwhile, undertaking. That's not to knock anyone's effort here, of course. Even a basic translation can raise the quality of debate and public information and lead to further investigation by readers, but it must be made clear to consumers that's the intention of what they're reading. Furthermore, it is obvious that with the use of comics as a global communications device (see this 200 page manga comic from the US Navy, for example), the demand for translation (to and from English) of comics will increase. There is already ample advice available on how to proceed with this task, and great information sharing is happening. Check out the collaborative comics translation website Comix Influx for a start!

Join the discussion

Comments ( 3 )
  • William Flanagan Wednesday, June 1, 2011
    I am a 20-year professional comics translator who doing translations of manga (Japanese comics) from Japanese to English. Here are the answers to your questions with respect to the manga industry. They may help inform comic artists as an example of one way comic translation is successfully accomplished.
    1. I do not do lettering, so I can't answer to how lettering is accomplished, however for ease of translation, some computer readable way of extracting the text would help the translator. (In other words, perhaps a layer rather than a bitmap). That being said, in 20 years, I have never had that. I have always had to translate from hard-copy Japanese comics, and I still do.
    2. I do not expect the letterer to resize the balloons to fit the translation, rather I try to tailor the wording to fit in the balloons. In Japanese, that can be difficult since the original is written vertically rather than horizontally making for long, thin word balloons. With those situations, the translator must do his/her best to avoid long words that would make for multiple hyphens in a single word. In the past, I have seen word balloons expanded slightly to match the dialog in the translation, and other art touched up for cultural reasons. But these altered comics are not what the fans want to read, so such alteration are avoided wherever possible.
    3. I mentioned that a little bit above, but wherever possible, the characterizations are not altered to fit the culture of the target language. The buyers are not "being tricked" into buying a foreign product. They already know the product is foreign (in many cases, this is a selling point), and so every effort is made to prevent altering the characterizations to match the culture of the target language. The language is still translated, but it is not translated in such a way as to alter the characters or situations.
    4. It might make sense for a "how to" product to be altered so that the instructions are applicable to the reading public, but for fictional entertainment (the majority of comics sold), if a story is about a Japanese lawyer, one should not try alter the story to fit (for example) American law. One should figure out a way, using translation notes or other editorial methods, to explain to the reading public that laws vary between the culture of the book and the culture in which the reader is living.
    Again, this is only with regard to how Japanese manga is translated for the English-speaking market. I don't make any claims that other cultures must taylor their localizations in the exact same way. I hope my answers shed a little bit of light on one way it can work.
    One last note. I'm sorry this is a huge block of text. It seems to be an artifact of how this site allows comments to be posted.
  • ultan o'broin Thursday, June 2, 2011
    William, these are great comments (sorry about lack of formatting options in Roller, beyond my control, but I will investigate) and useful information. Many thanks for contributing.
  • ultan Monday, June 6, 2011
    Useful article (though you may need to get out the old Google Translate - do it!):
    Entrevista al traductor de manga Marc Bernabé by Juan Carlos García
    See the importance of context - for translator and reader - in comics translation (point 7.) Other useful information too.
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