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February 04, 2008

Bridges of Translation: Adapting Graphic Novels for a New Audience

[From the Drawing Board of Alexis Siegel]

Bridges of Translation: Adapting Graphic Novels for a New Audience

I have a friend from Israel who is a fabulously talented classical musician and composer. Whenever the spirit moves him he'll grab his violin and share his latest inspiration with whoever's around. Mostly it's amazing to witness, but there was that time when his friends in Denmark (where he lives) wondered aloud whether they'd have to tie up Cacofonix the Bard before they could enjoy their wild boar in peace.


Surely you recall Cacofonix?

I found it delightful that Danes, talking about an Israeli, would use the name of a character from a Belgian/French comic… and that the image in everyone's mind would be worth ten thousand words.

Then again, I do tend to get excited about different languages and nationalities and such things, in a way that maybe not everyone does . . . if I can judge from the glazed looks I get and the often unanimous votes to have me tied up and gagged in a corner while the wild boar roasts!


Languages are a particular fascination of mine.  And comics are an especially rich field for a translator to play in, with many levels and styles of dialogue, and lots of cultural reference that can be plenty challenging to translate.

That's why, after many years of working on slightly more austere stuff, like corporate annual reports, I jumped at the opportunity when my older brother Mark Siegel (at the time in a pre-First Second avatar) suggested we work together on translating from the French Joann Sfar's magical stories in the Little Vampire series.


More Than One Cook in the Kitchen

One interesting question I've been asked is what parts of science, art or craft go into successfully translating a graphic novel.  I find it's a lot like cooking: there are ingredients that you can't do without and recipes that help, but you still have to be able to feel the result.  Does the dialogue work? Does the translated version capture the spirit of what the author wrote in the original? 

That's why collaborations can be so valuable – on your own, it's harder to have the necessary distance from the graphic novel you're working on, so you're like a cook who has to be watchful not to let his taste buds get blunted.  In my work with First Second, I've been lucky not only to work on several remarkable books, but also to get valuable comments from First Second's talented in-house team, and even to collaborate with two excellent (and award-winning, I have to add, it's seasonally appropriate) translators – Edward Gauvin and Kathy Pulver.

In fact, those Asterix translations that I admired as a kid, amazed at how the English versions contained different puns but worked in the same witty way as René Goscinny's brilliant original, were also done by a team (Anthea Bell, the co-translator with Dereck Hockridge, has an interesting article on her experience with Asterix here).


(In French, a drunken Obelix said "Farpaitement!" in case you're wondering).

Bridging Cultures

Whether I'm working alone or with a colleague, I'm fascinated by how you have to adjust to a new cultural mindset if you want a story to work in the target language.  I had an interesting case on my hands when I was called in to fix the translation of an early story from the Sardine in Outer Space series.  Those zany and fast-paced adventures, part of First Second's offerings for kids, are full of rollicking fun, cheesy puns and good-natured warmth.  But the story that rang alarm bells in its initial translation didn't match that feeling.  In it, Sardine the plucky 9-year-old swashbuckler and her crew arrive on Planet Totocalcho, a planet inhabited by anthropomorphic dogs who speak with Italian accents, love good food and their mammas, and have a passion for a kind of soccer game.  The sense in French was that the story made a few gentle digs, with plenty of endearment, at a neighboring country whose quality of life, sense of family and passion for soccer (the Totocalcio is the Italian lottery based on the outcomes of soccer matches) are viewed positively in France, if not shared. But in the early version of the translation, the attempt to render an Italian accent was indistinguishable from a Hispanic accent, and the overall feeling became one of offensive mockery. Mixed with the image of dogs, it hit a raw nerve. So in the end I decided that the only way to make the story work was to move away from all the Italian/Latin puns and names and simply go to town on dog puns and references. I even had fun naming the advertising banners in the stadium where the climactic soccer game takes place: Starbarks Coffee, Dachshund & Dachshund, etc.

Interestingly, after having had to tamp down what could appear to be prejudice in that translation, I needed to play up prejudice in another one.

When I had the good fortune to translate into French Gene Yang's wonderfully profound American Born Chinese, I came up against the problem of how to portray the ordinary anti-Asian racism that is a key thread of the book, because it's fairly unknown in France. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not claiming that the French have any less talent for racism and prejudice than any other culture. It's just that Chinese immigration is very recent in France and hasn't given rise to the kind of stereotyping shown in the book. I had to rack my brains to find equivalents for the racist slurs in the scene below:

Alexis_image_5 Alexis_image_6

For the first kid's text balloon, I used the pun of "débridé", which means "unbridled" but has an echo of "bridé", the neutral term used to describe the curved eyelids of Asians.

And I had the second one say not "la chair de poule" (goose bumps, except they're chicken bumps to the French) but "la chair de canard laqué" (Peking roasted duck bumps). 

And when the character of Chin-Kee, a fusion of all infuriating anti-Chinese racist stereotypes, breaks into a spontaneous song-and-dance routine of the Ricky Martin song "She Bangs", I had to find an equivalent that would work in the French context.  I chose to adapt it by using "Alexandrie, Alexandra", by the 1970s French singer Claude François, because I felt it had a similar power to irritate by tying into each reader's many painful experiences of it in karaoke bars and at parties.


So it's never-ending, what you learn about different cultures through the experience of translating graphic novels, and accordingly I could go on and on with many more examples, but already I see your eyes glazing over and your hands reaching for a rope.… So I'll sign off and head back to my translations.



Alexis, this is a great post. I've read the Vampire series (translated into English) and American born Chinese (the English one) and it's great to read your insights and what went into the translations! just a few words can really bring the context to life!

Alexis, this is great! Translation articles are always so much better backed up by illuminating examples. I really need to get a copy of the French ABC now... it's probably humiliating to admit I have a soft spot for "Alexandrie," or at least fond memories of dancing to it at a friend's birthday party in Amiens, which would have been the first time I heard it. Thanks, too, for the link to the Bell article.

This was a really enlightening essay. I wondered about some of these issues when I first read Deogratias.

But of course your friend's friends called him Trubadourix, his Danish name, rather than Cacofonix.

That's interesting. I was watching some Chinese-dubbed episodes of South Park when I was in Taiwan. On South Park, one recurring routine is that Eric will keep making fun of Kyle for being a Jew. In the Chinese dub, Eric calls Kyle a Hakka. Hakka is a subgroup of Chinese people that's the biggest miniority, and has a reputation of sticking together and a streotype being aggressive when it comes to money. I guess that worked in the cultural context. Translations is interesting. I've also seen Chinese dubbed episodes of the Simpsons but I was too young to recall things.

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