The Difficulties of Translating Comics

Drawings, cartoons, speech bubbles, onomatopoeias, visual metaphors…comic strips, comic books, manga, B.D. or bande desinée…Surely, you’ve read one. This type of artistic expression, with its characteristic format and elements, has its particularities when it comes to translation.

Speech bubbles are, perhaps, one of the most characteristic elements of this type of texts. They are used to express not only the dialogues or the thoughts of the characters, but the way in which they say something or feel something: tone, diction, volume, and so on. With different types of letters or speech bubbles, the different characteristics of what is expressed are indicated. When we translate the contents of the balloons, size can work against us, we must be attentive both to available space and font.

Another typical element of comic strips is onomatopoeia, graphic-textual representations of environmental sounds or non-discursive verbal utterances. With them we can represent anything from blows or shots to screams, whispers and crying. As translators, it is very important to keep in mind that each language has a different way of representing these sounds.

The title and names of the characters also pose their challenges. Depending on the country in which they will be marketed, as well any questions of legislation and the type of public they are meant for, names and titles are either translated or left in their original language. Today, most are preserved in their original language, however, occasionally, a title or name is translated in order to attract the attention of a greater number of readers. Also keep in mind that translators don’t work alone. The task of integrating the translated text onto the page always depends on another person; usually, a graphic designer. According to the tools that the designer has, the format in which the original file was delivered and the instructions received from the publisher, certain elements of the comic may or may not be translated.

When translating a comic strip, we must be aware that text and image are closely related. We translate text, but that text becomes an image as soon as someone places it in the comic. We must adapt to that image both to interpret the text and to give it its final form. As translators, we must be very attentive to these particularities and take them into account to produce the best possible final product for your reading pleasure.