February 4, 2008
Posted by: Mark Siegel
Categories: :01 Stop: Watch

[From the Drawing Board of Alexis Siegel]

Bridges of
Translation: Adapting Graphic Novels for a New Audience

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!


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


More Than One Cook in the Kitchen

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

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.

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

I had the good fortune to translate into French Gene Yang’s wonderfully
profound American Born
, 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:


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.


7 Comments on “ Bridges of Translation: Adapting Graphic Novels for a New Audience ”

  • Kelvin | February 5th, 2008 5:39 am

    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.

  • Steffen | February 5th, 2008 6:43 am

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

  • John A. Walsh | February 7th, 2008 9:46 am

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

  • Edward Gauvin | February 7th, 2008 10:21 am

    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.

  • Soo | February 13th, 2008 4:59 am

    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!

  • Junior | August 11th, 2009 1:24 am

    Hi guys. Cheerfulness, it would appear, is a matter which depends fully as much on the state of things within, as on the state of things without and around us.
    I am from Lithuania and also now teach English, please tell me right I wrote the following sentence: “Search clock by type, brand, and price.”
    Thanks for the help :-), Junior.

  • mulberry alexa | December 5th, 2011 4:59 am

    I like the writing structure of your blog and it does a pretty decent job of presenting the material.

Your Comments are Welcome!