Monday, December 9, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Comics Translation

I was recently asked some process questions on comics translation for a student project. These were my responses, slightly edited and expanded for public consumption:

On how my background in American Literature and Culture has affected my translation work:

It’s all the same thing to me, basically, because all texts—prose, drama, music, film, comics, and so on—are expressions of culture. They reflect the cultural context in which they are created, which in turn means they provide glimpses back into that context.

So ideally, translation is a type of applied cultural insight, or of cultural “reverse-engineering.” The better you understand the culture, the better you understand the texts produced in it, the better you will be able to translate them into your own language without the original cultural context getting lost in the process.

I’m fairly certain you don’t need to go to college to be a good translator, though. Anything that grants you insight into the pertinent culture helps.

On how I approach the translation of a given text:

There are three basic concerns for me.

First up, I wonder how the author of the source text might say it if they spoke perfect German. Second, I try to make the best use of the space that’s available on the page.

Finally, it’s good to remember that dealing with those first two concerns requires an interpretation of the source text. Which means the best I can do is to create a translation that best reflects my own interpretation. What are the themes? What do the characters want? What’s the subtext of a given scene? Answering questions like these frees me up to be as creative as I need to be and make the decisions I need to make.

On the formal peculiarities of comics translation:

Due to its formal constraints, comics translation probably has more in common with subtitling or dubbing than with regular prose translation. With limited space available, the length of the text is crucial, of course, and German words and sentences tend to be longer than their English equivalents, often substantially so. Consequently, there’s often no room to use what might seem like the best translation if space were of no concern.

Then again, the fact that the formal restrictions eliminate certain solutions forces you to be creative in a way that prose translation doesn’t. It encourages you to take liberties with the text that you otherwise might not, and to look for solutions in places that might seem unlikely at first. It’s a challenge that can be frustrating, but it’s also a huge part of the appeal of comics translation.

On how the visual aspect of comics affects translation:

Comics is a visual medium, so it’s important to watch the facial expressions and gestures of characters, for instance, in order to make sure that the words match them, and to generally keep an eye on the information that’s conveyed in the images, including things like mood or subtext.

That’s not where the visual aspect ends, though. In comics, whatever appears on the page is artwork, including the text. Ultimately, it will be the letterer’s job to make your words part of the visual narrative in the best possible way, but it’s your job to anticipate their job. So when you translate text in a comic, you don’t just focus on what the text says—you also consider what the text looks like. Make sure that whatever translation you choose will work visually in the context of the page.

On my reaction upon finding out that The Walking Dead was going to be a television show:

I hoped there might be some money in it for me.

On the challenges of translating The Walking Dead:

The Walking Dead is a very visceral series, narratively as well as thematically. It’s a straightforward story, all told in images and dialogue, with no narration or thought bubbles, let alone any fancy narrative tricks. Except for one or two flashback sequences over the course of more than a hundred issues, the way this comic works is that people talk and stuff happens, panel after panel, page after page, one thing after the next. The story is told in a fashion that’s very basic and easy to follow.

And with few exceptions, the characters are meant to be middle-class or working-class people who talk in very similar, down-to-earth terms. They’re almost constantly in extreme and potentially life-threatening situations, so they tend to be rather blunt and ill-tempered, as well. The dialogue mostly deals with practical concerns like the need to find food or protection from the zombies or from other survivors of the zombie pandemic, or with other very basic human conflicts that arise from the premise of the series. Finally, the text often needs to communicate a lot of information to keep the plot moving.

So the challenge, and the part that makes it fun, is to try to hit the visceral tone, make the characters sound authentic and not get bogged down in the exposition.

On the translation of aspects specific to American culture:

For the reasons outlined above, there aren’t many puns or slang terms in The Walking Dead, but one ongoing concern is the very liberal use of two or three specific four-letter words. They occur a lot, and while I don’t think this works quite as well in German as it does in English, I try not to overdo it with the variations, either, because that probably wouldn’t be true to the characters.

Generally, as far as cultural references are concerned, I think it’s important to not “localize” a text in the literal sense, but rather leave it in its original place, even when the language is translated. I’m careful with idioms or colloquialisms or any other culture-specific items, because I don’t want to uproot the story by using language that doesn’t make sense in the cultural context of the source text. For one thing, that would do a disservice to the text; for another, it would also run the risk of sabotaging the plausibility and verisimilitude of the story.

So unless you’re lucky and find some way to work around the problem, you’ll probably have to accept that there is no ideal solution in cases like regional English-language dialects, for instance, or that the best solution might be to ignore those features altogether.

That said: There have been one or two instances in other comics where I took the liberty of supplanting English-language dialects with German ones, but (a) those comics were very different from The Walking Dead, (b) those particular scenes were played completely for laughs, so plausibility was not a priority, (c) the characters in question were very minor characters, and (d) the fact that the dialects were meant to be funny was more important in those scenes than anything the characters actually said.

So generally, I’d advise against trying to translate dialects, but in those particular instances, I gave myself license to go ahead.

On my advice to aspiring comics translators:

I should say that I only feel qualified to talk about German comics here, but I suspect the situation might not be fundamentally different elsewhere.

The thing is, very few people make any money at all in comics, and those who do mostly are not eager to share it with freelancers. So people might encourage you to exploit yourself—to give them your skills and your time for little or no money. They might tell you that this is how it’s always been, that money is scarce, that you should be grateful for the chance to work for them, that their business model just doesn’t allow for freelancers to be treated any differently or (my favorite) that nobody else in the industry is any better off, or any number of other excuses meant to preclude you from being paid fairly by people who want to use your time and work to make money.

So, especially in a field like comics, where fandom plays such a huge role, I think it’s important to know what you want and how much you want it, and to be prepared to say ‘no’ when the terms seem unreasonable to you.

Because it’s entirely possible for publishers to treat you fairly. And it’s entirely possible for editors to work with you on your text and not shut you out from the editing process. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. If you think someone’s taking advantage of you or doesn’t respect your work, let them know and give them the chance to correct the situation.

And if they won’t, walk away.
“The idea that translator- or author-driven texts are the gold standard is a myth,” an editor once told me when I voiced concerns about how work was proceeding on a finished manuscript. I asked for my name to be taken off the project. I’ve also declined projects on which I would have been working for peanuts, or for “exposure.” It’s just not worth it to exploit yourself on other people’s projects. The stakes are too low. It’s not worth it to develop an ulcer over unpleasant working conditions, because the most anyone can offer you or take away from you is a few hundred bucks. There may be situations when you need those few hundred bucks and a job you wouldn’t otherwise take on is the quickest way to get them. But in the long run, as far as translating comics is concerned, all that matters is the quality of your work and the satisfaction derived from creating it, knowing that you weren’t ripped off in the process.

Mark Waid, the U.S. comics writer, recently shared “An Open Letter to Young Freelancers” at his Web log that I recommend. It’s good advice for anyone working in comics. All that said: I don’t want to discourage anyone from translating comics. Comics needs good translators, so if you have fun doing it, then go for it. But be wary of people with excuses.

(Image: Excerpt from Saga 2, by Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples and me, now available from Cross Cult.)