Comic Scene

“Translations Have to Be Better than the Originals!” – Comic Translators and Translations

An art form that blends text and image into a unity presents translators with special challenges. In what other publication format is the space that the foreign-language text may take up precisely demarcated? A certain pride on the part of comic translators is therefore surely justified.

When the German manga translator Jürgen Seebeck was asked about his creed at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair, he answered: “Translations have to be better than the originals! Whether this goal can always be realised is of course an entirely different question.” In spite of Jürgen Seebeck’s qualification, a conception of his role is revealed in this response that identifies him as a translator of comics, since his colleagues working in the field of literature would scarcely make such a claim: they have been too deeply influenced by the discipline of literary studies’ proclaiming over and over again that at best an approximation of the original text is possible in a foreign language.

Giving free rein to one’s own creativity

By contrast, comic translators take the offensive because they know that their work, compared with that of colleagues who translate literature, is mostly held in less esteem. The reason is that in the comic format, the text supplements the image and therefore economises with words because what is visible need not be narrated a second time. And also, the preconception prevails that in comics the text is secondary in importance to the images and therefore does not require much care or attention to formulation – let alone the translation. But the fact that this art form in which text and image are merged into each other would place particular demands on the translator is seldom taken into account. In what other publication format is the space that the foreign-language text may take up precisely demarcated? But this is the case with comics. Speech balloons and text boxes are set by the artist and cannot be expanded or reduced without interfering with the overall aesthetic impression of the image. And the same holds true for the size of the lettering, i.e. generally text passages that a calligrapher has set by hand.

Comic translators are therefore compelled to give free rein to their own creativity to find formulations that both correspond to the original in terms of content and fill out the space that the original’s graphics require. In a language like German, which on average requires about a quarter more text than English to express the same contents, a problem arises that of necessity turns translators into co-creators. And a certain pride on their part is therefore surely justified.

Love by way of detours

Only a very few German publishers can afford to employ translators on a regular basis. For example, Kai Wilkens, one of the translators from French who is currently most in demand is actually an importer of comics. Translating enables him to finance his online comic shop, but he could not earn his living from translations alone. Uli Pröfrock, a regular partner of Wilkens in larger-scale projects, is also a comic dealer. Many prominent German translators have found their way to their profession by way of detours - and through their love of comics.

This is not true of the best-known of all German comic translators. When Erika Fuchs, born in 1906, began translating Disney comic books in 1951, she had never read a comic before. She was looking for an additional source of income for her family and had applied to Readers’ Digest as a translator, but her skills were only needed for the Mickey Mouse comic book issued by the same publishing house. Erika Fuchs agreed - and kept at it for almost half a century. Her texts gained fame because she invented her own German names for many figures, (Dagobert Duck for Scrooge McDuck, Panzerknacker – i.e. safecracker - for Beagle Boys, Daniel Düsentrieb – i.e. jet engine - for Gyro Gearloose, frequently departed entirely from the originals, and included associations and puns that were not to be found in the American texts.

“Think, think,” “blink, blink”

In addition, Fuchs developed the idea of supplementing the onomatopoeia typical of comics by giving thought processes legible form with “think, think,” or a glance of the eye with “blink, blink.” These examples set precedents, this principle even became the standard of comic language in Germany, producing strange results at the hands of other texters: “freu, freu,“ for expressing enthusiasm or “staun, staun,” for surprise. Erika Fuchs’ admirers introduced the term “Erikativ“ to denote this new grammatical form (punning on “genitive,“ “dative,“ etc.).

Late in her life, Erika Fuchs was awarded two literature prizes that had never before been awarded to a comic texter (and never since, either): the Heimito von Doderer Prize and the Roswitha Prize of the City of Gandersheim. But she was well aware of just how highly her readers esteemed her achievements prior to the awards. Unlike her colleague Gudrun Penndorf, who had translated Asterix together with Adolf Kabatek, she never engaged in litigation to gain a share of the profits from the numerous reprints. Gudrun Penndorf won in court, but was given no more jobs as a comic translator afterwards. And a third woman must be mentioned here: Gerlinde Althoff, who translated many American comics into German. She is as significant in this area as Jürgen Seebeck in Japanese manga. But Althoff also tried her hand as a scenarist, i.e. an independent comic author, when an adaptation of Klaus Kordon’s early work Der erste Frühling (i.e. the first spring) was being developed. But this switch from translating to texting is an exception, since in Germany comic authors are generally not paid as well as translators, who at least are paid set rates per page. But the price they pay is that many of them remain anonymous; the persons named here are exceptions in that their work attracts attention for its own sake. This is thanks to the quality of their translations, which in fact have added one or the other nuance to the publications as opposed to the original languages - or sometimes considerably more.

Andreas Platthaus
is an editor for the literary supplement of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ).

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
January 2011

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