Translating Comics
“Encroaching on the drawings is taboo”

Comic translator Ulrich Pröfrock
Comic translator Ulrich Pröfrock | Illustration (detail): © Reinhard-Kleist

Text and pictures are more closely interwoven in comics than in any other literary genre. In our interview, comic translator Ulrich Pröfrock reveals why this makes life particularly challenging for translators, and which freedoms they have.

Mr Pröfrock, how did you end up translating comics?

I needed some translations for a small publishing project I was working on in the early 1990s, so I did them myself. Later I kept getting more and more requests from friends of mine in the same business, asking if I could help them with some small translation or other. And things just snowballed from there.

What is it about translation that gives you the greatest pleasure?

What I find most fascinating is the fact that you are constantly challenged by different narrative styles and linguistic forms. Translators of novels often spend a very long time working with just one author – in extreme cases even several years. Comics feature much less text, and in 24 months I translate around 50 of them in different genres: everything from children’s comics to adventure stories, fantasy, science fiction and literary adaptations – and even biographies and reportage.

What makes a good translator of comics?

A good translator should have an above-average command of colloquial everyday language, and should also be familiar with pop culture references and genre-specific contexts. He or she often has to depart considerably from the original in the texts, which for the most part are dialogues – after all, the reader should feel that it sounds just right. In German, however, this in itself can easily land the translator in hot water, as our own language has significant regional differences from north to south.

Lost in translation

What kind of things are difficult to translate?

Many references to the everyday culture of the comic’s country of origin will necessarily be lost. When for example tourists at a French seaside resort think they have spotted a couple of famous singers, but then actually muddle up the two, this strikes a chord with the reader in a way that cannot be achieved in the translation. It would be silly to have the German singers Wolfgang Petry and Wolfgang Niedecken confused as a substitute for the French protagonists – though this would obviously come closest to the original intention. So an entirely different solution needs to be found. Germany also has no equivalent of the West African French spoken in the country’s former colonies. There is no satisfactory way in which to convey the author’s extremely creative use of French, a foreign language that was “imposed” on the people living in the colonies, nor the highly vivid and descriptive nature of this language. Under no circumstances must the reader be given the impression that the protagonists do not have a proper command of “standard French”, as this would make them appear linguistically incompetent.

And how do you resolve a problem like this?

Generally speaking, the best solution involves looking at the information conveyed by the drawings in question and attempting to come up with similar references. This is why it is so essential for a comic translator also to be an avid reader of comics. The important thing is always to keep track of all the pictures that appear on any given double page, as this is what dictates the narrative flow and the rhythm.

What role is played by the layout and design when it comes to the translation process?

It goes without saying that translators of comics must restrict themselves to the space that is actually available. Sometimes the problem of a longer translation can be solved by using a smaller typeface. Encroaching on the drawings is taboo – and there must be very good reason for any exceptions. If the available space is simply insufficient even with the best will in the will, the translator must decide which information could most easily be left out. Obviously nothing that is relevant to the continuing story can be sacrificed.

A second job to pay the bills

Can a text also become shorter when it is translated?

It is only rarely the case that a translation turns out to be significantly shorter than the original. When it does, the translator needs to extend it in ways that fit the rhythm, while at the same time filling the surplus blank space in a satisfactory manner. The arrangement and weighting of the text boxes and speech bubbles is a key element of the overall visual impact and should be preserved as far as possible. Because the publisher’s editors take the final decisions as regards hand versus computer lettering and font size and type, the finished text generally has to be revised and adjusted several times.

Can you earn your living from translating?

No! Given the paltry pay in the world of literary translation, the only way I could make a living would be to cut back hugely on the amount of time I spend on each translation. That would only be possible by churning out text after text and not bothering to revise or rework my translations. More effort is needed to produce high quality work, however – and I don’t get any extra pay for going the extra mile.

What would you like to see for translators in Germany?

More appropriate pay and appreciation for those who make world literature of whatever kind accessible to a German readership. Many of my colleagues in Germany who are “foolish” or at least passionate enough to devote themselves to this work risk ending up very poor in their old age. That is the bitter reality.

Ulrich Pröfrock

Freiburg-based translator and bookseller Ulrich Pröfrock was awarded the 2015 Christoph Martin Wieland Prize for Translation. The jury felt that he had pulled out “all the linguistic stops” in his translation of the graphic novel Weapons of Mass Diplomacy from the French original Quai d’Orsay. The 12,000 euro prize, which is awarded by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts, thus paid tribute to a comic translation for the first time. Ulrich Pröfrock owns the “X für U” comic bookstore in Freiburg.