Kleefeld on Webcomics #24: The Foreign Language Edition

By Sean Kleefeld

Odds are that if you’re reading this article, you’re reasonably well versed in the English language. It also stands to reason that if you’re reading this in English, many if not all of the webcomics you read are also in English. But of course, that’s not the only language out there and folks are creating comics in.

In the print world, foreign language comics have been ported over to the United States for decades. Asterix first saw official English translations begin in 1969 and Tintin was about a decade before that. These days, the comics and graphic novels sections of bookstores are frequently heavy with manga, mahnwa and manhua translated from Japanese, Korean and Chinese respectively. Similarly, many American comics get sent around the globe and are translated into various languages. However, some more restrictive governments clamped down on Western ideas and prevented such imports until much later. Hungary, for example, didn’t see any superhero comics at all until 1989, shortly before it became a democracy. (For trivia buffs, Marvel’s Revenge of the Living Monolith holds the distinction of being the first superhero comic published in that country.)

But webcomics often get similar treatments. Their potential audience is worldwide, unlike the limited nature of print distribution, so despite sometimes smaller audiences it makes sense to have webcomics presented in multiple languages. How one goes about that, though, can vary widely.

Sometimes, a webcomic is translated by a fan who just wishes to share their appreciation of a comic with as many people as possible. Often, this is done with the consent of the original creator, who’s happy to become more accessible to a wider audience. Tozo, the Public Servant is created by David O’Connell in English but had a French version available early on.

The translations here are courtesy of François Peneaud, a fan who happens to be fluent in English and French. O’Connell took the re-lettered art and posted a duplicate section of his site under a French language directory. Of course, the difficulty in this approach is that a creator is dependent on the fan’s continued engagement and enthusiasm for continued translations. It’s, therefore, not uncommon for these types of translations to be incomplete relative to the entire series. Although, a smaller sampling of a webcomic in another language could entice another fan to step forward and pick up the translation process.

Asaf Hanuka takes a markedly different approach with his comic The Realist. He actually writes the comics in Hebrew and has his brother, Tomer, re-work them into English. Because of the familial relationship, there’s a greater liklihood the translations will continue.

As an additional contrast to Tozo, The Realist is presented in both languages simultaneously. This is likely done for the practical reasons of maintaining updates, but it also makes more sense given the nature of the comic. Hanuka’s comic is one that is frequently rooted in his Israeli life and upbringing, and showcasing his native tongue to all readers helps reinforce that.

Amir and Khalil’s Zahra’s Paradise is one of the more widely dispersed webcomics, when it comes to language. The story is being edited by Mark Siegel for First Second Books, who will publish a printed version later this year, and he has also taken charge of the seeing story appear online in several languages concurrently. Using professional sources through the backing of a larger publisher, the story is able to be translated into Persian, Arabic, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italian and others with updates running right alongside the English original.

In the case of Zahra’s Paradise, the multiple languages is a very deliberate attempt to ensure the widest possible audience. The intent of the comic is to relay some of the ethical crimes that took place in the wake of the Iranian elections in 2009. The comic is very much one with a moral agenda, trying to spread the story to all corners of the world, and the multiple languages is very much a part of that plan. The more well-traveled the story becomes, the more political pressure can be placed on the Iranian government to reform.

The world wide web is called that because it does indeed reach throughout the entire world, regardless of what languages are spoken. With translation software freely available, it’s more feasible than ever to put a webcomic out in multiple languages for that many more people to enjoy. While said software is perhaps not perfectly accurate and tends to miss slang and idioms, it still makes conversion possible. Webcomics can be written in any language and presented to almost any audience in the world. Of course, having someone like a bilingual brother nearby to help out with translations might make things a tad easier!

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