Special Issue: Reimagining Comics - The Translation and Localization of Visual Narratives

Re-Imagining Comics Translation

By Michał Borodo (Kazimierz Wielki University, Poland)


The article reflects on the emergence and evolution of the academic field concerned with the translation of comics. It points to certain ‘game-changers’ in English language publishing, including freeing this field of study from the constraints of micro-scale linguistic analyses and instead approaching the translation of comics from a sociocultural perspective with a focus on non-verbal elements. It briefly explains how the field adopted more holistic approaches taking into account graphic conventions, publishing contexts, sociocultural traditions, cultural agents behind the translation process, as well as the interplay between the verbal and the visual. It also mentions some of the more recent examples of re-conceptualizing the field of comics translation and approaches to re-imagining comics adopted in this special issue of inTRAlinea.

Keywords: evolution of a research field, the translation of comics, linguistic analysis, holistic approaches

©inTRAlinea & Michał Borodo (2023).
"Re-Imagining Comics Translation"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Reimagining Comics - The Translation and Localization of Visual Narratives
Edited by: Michał Borodo
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2636

1. Pre-imagining comics translation

As translation scholars, comics researchers and readers of comics, we all hold some preconceived assumptions about comics and their translations. What happens when comics travel from one culture to another? To what extent are they transformed, adapted, refracted or transcreated? What happens to cultural references, graphic sound effects or slangy expressions? Do digital comics pose any new challenges to translators? What happens when classic comics or canonical works of literature are taken over and re-purposed by fans or other artists? Addressing these questions, and with a focus on European, American, Japanese and Korean comics ‘re-imagined’ in various languages, this special issue is an attempt to grasp the diversity and complexity of comics in translation. It may confirm some of the pre-determined assumptions we hold about translated comics, but may also challenge and question others, adding to our understanding of what happens when comics cross linguistic and cultural boundaries.

2. Re-imagining comics translation

It is imagining alternative exploratory possibilities and discovering new, creative ways of thinking that drives academic research forward. Re-imagining how translation may be studied, what material is worthy of investigation, and from what perspectives, can contribute to the emergence of new academic subfields. Then, re-thinking and re-imagining the previously delineated conceptual horizons, exploring the peripheries and hidden potentials, can push their boundaries further. How does this apply to the translation of comics?

In retrospect, in English language publishing, one can point to certain ‘game-changers’ in this field of study. One of them was freeing it from the constraints of micro-scale linguistic analyses primarily focusing on individual lexical items, such as linguistic puns or proper names. One of the turning points here was Klaus Kaindl’s 1999 study describing the translation of comics from a sociocultural perspective, as social practice shaped by different cultural agents, combined with a focus on the “anatomy of comics”, understood as verbal but also non-verbal elements of translated comics. The publication of an anthology is sometimes seen as marking a new stage in the development of a research area or as a sign of the rising aspirations of an academic field. This was published less than a decade later (Zanettin 2008a), to serve as a primary reference point for other researchers for years to come. In a contribution to this latter publication, Federico Zanettin (2008b) points out that translated comics may be analysed within a localization framework as they are often republished as repackaged and redesigned products adjusted to different cultural conventions at different moments in time. Similar to software and website localization, the translation of comics may involve not only the translation of linguistic material but also the transformation of non-verbal, graphic content. Comics translation may not simply involve the insertion of words into a pre-existing matrix of panels and speech balloons, but may involve modifying colours, panels, images, font size and lettering, speech balloons, the reading direction, book covers, paratexts and formats, which may all be transformed as part of diverse “visual adaptation strategies” (Zanettin 2014).

Moving away from the narrowly defined linguistic analyses to more holistic approaches taking into account graphic conventions, sociocultural traditions, publishing contexts, cultural agents behind the translation process, as well as the interplay between the verbal and the visual has continued in other inspiring studies. For example, Jakub Jankowski (2014) introduces the term “graphic translation” as an all-encompassing concept underlining the distinctive character of the medium of comics. He discusses the interrelations between words and images, but also emphasizes that words too have graphic qualities, and stresses the uniqueness of comics in which verbal and non-verbal elements are combined into one meaningful whole dominated by the graphic dimension. In a recent study, Laura Anotla (2021) examines the adaptation of superhero comics from the Marvel Universe, demonstrating how the source material, stretching across several American issues, may be thoroughly transformed into a new product by omitting and adding pages and sections in the new sociocultural and publishing context. An example of re-imagining the horizons of comics translation is exploration of the practices of scanlators, that is unauthorized, unofficial translators of comics (e.g. Fabbretti 2017, 2019). Involved in participatory digital media culture, they facilitate access to both popular and niche cultural products and undermine the logic of commercial distribution. Exploring fan culture, the differences between non-official and official translations and the boundaries of scanlators’ activities with reference to the official publishing sector is thus a more recent example of re-conceptualizing the field of comics translation. What research perspectives and approaches to re-imagining comics are adopted in this special issue of inTRAlinea?

3. The re-imaginings in this special issue

In the opening article in this special issue, Terry Bradford takes us on a journey to explore the universe of Tintin re-imagined by artists other than Hergé. He sketches a broad picture of alternative and unofficial versions of one of the most famous European comics across different media, including unofficial screen adaptations, commercial works of art and fake album covers. The article then concentrates on a number of unofficial comic book albums, such as Tintin en Suisse, Tintin en Thaïlande, Tintin en Irak, Tintin Versus Batman or La Vie sexuelle de Tintin, with the iconic Belgian character being altered, re-purposed and challenged in his exemplarity in new and intriguing ways. These subversive versions and transcreations are used as a means of conveying social commentary, parodying, sexualizing, politicizing and de-idealizing the Tintin myth. They are the work of artists and fans who through these alternative forms of expression contribute to and intervene in the cultural existence of Tintin in complete opposition to the officially released versions. Apart from showing how bandes dessinées travel across different media, disrupting and perpetuating the Tintin universe, Terry Bradford also discusses the actual translations of unofficial Tintins travelling between English and French.

As Jagyeong Kim observes in her contribution, referring to Scott McCloud (2006: 146), graphic sound effects give comic book readers a unique opportunity to “listen” with their eyes. The sound effects from the source text are nevertheless not always transferred unaltered to the target text, as they may undergo a broad range of modifications in new cultural and publishing contexts. Be it the sound of breathing, heart beating, laughing or a mother calling for her lost baby in intense pain, these effects may be retained, but also transformed in terms of size, position, proximity to the source of the sound, rearranged horizontally or vertically, as well as deleted. Jagyeong Kim’s contribution demonstrates such changes with a wide spectrum of examples, focusing specifically on sound effects located outside speech balloons in seven English and French translations of Korean graphic novels by Yeon-sik Hong (Uncomfortably Happy and Umma’s Table) and Keum Suk Gendry-Kim (The Waiting and the critically acclaimed Grass). On the basis of this corpus, Jagyeong Kim concludes that the English translations relocated sounds, changed sizes but also maintained vertical sound effects more often in comparison with the French versions.

Paula Martínez Sirés examines, in turn, the shift towards digital comics, focusing on the translation and distribution of manga in Spain. She analyses the practice of streaming translated manga chapters on official YouTube channels simultaneously with the release of the Japanese source texts. The translations in question are streamed as dynamic slideshow presentations, with the pages changing automatically and with the readers first seeing the images and only then the translated dialogues which gradually appear in the previously blank speech balloons. This publication method, aiming to attract readers to the digital medium and counter the activities of scanlators, has implications for the translation process. Because of the need for simultaneity, the translator may initially work with an incomplete, draft version, then with a partly modified version one or two days before it is streamed online, and then with the final version to be released in print several months later. Paula Martínez Sirés points to the fluidity of the source text and to both the advantages and disadvantages of this situation for translators who do not have “the full picture” at earlier stages but can also smooth out inconsistencies at later stages. One wonders: will this kind of innovative publication method become more prevalent in the future?

Exploring the theoretical potential of transcreation, a term steadily gaining ground in Translation Studies, Karl Wood and Michał Borodo concentrate on a popular European fantasy adventure comic book series Thorgal, demonstrating how it has fared in the Anglophone world. Focusing on one of the most critically acclaimed titles in the series, The Archers, we demonstrate in what ways the US version diverges from the UK translation and the Franco-Belgian source text, paying attention to textual, visual, cultural and ideological issues. Rather than emphasizing the lack of accuracy, we underline the creative and interventionist role of translators and editors, who sought to re-interpret the source text through modifying emotional and psychological aspects, foregrounding the love-story element, as well as toning down nudity and sexual violence. We argue that, when viewed holistically, the overall non-literaliness of the US text can be viewed as part of an overarching strategy of transcreation. In Translation Studies, transcreation has been applied in a variety of contexts, ranging from advertising through game localization and audiovisual translation to the translation of children’s literature. We conclude that it may also be fruitfully applied in the studies of translated comics in order to better understand their complexity.

What happens when a picture book is transformed into a comic by its author? Joanna Dybiec-Gajer critically examines an intriguing example of intrasemiotic and intersemiotic self-translation of a proto-picturebook originally published in Poland of the 1960s, into an avant-garde comic book entitled Grey Ear published in the following decade. In the new version, author and artist Mieczysław Piotrowki transformed the existing iconotext, adjusting it to the comic genre, experimenting with form and reimaging its readership. The comic in question was also translated interlingually from Polish to English. This gives us an opportunity to trace the subsequent transformations of the source material functioning within the same multimodal network. Focusing on a broad sociocultural and political context, Joanna Dybiec-Gajer also illustrates yet another noteworthy phenomenon. The comic book was published in English translation as part of the institutionalized project to domestically produce and export foreign language editions of Polish children’s literature abroad as part of the socialist state’s cultural policy. The article thus offers an insight into the mechanisms of the publishing sector in the Eastern Bloc.

Yean Fun concentrates, in turn, on the translation of Japanese manga in Malaysia, paying special attention to translators’ treatment of cultural references. Examining the translations produced between the 1990s and 2021, she points to a tendency to gradually move away from the strategy of domestication to foreignization. Thus the translations published in the 1990s and 2000s were more likely to substitute Japanese cultural reference with target culture references, whereas the most recent translations more closely rendered aspects of the source culture. Yean Fun concludes that Malaysian readership is characterized by a growing understanding of and readiness to appreciate Japanese culture. Adopting a social semiotic multimodal perspective in her study, she makes use of a number of key concepts for this approach, such as a sign maker, interest, motivated sign, mode, modal affordance, semiotic resource, transduction and transformation. It is a noteworthy and illuminating perspective shedding light on the nature of the cultural exchanges within the East Asian context rather than between East Asia and Western countries of Europe and the US, which seem to have been so far more often analyzed and documented with regard to the translation of Japanese manga.

As Vasso Giannakopoulou demonstrates in her contribution, manga is no longer the exclusive domain of Japan, however. She examines the first attempt to adapt Shakespeare into a manga genre outside Japan, closely analyzing Manga Shakespeare Hamlet, published in the UK in 2007. The article explains how the creative team and the publisher skillfully exploited the symbolic capital of the canonical literary author and the popular medium of manga, currently the most dynamically developing comics genre, with one reinforcing the status of the other in the eyes of the readers. It is a wide-ranging study starting with the discussion of a complex nature of the source text, and subsequently analyzing contextual factors, the agents involved in the rewriting process, the dominant ideology and poetics, and the issues of circulation and reception. The methodological basis for this study is André Lefevere’s work on refraction and rewriting supplemented with Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological approach. As Vasso Giannakopoulou observes, the reader of this modern refraction (set in a postapocalyptic future, with Hamlet being portrayed as an emo teenager) will learn little about Shakespeare and his times, but the Westernized manga accurately reflects the fears, concerns and ethics of the target culture.

In the next article, combining the perspectives of semiotics, translation studies and adaptation studies, Naciye Saglam focuses on yet another canonical literary text turned into a graphic novel. She examines Batman Noël – a reincarnation of the nineteenth-century classic A Christmas Carol – which transplants the story from London to the city of Gotham adapting it to the Batman universe. It is a noteworthy example of intersemiotic translation, or “semiotransadaptation”, of the source text, re-created with drawings and colours, parallel characters from the DC Universe, but also retaining certain keywords and the original storyline. The article then analyzes Batman Noël as an interlingual translation published in Turkish under the same title. The analysis reveals that while the visual elements from the source text have been, as a general rule, preserved, there appear some inconsistencies in the treatment of verbal signs integrated in the pictures, such as inscriptions, newspaper headlines, onomatopoeia or names of shops. Naciye Saglam thus focuses on an intriguing multi-level translation practice: a radical transformation of the source material adapted to the DC Universe, now featuring Catwoman, Superman, Joker and Robin, and its interlingual translation.

With Diana Bianchi, we move on from the DC to the Marvel Universe and learn about the history of Spider-Man translations in Italy. Illustrated with fascinating examples – of book covers, verbal fights and cultural references – the article makes several important points. One of the key features of Spider-Man in the original was an innovative approach to language – cheeky lines of dialogue and highly idiomatic, even slangy, youth talk that contributed to building a convincing figure of a teenager that American readers could identify with. This aspect of the source material was a challenge for the translators who diluted the discursive ties to the teenage figure using higher register and less subversive language. The translations also initially exhibited an uncertainty about the use of appellative pronouns and adopted different approaches with regard to informal nicknames of Spider-Man’s adversaries and references to popular culture. The covers of the first Italian translations were partly redesigned, that is simplified, domesticated and graphically adjusted to the conventions of the target culture. In the closing sentence of her article, Diana Bianchi expresses hope that her analysis of the first twenty issues of Italian Spider-Man will stimulate further research on the subject. I am sure this will be the case. Incidentally, this way the special issue, opening with Tintin, ends with another famous fictional teenage hero.

4. Co-imagining comics translation

This special issue is a collective effort of a number of like-minded researchers who decided to contribute their time and creative energies to this project. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your work and friendly collaboration. Likewise, I am grateful to inTRAlinea’s co-editor Federico Zanettin on whose support and experience I could always count, and to the team of peer-reviewers from the academic centres in the UK, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Belgium, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. It has been a pleasure co-imagining comics translation with you.


Antola, Laura (2021) “Transnational Adaptation of a Marvel comic book event: the case of X-Men: ‘fatal attractions’ in Finland”, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 13, no. 2: 241–254.

Fabbretti, Matteo (2017) “Manga scanlation for an international readership: the role of English as a lingua franca”, The Translator 23, no. 4: 456–473.

Fabbretti, Matteo (2019) “Amateur translation agency in action: a case study of scanlation”, Translation Matters 1, no. 1: 46 – 60.

Jankowski, Jakub (2014) “O przekładzie komiksu, czyli uwagi teoretyczno‑praktyczne o tłumaczeniu graficznym” [On the translation of comics, or theoretical and practical remarks on graphic translation], Między Oryginałem a Przekładem 3, no. 25: 67–85.

Kaindl, Klaus (1999) “Thump, Whizz, Poom: A Framework for the Study of Comics under Translation”, Target 11, no. 2: 263–288.

McCloud, Scott (2006) Making comics: Storytelling secretes of comics, manga, and graphic novels, New York, Harper.

Zanettin, Federico (ed.) (2008a) Comics in Translation. Manchester: St. Jerome.

Zanettin, Federico (2008b) “The Translation of Comics as Localization. On Three Italian Translations of La piste des Navajos” in Comics in Translation, Federico Zanettin (ed.), Manchester, St. Jerome: 200–219.

Zanettin, Federico (2014) “Visual Adaptation in Translated Comics”, inTRAlinea 16. Available at https://www.intralinea.org/archive/article/2079 [accessed on 19/06/2023].

About the author(s)

Michał Borodo is Associate Professor in the Department of English Linguistics at Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz, Poland. He has published on various topics in Translation Studies and his research interests include the translation of comics, children’s literature, volunteer translation, as well as translation and globalization. His recent books include Translation, Globalization and Younger Audiences (2017) and English Translations of Korczak’s Children’s Fiction (2020).

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©inTRAlinea & Michał Borodo (2023).
"Re-Imagining Comics Translation"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Reimagining Comics - The Translation and Localization of Visual Narratives
Edited by: Michał Borodo
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2636

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