Sunday 28 April 2019

In the bubbles: Translating Comics - Clémentine Beauvais

I'm currently translating into French the hilarious comic Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal, drawn from her popular webcomic of the same name

It's the story of a world where men have all gone extinct (RIP, v sad, :'( bye men!), and the survivoresses of the quasi-apocalypse live together quite happily, spread out in small communities; the heroines of the story live in a village called Beyonce's Thighs, and while away the days talking, kissing, asking each other existential questions, and foraging around in the ruins (where they discover, among other things, an old dildo factory, which they mistake for a failed attempt by the old civilisation to create male androids; and an old Twinkies factory, a much happier find.)

It's the first time I'm translating a comic, and it's been an extremely fun experience, though challenging for a lot of reasons. One is the visual puns, which are a real nightmare (but fun). I'll focus on another one here, though: the necessity to keep the translated text within the bubbles.

You may or may not know this, but English is a thrifty language in comparison to French, where we need many more words 'to say almost the same thing', as Umberto Eco would put it. So, in English, 'I think cats on Roombas are hilarious', but in French, 'Je trouve que des chats sur des Roombas, c'est hilarant.' (I hope I've taught you a useful sentence there (you're welcome.))

The typical rate of inflation of a text in French translated from the English is 20%. For things like novels, it doesn't matter much. But for texts that are visually or spatially constrained, such as, eminently, comics, we've got a problem. Bubbles (the technical term is phylactery) aren't easily stretchable (you can redraw things, but it's fiddly and costly). And you don't necessarily want your font to be 20% smaller; preserving your readers' eyesight is, after all, a good idea for the viability of the book industry as a whole.

Woman World uses a mixture of solid and contourless phylacteries, as shown here:

Evidently, the solid bubble places more constraints on the writer - but in fact, the next one is only disingenously contourless, because when you look closely you see that it's restricted on the left by a column, on the right by the gutter, at the bottom by another column. Both are tricky to translate. You could potentially erase more of the background if you needed space, but better not to.

The third panel 'Oh! I have one!' is obviously less problematic - there's more space, and in fact here there's plenty of perfectly suitable translations, from 'Moi! Moi!' and 'Oh! Moi!', to 'Moi! j'en ai une!', etc., which are even shorter than the English.

'This hospital project feels so serious' is complicated. The common English construction 'it feels' has no such simple verbal equivalent in French - you'd have to say 'Ce projet d'hôpital a l'air, semble, paraît tellement sérieux,' but it doesn't quite ring right, it feels like the heroine's not actually involved in it. Better to get rid of the verb altogether and land on 'Ce projet d'hôpital, c'est d'un sérieux', six words exactly, and a very natural-sounding sentence. Getting rid of verbs is a good strategy to keep French sentences short - verbs often come with a heavy escort of connectives, participles and pronouns.

But verbs aren't the whole story, because it's not just a case of the number of words, but also of their length. The ubiquitous English 'so' means, literally, 'tellement', which is almost five times as long (!). Often, it's easily replaceable by 'tant', 'trop', or 'très', only twice as long; 'trop' is particularly useful, as it's just as colloquial and parasitic in French as 'so' is in English.

Another strategy, I've found, is to change the distribution of text across bubbles, especially if you manage to squeeze more text in one:

Here for instance, I moved the cliffhanger-ish phrase 'when one day in the lab' to the top line. In English, you'd get 'Men were going about living their lives, when one day' // (next panel) 'In a lab, a smart man...'

This kind of decision, of course, needs to be taken carefully, because it modifies the pacing of the page and can throw off-balance the operation that Scott McCloud famously identifies as central to comic-reading, namely, the closing of the gap that occurs 'in the gutter', in-between two panels.

I justified this one to myself because I consider it to be a comic convention to have slightly corny sentences of the kind; either for narrative value (generally indicative of temporality), or for cliffhanger value, from one panel to the next, or one spread to the next:

You can see in this half-spread the typical Hergé-style yellow narrative box 'Le surlendemain...' (the day after next).

It's acceptable in this passage from Woman's World to be corny, because this whole first part is a pastiche of an old-fashioned comic (or indeed film) intro; the tone there is very knowing, self-reflectively humorous.

In order to mimic this convention and accentuate its corny effect, I added an ellipsis in my own 'narrative line' : 'Les hommes vivaient tranquilles, quand un beau jour...', and further used the expression 'un beau jour', rather than the more neutral 'un jour'; the expression belongs firmly to the realm of (again, quite corny) storytelling, and it works fine, I think, in this context.

You can see on the photo of the spread that I didn't use a Word document to translate the comic, but made use of the Comment function on PDF:

Although far from perfect, it allows you to gauge more or less how the size of the translated text compares to that of the source text, and makes the reading of the translation much more fluid.

I'll stop here for now.

And sorry about the long post! I didn't have time to write a short one.

Next time I'll draw a bubble around it.

Clémentine Beauvais is a writer and literary translator. Her YA novels in English are Piglettes (Pushkin, 2017) and In Paris with You (trans. Sam Taylor, Faber, 2018).


Penny Dolan said...

Thank you so much for such a brilliant, clarifying and inspiring post, Clementine. I am full of admiration for your craft and skills, and your extra magic with the words.

Susan Price said...

I can only echo Penny. I always enjoy your columns, Clementine, and this opens my eyes to something I hadn't really thought about. Good luck with the project!

Ann Turnbull said...

I agree with Penny and Susan - such an interesting post! Thank you for these insights, Clementine.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Thank you Penny, Susan and Ann!! that's very kind of you. Glad you found it interesting.

Alex English said...

Fascinating, thank you Clémentine! I am learning French at the moment, so this is particularly interesting to me.