Graphic work

With great power comes great responsibility: why translating comics isn’t just about finding the right word for ‘kerblam’. By Canan Marasligil

Comics go by many names – graphic novels, sequential art, bande dessinée (lit. ‘drawn strip’; French), çizgi roman (lit. ‘line/drawn novel’; Turkish). In Brussels, where I grew up, they are part of the urban landscape – celebrated, venerated even.

After all, the bande dessinée is referred to as le 9ème art. As a translator and curator of cultural programmes, the comics I choose to read and work with represent a certain urgency in telling stories about contemporary issues that touch people globally, including women’s rights, gender-based violence, ageism, sexuality, racism and the exclusion of anyone who is outside the ‘norm’.

Popular culture is still overwhelmingly male-oriented, and far too white, so as a translator I tend to put the work of marginalised people at the forefront. I focus on issues that matter to me, and the works I translate tend to reflect my own story and values as the daughter of Turkish-Muslim immigrants, and a strong advocate for freedom of expression and women’s and LGBTQ rights.

Comics offer opportunities for authors to access wider audiences. Work by international writers might explore what it’s like to grow up in Turkey, Poland, Iran or Syria, for example, giving comic-book fans around the world an insight into different cultures and societies. I first learnt about the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris at the International Comics Festival of Algiers. Growing up in francophone Belgium, within an educational and cultural context close to that of France, I had never learnt about it in school; it took a few pages of a comic to connect me to an event that seems to have been forgotten. This major lack of historical knowledge in the collective memory of many European countries, especially post-colonial ones, creates misunderstandings that open the doors to racism and xenophobia. Comics from around the globe offer the opportunity to challenge the status quo through the stories of multi-layered and complex characters, and translation is key to shifting those perspectives.

Approaching the text

In order to translate comics, you need to understand how the medium works, so it is important to read a lot in a variety of genres. From superhero comics to autobiographical graphic novels, the way stories are told using words and images has endless possibilities, so each project requires a different approach. Understanding stylistic choices, such as the shape, placement and size of panels, the style and tone of the art’s line and the colour palette, are extremely beneficial to the translator.

Panel attributes can be used to set the tone and establish the passage of time, while the attributes of word balloons can emphasise textual elements. Whenever possible, I have found a way to keep the bubble size similar in the translation, allowing only minor adjustments to the length of sentences. I have been lucky to work with artists who are happy to adjust the size of the bubbles when necessary. For some artists, the design of every single element on a page has been thought through and cannot be changed. In such cases, the translator is usually informed at the start of the assignment.

As a translator, I find the stylistic elements of the artwork very helpful; the images are key to conveying the mood of the comic, and help me to choose the language that will best fit that mood. The work of the Algerian graphic novelist Nawel Louerrad is a good example. I came across her work at the International Comics Festival of Algiers, and was so moved by it that I introduced it to the editors of Words Without Borders, an online review of translated literature. My English version of her short comic Monstrez-vous was published as Demonsterate in their graphic issue of 2012.

A play on the words montrer (‘to show’) and monstre (‘monster’), the made-up verb Monstrez is repeatedly used in the comic to reflect both the main character’s alienation and solitude, and the beauty in being different. It was essential to keep the idea of ‘monster’ in the title, and I played with the language to find the right equivalent. Nawel later told me, “You made it sound better in English,” which is the most wonderful thing a translator can hear from an author.

I was aided by Nawel’s drawings, which so beautifully express the sense of alienation that the text becomes almost an accessory. The way she draws in thin lines and the colour palette she uses give a lot of fragility to the characters and the world of the comic. 

Speech bubbles and slang

During the comics exhibition ‘Reframe’, which I co-curated in 2014, I translated a short comic, Angry Turks, about the Gezi protests in Istanbul the previous year. The amount of text and the density of each panel, including the use of black and white, convey the idea of turmoil and urgency. The political discourses get claustrophobic.

In the panel below, we see a variety of characters speaking to each other. The dialogue bubbles have been coloured so readers can identify which conversations go together, but the use of colour also takes us out of the black-and-white world of the rest of the story, and into the reality of the political situation in everyday life.

A Turkish reader will immediately recognise the conversations, which are part of daily discourse both in the Turkish media and on the street. As a translator, I could have included an appendix to explain every element, but it would have added noise to an already dense comic. The tone of these dialogues, the characters’ expressions and the whole movement inside the single panel already give an idea that the country is polarised, and that people have clashing opinions on issues related to politics, freedom of the press, LGBTQ rights and religion. The images give the reader more than enough to understand and engage with the story (even if they miss certain subtleties), and this is something I can utilise and rely on as a translator.

More challenging, perhaps, is the frequent use of colloquial language and slang. At a comics and translation forum in Singapore, Carlo Vergara explained some of the challenges of translating his hugely successful comics from the original Filipino. They centre around a gay beauty salon owner who ingests a spiky stone and is transformed into the fabulous superhero ZsaZsa Zaturnnah – a powerful woman with large red hair. I do not read Filipino, but I can imagine the fascinating storytelling possibilities around language, gender and sexuality in this work.

A particular translation conundrum arises when one of his characters uses the expression Miss Malaysia. “In Filipino, when you say malay it means ‘consciousness’, as in regaining consciousness after you lose it, but it can also mean ‘to be conscious of’ or ‘to be aware of’, ‘to know’. When you say ‘I don’t know’, you say malay in Filipino,” he explained. “The Filipino homosexual, especially the Filipino effeminate homosexual, tends to add things to words, like turning malay into Miss Malaysia. So that’s how ‘I don’t know’ became Miss Malaysia.” In a similar way, Pakistan came to mean ‘I don’t care’ (from paki alam; ‘I don’t care to know’), and Malaysia a Pakistan, ‘I don’t know and I don’t care’. “How can you translate that in a crosscultural context?” Vergara asked. It is clear that, when approaching slang, the translator needs to enter the world of each character in order to identify their tone of voice, the context in which they are speaking and the way in which they use language. 

As a medium, comics allow the most complex stories to reach wide audiences. The more they are translated, the more our languages will get richer with new vocabulary, both visual and textual.


Canan Marasligil is a feminist writer, literary translator, editor and curator based in Amsterdam. Her interest is in challenging official narratives and advocating freedom of expression. She specialises in comics and contemporary Turkish literature.