Conference report: The Translation and Adaptation of Comics, Hildesheim, 31 Oct–2 Nov 2014Posted: November 14, 2014
Two weeks ago, a conference on “The Translation and Adaptation of Comics“ brought together scholars from comics studies and translation studies, as well as other fields. Without further ado, I’ll sum up all the talks here (except for 5 that I didn’t attend due to parallel sessions, plus the poster presentations, plus my own paper – I’ll announce its publication in a separate post).
The opening keynote was given by Klaus Kaindl, who has also published a book on comics translation. In his talk (and also in his book), he asked the question, What can translation studies learn from comics? [All title translations are mine – most papers were given in German.] He argues for an integral notion of comics translation studies that is concerned with comic-specific aspects. Kaindl identifies the translation of images as a desideratum in the context of the iconic/pictorial/visual turn. Three categories are central to the translation of comics: genre (for Kaindl, manga and webcomics are genres, too), mode (comics are multimodal, i.e. they combine verbal and non-verbal elements, but so does any written text too), and medium (medium-specific aspects need to be considered when analysing adaptations, not “loss” or “faithfulness”).
Next was conference organiser Nathalie Mälzer, who evaluated taxonomies of image-text-relations in comics, more precisely those of Scott McCloud and Klaus Kaindl’s aforementioned book. Three different levels are mixed up in both taxonomies, which should be considered separately: spatial (ratio of image to text in a panel), syntactical (references to other panels, e.g. text and image belonging to different points in time), and semantic (e.g. text confirming the image, text expanding the image, or no semantic connection between text and image at all).
Susanne Pauer analysed the translation of onomatopoeia in comics. She defined comics onomatopoeia as any sound-imitating words in a comic, regardless of whether they appear in a speech bubble or as sound effects integrated into the drawing. I guess that makes sense from a language-oriented point of view. Another thing I noticed about translation scholars is a tendency to make quality judgements about translation examples; thus Pauer spoke of “bad”, “pleasing”, or “faulty” translations etc. [EDIT: see comments.]
In his paper Reading comics, reading cultures?, David Orrego-Carmona presented preliminary results from a study involving a questionnaire survey and an eye-tracking experiment. In this experiment, the researchers compared the reception of “domesticated” and “foreignized” versions of manga translated into Spanish, the former containing original Spanish words in the place of Japanese words (e.g. “tortilla” instead of “okonomiyaki”). The main finding is that foreignized manga require a higher cognitive load and result in less comprehension – even though the participants were already experienced manga readers.
The first day of the conference ended with Carsten Sinner presenting another translatological reception study as a basis of assessing successful translations, using the Argentinian comic Mafalda. According to Sinner, the opinions of many non-experts should be given more weight than those of few individual scholars. Therefore his study involved around 20 participants per target language.
Mathias Bremgartner kicked off the second day with a talk on comics in the theatre, and specifically the stage adaptation of the manga Barefoot Gen. This play premiered in Düsseldorf in 2006 and adapted selected scenes from all four volumes of the manga. The production included projections of found-footage and animated films, spoken-word recording playbacks, and musical numbers. In comparison to the manga, the play shifted the emphasis from criticism of Japan towards criticism of the US. Some of the aesthetics of Barefoot Gen were carried over onto the stage, e.g. the cartoonish simplification of the characters. However, at least in this play, no general comic-specific aesthetics were adapted.
Then Rolf Lohse talked about Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat and its adaptations into an animated film and a radio play. One scene in particular, a dream sequence, was compared in all three forms. Some content was left out in the adaptations, possibly in order to downplay sexual and religious elements to widen the target audience.
Sebastian Bartosch did two different things in his talk: on the one hand, he traced appearances of Lewis Carroll’s white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland through different comic adaptations. On the other hand, he looked at Nicolas Mahler’s literature (for lack of a better word – I mean the sort of literature without pictures here. Novels and the like.) adaptations, particularly that of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which combines elements from the original novel in a new way. In the discussion it was argued that adaptations should be regarded as works in their own right on the same level as the original works.
Steffen Richter‘s talk on comic storytelling techniques in contemporary German-language literature had been announced in the programme with the subtitle “Christian Kracht und Thomas von Steinaecker”, but in the end it was only about von Steinaecker and not the better-known Kracht. Richter identified four main storytelling techniques in von Steinaecker’s 2009 novel Schutzgebiet which are similar to comics: 1. ekphrastical blocks of text divided by blank lines are the equivalent of panels and gutters; 2. prolepsis (flash-forward) is the equivalent of simultaneous perception of several panels on a page at once; 3. figurative language is similar to pictures in comics; 4. (not sure if this was meant to be part of 3.) repetition in the novel is similar to repetitive elements (panels, characters, stereotypes) in comics.
Posy Simmonds’s Gemma Bovery as a “translation” of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was the subject of Florian Trabert‘s talk. Ironically, Flaubert was a staunch opposer of any kind of illustrations in novels. Simmonds’s comic is quite different from a mere illustration of the novel, however. By transferring the story into the present day, it seems more immediate to the readers. As a “meta comic”, a framing narrative is added that has a (possibly unreliable) narrator make explicit references to Flaubert’s novel. The plot significantly deviates when Gemma Bovery dies, in contrast to Madame Bovery.
Maximilian Gröne presented a selection of adaptations of Dante’s Divine Comedy into comics and a video game. The main object of analysis was the “media cluster” Dante’s Inferno from 2010, consisting of a comic by Christos Gage and Diego Latorre Relancio (DC 2009) and a PlayStation 3 / Xbox 360 game (EA 2010). In the comic, the characters are trivialised, textual elements are reduced, and there’s no connection to neither the original wording nor the traditional iconography established by Gustave Doré.
The topic of Janwillem Dubil‘s paper was the British TV series Misfits. Although Misfits is not based on a particular comic, it can be regarded as a “meta comic film” (similar to Unbreakable or Hancock) in that it draws on superhero stories, which of course were popularised through comics. Therefore, one can still speak of a transfer from one medium to another here. Several comic-like elements can be found in Misfits: moments of near motionlessness, artificial imagery such as animated film sequences, display of actual drawn comic panels, and a plot point of magically animating drawings through superpowers.
The last talk on Saturday was Rike Bolte on poetry in comics. In particular, Bolte looked at Julian Peters’s comic Les aventures de Rimbaud (http://julianpeterscomics.com/les-aventures-de-rimbaud/), in which he adapts Arthur Rimbaud’s poem Sensation. While the wording remains unchanged, the pictures give a different impression; for instance, the speaker is invisible in the comic, while the poem emphasises the first person.
Comics conferences often feature comic artists as keynote speakers, so it’s only fitting that a comics translation conference should feature a comics translator – in this case, Gudrun Penndorf, probably the most famous living German comics translator. Everyone in the German-speaking world knows her Astérix translations (she translated every album until the 29th), but fewer know that she also translated the other René Goscinny classics Iznogoud and Lucky Luke. Her career as a comics translator began already in 1966 with Disney comics. In her presentation she focussed on her work on Astérix though, and the difficulties posed by Goscinny’s love for puns. According to Penndorf, the most important things in translating comics are to convey the relevant information and to make the reader smile, rather than retaining the exact wording of the original.
Sunday morning continued with parallel panels. I chose to attend the one in which Caterina Bosco spoke about Translation, Pseudotranslation and Adaptation of the Disney Comics into Italian. It is a well-known fact that today, the majority of Disney comics are produced in Italy rather than the US, but how did the Italian production begin? The first Disney comics in Italy were published in the 1930s. These were translations from American comics at first, but by the 1950s, increasingly original Italian comics appeared in the Italian Disney anthology magazine, Topolino. Due to the lack of credits, which continued until the 1960s, it’s hard to tell them apart though. The situation was further complicated when Disney comics were re-issued with new, re-translated or “pseudo-translated”, text from the 40s/50s onwards.
Hasuria Che Omar presented a paper on the translation of Crayon Shin-Chan in Malaysia. Due to the many cultural taboos in Malaysia – sex, bodily functions, morbidity – both the textual and the pictorial content of comics need to be altered to become acceptable at all. In the case of Crayon Shin-Chan, such changes can be quite extensive, of course. Often attempts are made to preserve the humour by substituting the original gag for a more harmless one. It is the “social responsibility” of translators that makes them perform this kind of alterations, not the fear of judicial consequences. Only in rare cases are Malaysian translators who fail to perform this duty declared “sinners” by religious authorities.
Archaic language in historical comics was examined by Frank Paulikat. Using the examples of Les Aigles décapitées, The Towers of Bois-Maury, and Les Compagnons du crépuscule, he showed that the archaic French used in these comics doesn’t quite match the actual historical French spoken at the time in which these comics are set (the High Middle Ages). The official German translations of these comics, however, don’t even try to retain the archaic outlook of the original texts.
Sylvia Jaki‘s talk on translation of humour in comics concluded the conference. She compared Calvin & Hobbes to Mutts: while the humour of the former is based on (often purely visual) incongruity, the latter more often relies on puns and language-games. In the German translation of Calvin & Hobbes, footnotes may provide explanations for US-specific references. In Mutts, punchlines can even get lost in translation altogether, as they are not found in every strip of the original comic, so readers are already used to the lack of gags.