116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Translating Orality for the Reader-performer of Franco-Belgian Comics

Bart Hulley, University of Lorraine

English editions of Franco-Belgian albums often reveal how faithful, foreignizing translation strategies can impair character voice and orality when read. Given that “Dialogue in comics is more or less equivalent to dialogue written for the stage” (Groensteen 2015) should translation strategies be reoriented towards the reader as a performer of the text?


In 1984 Richard Marschall, editor of NEMO, wrote “There is a revolution occurring on the Continent, […] Europe is taking the comic strip light years into the future […] And America, despite the efforts of some, has been left in the dark.”  Indeed, when English versions of Franco-Belgian bande dessinée first attempted to shed light on this revolution, the absence of formal approaches to comic book translation contributed to the production of many clumsy target texts; and US publishing houses often used “anyone handy on staff who knows French”[1] for their translations.

Translators, even today, are hindered by the lack of methodological texts about how to translate graphic albums. For the past fifty years translators and editors have had to rely on their intuition and experience to produce quality work. Fortunately, award-winning translated titles by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics, Seattle), Alexis Siegel (First Second, New York) and Randy & Jean-Marc Lofficier (Epic, defunct) have demonstrated that this can sometimes lead to excellent results.

However, since the turn of the century the most successful translated Franco-Belgian graphic albums available on the US market fall largely into the category of single-voice narratives (e.g. Persepolis, The Photographer) while orally dense publications, with a high percentage of dialogue present in the form of speech bubbles, appear to have been less successful. This suggests that translation strategies have favored closeness with source texts over full cultural adaptation; that is ‘foreignization’ over ‘domestication’ to use Venuti’s terminology (1995).

With two meaning-making resources, comics are often regarded as audio-visual, even though no physical sounds arise from the page. This is due to the illusions of sound and movement which Eisner (1996) says are constructed by the reader as they consume a text; but for this to happen they must participate actively in order to mentally perceive movement and sounds. In the case of sound, Hubbard (2010) confirms that we are able to internally hear without any form of external stimuli and that reading with subvocalization facilitates the auditory perception of a text. To this end, graphic authors often employ the paraverbal to trigger auditory effects in the mind of the reader; as Delesse (2001) observes “authors use every possibility to play on sounds which make […] readers ‘hear’ the voices of the characters.” In translation therefore, strategies need to consider this audible dimension of comic texts (Celotti 2007).

Despitethe enduring comparisons with film, graphic narratives owe much of their early development to theatre. Indeed, the man credited with inventing comic-strip in the 19th century, Rudolph Töpffer, was also a playwright (Groensteen 2015) and at that time it was commonplace for picture books to be performed orally (Kunzle 1973). It is perhaps no coincidence then that Turner & Lonsdale-Cooper used performance to translate, and adapt, Hergé’s Tintin series (Owens 2004), arguably the most commercially successful comic book translations of all time.

Might considering graphic narratives as more theatrical than filmic therefore enable translators to deal with orality in comics more successfully?

[1] Decker, Dwight. 1989. “The Treason of the Translator.” Edited by Kim Thompson. Amazing Heroes, no. 160 (March): 71–73.