Found in Translation: The Elusive Art and Inexact Science of Comics Across Cultures

A talk by Adam McGovern © given June 25, 2012 at the New York Comics & Picture-story Symposium

(Click on all images for larger, fully readable version.)

One rule I’ve learned in a medium whose definition is always shifting is that a lot of the projects you most counted on don’t come to pass, and many of the ones that prove the most fruitful are ones you never even expected to have.

So it was when I met Andrea Plazzi, an editor at Italy’s giant distributor Panini and the guy who translated all of Will Eisner’s works for the Italian audience. In the last decade I had a growing ring of acquaintances, some in France but mostly in Italy, who’d started writing to me at the Jack Kirby Collector fanzine, where I still work, to tell me of libraries named after Kirby or museum exhibitions of his stuff or works they were doing in his manner.

We all know it’s our own country that’s had to catch up with Europe and Japan’s reverence for our pop culture, so Andrea was making a strange kind of homecoming to New York when we met here a few years back.

Every now and then he’d use me as a slang and vulgarity consultant on comics from America that he was adapting over there, and eventually he asked if I’d like to try and help a promising cartoonist named Paolo Parisi make a debut in America with a short minicomic on another great American genre, the boxing-ring melodrama, called Pitbull.

At this crucial turning point I have to make one thing clear: I do not speak Italian, and the jury’s still out on English. However, Andrea wanted to make sure of the thorough transfer to American vernacular and flavor of what Paolo had written in the street talk of depressed urban Italy, and convert the bitter poetry of fatalistic Europe into the kind of tragic toughguy literature known in our country.

This started our common method of Andrea doing the most bare-bones, literal English translation for me to re-embellish in American idiom.

I began by feeling my way through the method rather than formulating a theory, though the more ways you find to do it the more your realize about how you’re doing it.

Even then, I could look for points of intersection to build those linguistic bridges between. So I identified a few major classifications of adaptation, and levels of re-creation they call for. The most surface level is mere clarity of syntax; de-scrambling phrases that the writer just didn’t have the full English equivalent of, as on p. 6:

where the played-out boxer’s manager says “and go taking a shower… you smell the wine.” and I changed it to “and go take a shower… I could smell the booze in the front row.”

The second degree of modification is terms for which there is no direct American equivalent, and in this case you have to run your mental list of word-associations for the term’s counterpart. As on Page 13:

when the boxer says of his unsupervised childhood, “We’d run like a pack of wolves. A gym not far from home was our lair. ‘Audace,’ what a fucked-up name.” Now of course in America only Zoolander might name a gym “Audacity,” so I ran the synonyms in my mind and of course coincidence gave me one of those gifts that lets you go on living: “Bold’s gym.”

The third degree is concepts that work in the mind of the native culture but need complete reworking to reconstitute in the host culture’s mind. Toward the end, when the Pitbull is dying,

there was a reflection from him meant to be a kind of roll-with-the-punches, play-the-hand-you’re-dealt sentiment, but was unsalvageable in its literal translation, which was, “You’re born, life gives you wounds and you pound them hard.” Just, yikes. So I dug to the underlying worldview of someone who sees life itself as an adversary and came up with, “You come into this world, life slaps you and you start swinging.”

That was a breakthrough, so next Andrea thought I was ready for the more forbidding mountain-climb, which is of course comedy. The satirical Rat-Man comic:

is a phenomenon in Italy though it’s all but unheard of here. Its creator wanted to change that with an animated series which is truly hilarious and was being marketed in Spain and the U.S. Andrea asked me to try translating three sample stories with him that would be collected in comic tie-ins to the TV show.

The commonplace is that comedy is the hardest thing to carry across cultures, that it’s locked into national in-jokes and references and figures of speech that the words can play off of. But it may be that there is a common current of absurdity and inappropriateness that the best humorists can tap, because I found these to be a much more direct transfer than the super-gloomy Pitbull. It was more a matter of adjusting the era and frame of reference, like when the layabout hero tells us he’s vigilantly scanning a newspaper, the police blotter we presume, and exclaims, “I can’t believe it! Liz Taylor gets married again!”

…which, at least at the time we started on these, it was prudent to update to “TomKid is now TomKat! Why wasn’t I informed!”

In other cases we came up against those untranslatable equations. The Never-Ending Story is huge in Italy though I only remember one movie coming to America, so it might not have connected either culturally and grammatically when we adapted a Rat-Man book titled after it, in which the writer-artist, Leo Ortolani, allegorizes himself as the Old Man and the Sea, trawling its creative void for stories to reel in. The title literally translated to “The Ended Story,” which just wouldn’t do.

Of course a good strategy for cognitive jumps is that when the answer is eluding you, change the question, and this can get you from the sound-alikes, which might be particularly fruitless across languages, to the associations, so I thought about the theme instead of the words and came up with –

The Rat-Man material is still, shall we say, making its way through the approval process, but two years ago Andrea hooked up with a popular publisher of genre comics in Italy named GG Studio. They had had success with some of the books in France as well, and wanted to pursue a presence in the Spanish and U.S. markets.

We thought we were ready for primetime (and actual pay), so I suddenly found myself going to work on eight or nine comics about cute dead muppets in a dark, charming fairytale; dystopian authorities and insurrectionists in conflict; brothels in a strange urban war with corrupt politicians; barbarians, y’know, barbarianing, and a bunch more.

This was, to begin with, an exciting way to immerse myself in a number of genres I might never otherwise do my own stories in, so it was a good opportunity to try and add colors to my palette and doors I could knock on in the future.

So. We start with the most bare-bones English conversion the Italian-based translator can fashion. This itself creates a fertile gap around which quirks of personality can collect. Like nature abhorring a vacuum and me, the audience, abhorring a space in the conversation.  It’s essentially Andrea stripping the Italian of its “how,” sending over just the “what” of plot and character details, and me reconstituting the “how” of personality and speech pattern and subtext in the frame of reference of the adoptive culture.

This is unorthodox; usually you find someone fluent in both languages. But all translation is negotiation – a metaphor I get from Italy’s great comic fan Umberto Eco – so we enact this transfer of information with an actual mediation between one native speaker at each end of the process.

I’m aided by the setting the artist has drawn and what knowledge I already have banked from historical periods, different parts of the world and ways of life, and established genres. There’s a type of person who emerges from a world of castles, or haunted houses, or futuristic cities, and the personality almost fits into it like a puzzle piece. So you ask yourself what is the sound that would make that person fit in with their surroundings.

Sometimes it’s a matter of taking the literal lines of dialogue and seeing how they can be bent into three dimensions. Like this exchange between a hippie bard and a workaday bartender in A Skeleton Story.

In the original, it goes:


1. …that’s why this smells like a revolution, I’m telling you!

2. It came up with that strong wind, bringing the Spirit of Spring with it!

3. If you ask me, my friend…

4. …it’s people. People seeing more than what’s in there, around them…

That became:

1. I tell ya, man, it’s the sweet smell of revolution!

2. It came in on that strong wind, blowin’ the Spirit of Spring in with it!

And using what I have at hand (with the bartender redoing some homemade signage), I added him saying: 3. It’s these paint fumes, “man”…

4. …and it’s people. People seeing more than what’s right there, around them…

Later on they say:

8. Just like this wind. It comes from far away, enters our houses, lifting up our roofs… waking us from our stupor!!!

9. Maybe, but this revolution thing… I never understood anything…

And it becomes:

8. Just like this wind. It comes from outta nowhere, wakes us from our daze, blows away the fog!

And imaging the patchouli-camouflaged context, I add the barkeep saying: 9. (Oh, so that’s what that smoke was…) I dunno, this revolution stuff… I never got it, y’know?

So, simply using language to complete the sensation that you’re in the scene, not just having it described, though this is one of the comics that sometimes needs less work since my partner is more charmed and interested with it and doesn’t leave it in a basket on my doorstep as much as some others.

One area that my partner would like to abandon altogether is rhyme; over the course of this same comic I found myself redrafting three or four songs, and in that case you just pick up the direction of the theme as if you were literally following a tune, and try and get a mirror of the essence – often I’ll find that there is perfectly good material in Andrea’s regular-dialogue treatments but they actually fit into the rhythm of conversation a panel or a page away from where he put them. So with songs too the ingredients can be there but just need to be agitated again or have one more bath in someone else’s brain chemistry. So for the following refrain from Issue 1 Andrea threw his hands in the air like he’d…just despaired and gave me this unrhyming run (though he kept in notations of how it rhymed in the original):

[Page 20 supplied:]

[from here on, [Rnumeral]=rhyme]

11. Even if you were sentenced to eternity [R1]

12. After that eternity we’d be here just the same [R1]


1. …and it should be clear why… [R2]

2. …to embrace again our dear [R2] friend, always sincere, always loyal …[R3]

3. …who cares if a crook taught us to sing…[R3]

4. …to laugh and to dance…[R3]

5. …beyond the rules, beyond conventions… [R4]

6. against the movers and the shakers! [R4]

7. Even if they told us it was hopeless for you… [R5]

8. We’d never lost patience [R5] and faith…

9. Because we’re your crew [R6]

10. The most merry people, in this land [R6] bored and desperate to death… [R7]

11. …with no more desires, no more inspiration! [R7]

12. We bring ‘em music, music and revolution… [R7]

13. For better or for worse [R8] we’re this earth’s salt. [R8]

14. Right or wrong… [R9]

15. What we could give…

16. …to this world…

17. …to this people…

18. …we gave it! [R9]

…and that became:

11. Even if you were sentenced to eternity

12. We’d play for you, they’d never throw away our key


1. Why miss the chance

2. to embrace again our dear friend, always sincere friend

3. So what if a crook taught us our trade?

4. To laugh and dance, that’s how the game and tune are played

5. Beyond the rules, behind the beat we go-oh

6. against the bloody, boring status quo-oh

7. Even if they told us to give up on you

8. We’d never lose faith

9. Because we are your crew-hoo

10. The hungry people, with nothing to do

11. No more dreams, desires, none to look up to

12. Need a merry band

13. In this fairyland

14. Our clothes are shabby

15. But our hearts are true-hoo.

Okay, enough. In that same kind of musical interest, you just want to fill in flavor so that it’s worth moving through certain scenes rather than just filing past them to the next explosion or seduction or aerial dogfight. So in one of the few images I’d better show from the brothel comic, a standard, sub-Mae West scene where a local inventor has just scored a patent and one madame wants to liberate his money and information from him, we have boilerplate, d’ya-need-somewhere-to-spend-all-that-cash dialogue, which I changed to “Y’know that thing money can’t buy? We’re having a sale!”

(And that btw is also technically completely clean, which expresses another linguistic belief of mine that the curses that really stick with us are the ones our minds fill in for themselves.)

Sensibility and reference-point are languages too, and I’d like briefly to switch to the comics I actually wrote in the first place for a moment. Some of you saw a stage production last year called Funnybook/Tragicbook that featured a farcical space-viking parody I wrote, and a dour psychodrama about Sigmund Feud getting to analyze Adolf Hitler – turned out they were both public domain, who knew. For the most part the genius artist Giuseppe Palumbo got and surpassed what I was aiming for,

though in a few cases he went beyond what I thought could even fit the story. This image,

of a wave crashing against a monolithic coastline, was at one point inserted, off-script, into the midst of the contest of wills between these figures of civilization and barbarity, with extensive citations from European literature to certify the symbolism. I thought that, for a story about secret history, we shouldn’t leave our metaphors out in the sun so much, and I truly think this was a case of an operatic sensibility that would be taken more seriously in its home culture than it would ever have been read as making sense in our own more cut-to-the-chase Anglo context.

But occasionally it’s best to leave both lanes open. When I was doing a story for Image Comics’ Next Issue Project with my most frequent collaborator, Paolo Leandri,

my idea was that this bottom-tier character we were given – a guy who runs around in bright yellow shooting arrows and calls himself the Spider – would have evolved special chemicals like the science version of a fairytale’s poison arrow, to make people forget his unmasked face or act as a truth serum, etc. We went back and forth and Paolo would not take out this image of a guy being persuaded a bit more decisively.

It had nothing to do with the creepier Clockwork Orange-y domination I had in mind, but it was an icon of the types of scenes that specifically got comics almost banned by Congress in the time period of the story:

And since our story is about the uncomplicated ideals of the WWII era getting rapidly darker and the culture getting lousier I thought we could leave this contradiction in, like that unknowable space between what people are saying in a film from another country and what the subtitles say they’re saying.

So what have we learned? I think one thing I share with some of my favorite role-models, like the comic writer Kathryn Immonen and the playwright Crystal Skillman (though I don’t share their talent) is that we’re blessed with a basic inability to pay attention – and what that really means is that you take a 360-degree notice of everything that’s going on, filter it and fill in the marginal details, so extras in a crowd scene can be this chorus of perspectives instead of just being set-decoration. (So, when you’re presented with bulldozers moving in on the Route of Red Houses, with a bunch of repeated calls of get out and go home in the supplied text, it can become,  “Don’t tread on we!”  “Occupy Red Street!”  “The earth doesn’t move ’til we say so!” etc.)

Another thing my favorite writers don’t share with me but serves me well is that I have a fundamental lack of originality – the styles and forms and voices of different kinds of fiction stick in my head and mutate like a virus so I can pass along new strains. And my actual genetics in a Jewish-Catholic-Romanian-Russian-Irish-German household, growing up and getting some verbal obstacle courses figured out, may have helped.

And the lines do come closer together. The other week I was working on a comic that Paolo (Leandri) also wrote, in Italian, and though what I call my remix supplied things like this neo-Twist atop a volcano being called “the Krunkatoa,”

it’s all Paolo at times like the scene where someone exclaims at a fashion show, “It’s the shock of the chic!” or when a hipster prophet calls himself “Jesus Cola.” There’s not much in his original that doesn’t sound right to me. So, like any unknown land you find yourself in or comics culture you step into, the longer you stay there, the more of it starts to make sense.