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Comix Influx:

Translating BD

In the ebb and flo of cross-channel translations, there has long been a huge shortfall between the quantity of English-language graphic novels that get translated into French, and those from France that make it into English.

No less than eight of the fifty albums officially selected for the 2008 Angoulême BD Festival prizes are English-language translations (including the winner, silent gem The Arrival by Asian-Australian Shaun Tan) and two of the Heritage Award too are English classics (Feiffer and Crumb). The good news is that of the non-English Top 50, ten titles have already been translated (the manga Tekkonkinkreet and Death Note and of course The Arrival) or will be shortly (Rabbi’s Cat, Delisle’s new Burma book, the new Schuiten & Peeters, Jason, Donjon, Gus, and Pedrosa’s Trois Ombres), but that still leaves 33 untranslated ‘Essentials’ - how many of these will make it into English and how long will it take? See the full list of the 2008 Essential prize winners here.

Tintin took over twenty years before he popped up briefly in Eagle. After false starts in assorted British weekly comics, Asterix was published with brilliant translations and in book form ten years after his debut in Pilote. Frederik Peeters’ acclaimed autobiographical story Blue Pills came out in 2001 and yet is only appearing this year in English.

So it is good news that 2008 also brings us an important, innovative new website, Comix Influx. Here collaborators worldwide can contribute, Wikipedia-syle, to translating some of the wealth of outstanding comics and graphic novels not yet available in English, which is, whether we like it or not, the dominant language of the web.

The focus is mainly French and independent so far, with superb books like Nègres Jaunes by Yvan Alagbé, La Meilleure du Monde by Pauline Martin, previous Angoulême winners like L’Autoroute du Soleil by Baru and Sergeant Laterreur by Touïs and Frydman, and one of this year’s Angoulême nominees, Faire Semblant C’est Mentir by Dominique Goblet (guest at the 2008 Falmouth Illustration Forum in March). I talked with British comics connoisseur Stephen Betts about his ideas and hopes for his progressive, participative website.

Paul Gravett:
What sparked this idea in the first place for you and how would you sum up the concept to someone coming to it brand new?

Stephen Betts:
Okay, to sum up the concept, I always describe it as a website for the collaborative translation of comics. But essentially it’s a wiki for comics translations. That means that anyone can come in (once registered) and contribute as much or as little as they like to the site; equally, anyone else can come in and refine existing translations.

The idea came to me a 2-3 years ago. I’d been going to Angoulême  for a few years, and would always bring back a whole load of comics, which I would really struggle to read. I guess I then thought about all the other people doing the same thing. And that was a period when Wikipedia was emerging and being questioned more than it is now, so it was more at the forefront of my mind, thinking about its potential impact and the possibilities.

How does Comix Influx compare with and differ from say otakus or manga fans producing their own ‘scanlations’ of untranslated Japanese comics?

The big difference is that we don’t have the pictures from comics on the site - well, just the cover. So you need to have a copy of the book to make any sense of it. In that way, my intention is that these things can exist on the web permanently. Additionally, collaboration is really built in to Comix Influx - it remembers previous versions, stores changes, who made the change and the comment they left, so people can understand the evolution of a translation.

Are you looking solely at European comics? Would you exclude manga? How wide is your net cast?

Personally I’m happy for works in any language to be translated to any other language - I’d like the community to determine that. My personal focus will be European comics, as I cannot read anything other than French (and that not very well). Clearly there are some technical issues about how we would handle Japanese characters (for example), both in display and also in things like browsing and searching. But we write the software ourselves so we can tackle those issues once we see if there’s a demand for it (and I hope there is).

Actually, rather than Japanese comics, I think Comix Influx could be more useful for Korean and Chinese comics where there is a less established industry so far for publishing translations.

Nègres Jaunes
by Yvan Alagbé

Have you thought of ways to show the original untranslated pages next to your translation texts? Will you discuss this with some publishers and artists to get their consent?

I am thinking about it. I certainly want creators and publishers to buy in to the concept sufficiently to put full comics pages up. But for the minute I actually want the site to be relatively free of the actual art, so that people don’t misinterpret our intentions. Certainly when we do start to put full comics with translations on the site it will only be with explicit consent.

Are you aware of anything else like this being done - if not for comics then maybe for poetry or fiction or something else?

Apart from the scanlation sites, I don’t know of anything similar for comics. For prose and poetry I think the situation is very different - with comics the words are totally useless without the art to go along with it, they don’t even constitute a script. With prose and poems, the words are the entire work. So you could only look at translating works that are out of copyright or are released under a Creative Commons license (as the translations on Comix Influx are).

I think the second category might become important (look at the number of languages that Cory Doctorow‘s short story Scroogled is translated into), but I think - as is often the case - comics are uniquely suited to this collaborative approach.

L’Autoroute du Soleil
by Baru

Do you see these translations as possibly acting as a spur or incentive for publishers looking for works to translate?

Yes! Most definitely. Obviously it gives a really good indicator of what comics people are interested in. But also it allows publishers access to books in languages that they can’t read. The translations probably won’t be perfect, but it will allow them to read the book. And finally I hope that the site will simply generate interest in and increase the visibility of foreign-language comics, which should make printing translated comics more commercially viable.

Is it possible eventually to have complete readable pages online where people can click on the balloons and captions and the translations can come up? These could of course be dropped as soon as a publisher undertakes to put the book into print?

Certainly it’s possible, but we’re not set up for it yet. Actually, in this vein, I think my ideal approach would be to have comics available in an electronic format such that different translations could be swapped in. I think something like that would be great for eReaders - I posted about it on the Comix Influx Blog.

While this site could stimulate demand, might it also satisfy demand and make some publishers feel there is no need to put the money into a printed version?

I really doubt it. While I think that the site is awesome, I recognise that the number of people that are willing to sit reading a comic in front of a computer or with a print-out of the translation will be limited to readers who are pretty serious about comics. Fortunately, comics does have a relatively large number of serious enthusiasts, who are often used to participating in large online communities, but that number is still relatively small compared with the expected market required to publish a translated version.

And don’t forget that you need access to the original book to get anything to the book.

Finally, in general, I don’t expect the translations to be up to the same standard as a professionally produced translation. They could have many people working on a single book, or many people revising the same translation, so you won’t have the authorial voice that you expect from a professional translation. Also, I want people of all abilities to join in - it’s not about the translation being perfect!

La Meilleure du Monde
by Pauline Martin

How has the response been in this first week or so?

Very encouraging. Everyone has understood the idea pretty quickly, and then been very enthusiastic about it. At present that hasn’t quite turned into many new translations having been started, but I’m confident that that’s a matter of time.

What would be your Top Three untranslated graphic novels which you are still waiting for someone to make a start on?

Baudoin absolutely has to be the top of my list. It is unbelievable that none of his books have been translated into English. In some ways, that was one motivation for starting Comix Influx. Probably Le Portrait, although actually Le Chemin de Saint-Jean, with it’s updating narrative, could be particularly suitable for the wiki-like nature of the site.

When I first went to Angouleme I was totally blown away by the books by Fréon and Amok. So I would have said Souvenir d’une Journée Parfaite by Dominique Goblet, but Ellen’s been translating Goblet’s Prix d’Angoulême-nominated Faire Semblant C’est Mentir, so she’s represented at least! Instead I think I would go for Fabrice Neaud‘s Journals, published by ego comme x.

Lastly, I think Comix Influx is a really good vehicle for comics that just wouldn’t get translated elsewhere, and I think in particular it could be really good for anthologies. I guess Lapin is the obvious one to go for there, but I’ve always really liked lots of the work that Atrabile have put out, and their roster of artists, so, finally, I’d really like to see some old copies of Bile Noir translated.

Posted: January 27, 2008


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Featured Books


Nègres Jaunes
by Yvan Alagbé

La Meilleure du Monde
by Pauline Martin

du Soleil

by Baru

Sergeant Laterreur
by Touïs and Frydman

Faire Semblant C’est

by Dominique Goblet