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I am producing a comic in which a fictional language is frequently spoken.

This language (and which characters are able to speak it) is significant to the plot, so it's important that the reader knows when it (rather than English) is being spoken.

It's likely, though, that there will be scenes spoken entirely in this language, and since I obviously want these scenes to be understood by the reader, too, I'm not completely sure how I should handle this.

My question is, should I should fully translate the language in these cases (such that the "original" language is lost), as is the norm in written fiction?

My gut reaction is no, that the original form of language should be depicted alongside the translations in some way, so as to emphasise its significance and make clear which language is being used, but I'm finding it hard to justify this to myself.

I suppose one argument is that comics don't have "viewpoint characters" in the same way that written fiction does, but I don't know how well this holds up to scrutiny. It's certainly very common for comics to present events through a particular character's perception. For example, if the protagonist is hallucinating, a lot of comics will show the hallucination rather than the reality.

Presumably there must be a precedent for this sort of thing, but I don't remember ever reading a comic which featured a fictional (or even foreign) language in this way.

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    Comics can absolutely have viewpoint characters whose perception determines whether the language is intelligible - this is a reasonably common occurrence in Green Lantern comics, where the ring translates most speech (which typically isn't indicated in any way, just written in English) but sometimes doesn't know a language, as a plot point. – Tin Man Feb 22 '17 at 23:55
  • How are your English speaking readers expected to understand the fictional language? If it's just as close to English to be understandable, you can translate it to a language close to the translated language. Smurfs language works this way. – Pere Feb 23 '17 at 9:26
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    @Pere They're not, hence the discussion of translation. – TheTermiteSociety Feb 23 '17 at 9:51
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This has been handled a few ways in comics:

  • Have the text in word balloons be a translation of the original, with a footnote indicating "translated from other-language-name". You can graphically remind the user of this as you go along by having the other language be in a different typeface, have the word balloons be a different color than usual, or a combination of the two. This is common in superhero comics.
  • Leave the text in the original language, letting the reader figure out what's happening by context. This clearly takes longer and details will doubtless be lost, but it has the advantage of keeping the feel of the original language. (See the works of Alan Moore for a great example of this, in particular "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume 2" does this a lot.)
  • It's a comic book, a graphic medium, and you don't have to choose! A little design work to leave extra room on the page and you can have both languages in the panels. It's possible to subtly overlap a word balloon in one language with a translation in English, a graphic cue to the reader that they can read the meaning in English while seeing the original language, either in full or in part.
  • Thanks for this. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen example is cool. I think I'll probably end up doing something like your last suggestion, though. I like the thought of it being sort of the visual equivalent of voice-over translation. – TheTermiteSociety Feb 22 '17 at 21:20
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    One other funny way to do this that I've seen is to mirror the foreign languag. It requires the reader to do a bit more work but if done correctly can be a lot of fun. I remember growing up reading those comics in front of a mirror (FWIW the "language" was germ. The comic was about bacteria and virus living on and around a kid's body) – slebetman Feb 23 '17 at 6:19
  • @TheTermiteSociety Alan Moore seems to take the attitude that the reader will either follow along or not, it's nothing to him either way. :D – Neil Fein Feb 23 '17 at 6:24
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    #2 is impractical if the foreign language is used a lot. Another solution would be to use what proved to be very practical in Megatokyo: A significant portion of the in-universe dialog is in Japanese, which is indicated by having < > brackets around the English translation. Dialog in English is rendered without those brackets around it. You can introduce this concept to the reader without any explanation, if you have a foreign-looking character say "<Hello, how are you?>" and another, not so foreign-looking character respond with "Sorry, I don't undertand your language." – vsz Feb 23 '17 at 7:22
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    Before there was Megatokyo, angle-brackets were often used in Marvel comics, maybe others. – Anton Sherwood Feb 23 '17 at 8:12
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This is how it was handled in the Asterix comics. Specifically Asterix and the Goths:

enter image description here

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    There's a visual pun there, too; the text style used is one of a class known as Gothic. – JAB Feb 22 '17 at 23:25
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    Plus eleventy million for ASTERIX!!!!! <3 <3 <3 – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Feb 23 '17 at 0:28
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    it is also used for Greek, and somehow occasionally for Egyptian (but using drawings for words) – njzk2 Feb 23 '17 at 0:58
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    The Greeks (Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques) speak in distinctive letters, but apparently it's only an ‘accent’; they converse freely with the Gauls. But in La Grande Traversée we meet some Danes, who speak with a ring over each A and a slash through each O; this time language is a barrier. – Anton Sherwood Feb 23 '17 at 8:15
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You have two choices that I can see, and which one you use will likely be dependent on the amount of foreign-language copy you have versus the amount of space you have in the panel to display it:

1) Write the foreign language in the speech balloon with asterisks. The asterisks refer to a footnote at the bottom of the panel translating the text. I think this will be clunky and a little annoying, so unless there's some reason to display the foreign language in all the balloons, I don't recommend it.

2) Indicate in context or with an asterisk that the characters are speaking Foreign Language, and within the balloon, the text is surrounded by «guillemets».

This has in fact been covered in a comment to a different question on this site:

How does one present spoken dialogue as a secondary language to signed speech?

This is a common punctuation for dialogue in a secondary language in comic books, usually with an asterisk to denote the language. – Joel Shea

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    Thank you. I have to admit, I'm not completely happy with either suggestion, but +1 for giving me the standard practice. I clearly need to read more comics too! – TheTermiteSociety Feb 22 '17 at 15:39
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    I recommend adding one more option: Have a 'translator' character translate for the rest of the characters. This is feasible if some/most of your characters truly don't know the foreign language being spoken, but could get cumbersome. The benefit is that the 'translator' character could also be explaining any sociological contexts. – Adam Miller Feb 22 '17 at 15:42
  • @AdamMiller Thanks. I think it's a good suggestion, and possibly useful to others, but - alas - for a few reasons, it doesn't apply too well in my situation. – TheTermiteSociety Feb 22 '17 at 15:50
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I'd highly recommend simply italicizing and using a script-like font to differentiate between the special language and the common language. The first time this is done, you can denote the difference by using an asterisk note within the speech bubble itself, and then simply alternate between the italicized script and your normal font afterwards. This approach is used extensively by scanlation groups in translating comics, when the author uses a different language within the comic itself as a part of the plot.

So, for instance:

This is the common language of the Nihamo people. There is nothing special to see here.

This is the language of the Astralonian Royalty. We are rare and our people have been hunted for eons. Our language appears in a different font, but stackexchange does not allow use of different fonts.

Your readers should be able to pick up on this quickly and easily, allowing them to distinguish between languages at a glance and readily understand any given dialogue.

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Another suggestion: use a heavily stylised phonetic language.

The most extreme example of this I've seen is in a novel rather than a comic, Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban. The entire book is written in a debased form of phonetic English invented by the author. It's readable by anyone that can speak English, but it's a hard slog. It feels very alien at first.

An example.

"Its some kynd of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han."

At times, things are given extremely unfamiliar names or translations that the reader needs to puzzle out. Again, most people will be able to work this stuff out, but it's a stretch.

"Spare the mending and tryl narrer"

Experimenting and trial and error

"the yellerboy stoan and the chard coal"

the sulphur and the charcoal

Riddley Walker is quite a famous book, partly because of its inventive approach to language: searching online should reveal many further relevant examples and discussions.

Attempting something similar would likely be a fair amount of work, but the effort may pay off with you able to exactly what you want. Have a language that seems alien to an English speaker yet which is comprehensible and flexible enough for you to convey a rich variety of meanings.

  • Interestingly, I sometimes feel the same way about reading Middle English. - you can sound it out, then make some sense of it, even though simply reading it leaves you hopelessly lost. (Putting aside the various words we've lost along the way, anyway - phonetics isn't much help there.) – Bobson Feb 24 '17 at 0:40
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If you're using multiple languages, you can also color the speech bubbles with different colors to indicate what language is being spoken. White is English. Blue is French. Red is Russian, Green is Celtic... so long as you are consistent, it should be good... you can even have fun with language families, like Chinese and Japanese being too shades of a similar color... All Romance languages are shades of Purples.

One of my methods allows this for American English vs. The Queens English, where the American character's words are spelt like they would be with an American spelling and the British character speaks in British Spelling. For example, in my previous color statement, a British Stack exchange member would respond "+1 For the Colour for language families idea. Smashing good show, it bloody well is." Or they'd dock me a point for using inappropriate slang words together...

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