19

How do you explain that the people talking English in a comic book are talking in another language that isn't English? Let's say that in panels 1, 2, and 4 the characters don't talk in English, but the dialogue is still translated into English inside the text bubbles. However, in panel 3 the people are actually talking in English.

The people in panels 1, 2 and 4 are Germans speaking German. The people in panel 3 are English people speaking English. All the dialogue is still written in English.

So how do I make that difference clear?

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  • 2
    I'm a fan of translating the local idioms word for word; but it doesn't cover many of the cases.
    – Joshua
    Feb 6, 2022 at 5:03
  • Why would that be a problem, unless you were desperately short of space? "All dialogues are written in English" is typically side-stepped by using italics, or a different font, if not both. Another method would be to use speech-bubbles in German and foot-notes in English… vice versa would largely negate the point, which by itself should be quite telling. Feb 9, 2022 at 23:50

8 Answers 8

28

Put the text in angle brackets and add a footnote at the bottom of the first panel (or page) where you do it, to say which language it's in.

<Like this>*

* spoken in German

The footnote might not be necessary if it's obvious what the other language is that's being spoken. (e.g. Megatokyo takes place in Japan, so in https://megatokyo.com/strip/1599 you can assume the foreign language being spoken is Japanese.)

There's also instances where you might want to repeat the footnote. Because if there is a lot of time between instances of characters speaking the other language, readers may have forgotten in the meanwhile. With webcomics that risk is even bigger, because of the time between updates. So I've seen some that just add a footnote on each update (where it's relevant).

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  • I'd have said parenthesis. I cannot recall ever 'reading' an angle bracket.
    – Mazura
    Feb 6, 2022 at 6:04
  • 19
    Angle brackets is the most common thing I've seen used in webcomics. But as RLH says in the top-voted answer, a lot of visual cues can be used. (Including flags as suggested by H-H.) The examples from Asterix are probably a nicer approach. Although it shines best if the languages/cultures having some recognizable characteristic you can exploit (e.g. lots of accents).
    – user54131
    Feb 6, 2022 at 13:36
  • 8
    It is so common that it is the example on TV tropes.
    – larsks
    Feb 6, 2022 at 15:58
  • 1
    @Mazura: If the angle brackets in the answer look jarring and incongruous, that’s probably because when properly typeset or hand-lettered, angle brackets look ⟨like this⟩ not <like this>. The latter aren’t really angle bracket characters at all — they’re greater-than and less-than signs, which get used casually online since real angle brackets aren’t available on most keyboard layouts. So you probably have “read” angle brackets many times, they just don’t stand out noticeably when done properly.
    – PLL
    Feb 8, 2022 at 22:29
  • Angle brackets for foreign spoken language goes back quite a bit in comics. I remember seeing it a lot in the old DC war comics like "G.I. Combat" and "Sgt. Rock" that were likely from the '50s and '60s in stories that took place in Europe in WWII.
    – CitizenRon
    Apr 1, 2022 at 22:02
46

You can use typesetting or other visual cues to indicate different languages. “Asterix and the Goths” provides a good example of this, with the lines in German rendered in a pseudo-blackletter typeface.

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  • 7
    Several of the Asterix albums use variations of this. The Vikings speåk with ödd äccents (in some translations of some albums with Vikings), the Egyptians speak in hieroglyphs, a bureaucrat speaks in square questionnaires with checkboxes which can be unchecked or checked, etc. By contrast, e.g. Iberians and Britons seem to speak the same language as Asterix.
    – tripleee
    Feb 6, 2022 at 11:37
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    @tripleee: In the German translation, the Britons use phrasing that sound odd in German because they are literal translation of English idioms. For example, "Es ist, ist es nicht?" ("It is, isn't it?"), which you would never say in German. Feb 6, 2022 at 15:58
  • 3
    @JörgWMittag: Yes, and (from memory) the original French does exactly the same ("il est, n'est-il pas?"). It poses a problem for translation to English, because suddenly that phrasing is perfectly natural (isn't it?); instead in English translation the Britons use a lot of phrases associated with (a stereotype of) British upper class speech ("I say old chap... eh what?").
    – psmears
    Feb 7, 2022 at 14:15
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    @tripleee Suppose that depends if you want the reader to be able to understand what the foreign-language speakers are saying or not. The Viking stuff is readable, but the Egyptian hieroglyphs are not. (Even if it was accurate translation from real hieroglyphs, which I highly doubt.) Feb 7, 2022 at 18:00
  • 6
    This works better in some languages than others, because some (usually familiar) languages have stereotypical features (backward Rs in fake Russian are common even if the letter Я isn't actually pronounced like R). But even if it's a strange language you can't represent in a way people will recognise (how many Europeans could tell any feature of Hausa or Yoruba?), you can still use a different typeface to indicate that something is different. Just try not to be inadvertently racist.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 7, 2022 at 18:21
32

I like the solution that Minna Sundberg used on her Stand Still. Stay Silent webcomic. She puts small flags in the text bubbles to indicate the language used

enter image description here

Of course, you can try variations on this concept (different colors, shapes of the text bubble)

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  • 10
    It's not a great general solution, because flags generally indicate places rather than languages - this is a common problem in computer user-interfaces (what language is indicated by the Swiss flag? If I'm looking for English do I look for an English, British, American or Australian flag?) Feb 7, 2022 at 8:58
  • 3
    SSSS is at least presented in format where there is always a key readily available if you haven't yet memorised what languages the flags correspond to. (And a premise which constrains the available languages any characters are likely to be speaking to a limited set for which there is a direct country-to-language correspondence without ambiguity.)
    – Carcer
    Feb 7, 2022 at 22:22
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    But it could be any arbitrary symbol just as well - say, a thunderbird for a Haida, a snowflake for an Inuit, a canoe for a Chipewyan, etc. (Perhaps not particularly suitable symbols; just googling around) Graphically you would want them to be relatively easy to draw and tell apart, which is not always the case for flags either (Netherlands vs Luxembourg, Poland vs Monaco vs Indonesia, etc; some flags are hard to reproduce, like the ones with maps on them, or the calligraphy on the Saudi Arabian flag, or the traditional patterns on the flag of Turkmenistan, or the crest of Belize)
    – tripleee
    Feb 8, 2022 at 5:57
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    @TobySpeight and R..: Sure, this depends on the language. In general, flags aren’t languages, and in some contexts it’s certainly bad to conflate them. But many languages do correspond well to a flag — e.g. the Nordic languages in this answer’s example — and for those languages, in this context, this is an excellent solution.
    – PLL
    Feb 8, 2022 at 22:19
12

Show don't tell!

Which means: write it in the foreign language

Put the English translation in a note at the bottom of the panel.

If it is essential to the story that some dialogues occur in a language other than English, then you need to show it to the reader. By writing the text in the foreign language, you can convey this fact. Providing a translation in a note helps readers that are not knowledgeable to follow the story, without detracting from the main point that was to show the multilingual setting.

Special case: the POV character does not understand the foreign language.

What is the point of translating the dialogue?

If the POV character is not meant to understand it, then better to show that to the reader. You can try to keep the reader in the dark about the content of the dialogue, while providing visual cues of what is happening by either:

  1. writing the dialogue in the foreign language without translation. Often done in movies, novels, comics. Bonus points for using special fonts.

  2. filling the dialogue balloons with random symbols, not even related to any particular alphabet. The obvious example is the character Woodstock, Snoopy's friend, from Peanuts.

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  • 9
    Used sparingly, this can have a nice effect. But I see two downsides to actually using foreign language: 1) you need to either know that language or get a good translation from someone that does (not google). And 2) it makes things harder on the reader. Maybe not a lot harder, but maybe harder than necessary. And some people just don't like reading subtitles. However, you can always switch to angle-bracketed text after having achieved the effect, making life easier on yourself and your reader on following pages.
    – user54131
    Feb 5, 2022 at 21:40
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    @towr I agree and I think that too much foreign dialogue that needs translation is likely to indicate inexperience on the side of the writer. The exception is historically accurate rendition, in which case the reader may already expect a lot of notes and a lot of foreign text.
    – NofP
    Feb 5, 2022 at 22:27
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    Even if someone knows the language in question you still have to decide whether you like their translation work well enough to do it. Translation can require lots of creative decision making.
    – bdsl
    Feb 6, 2022 at 21:29
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    This can backfire spectacularly if you don't really speak the language in question. One of my favorite examples is de Bernières' Corelli's Mandolin, where the author tried to add "authenticity" by peppering the dialog with Greek phrases and descriptions of Greek customs, so many of which were so ludicrously wrong it really detracted from what was otherwise a very good novel.
    – terdon
    Feb 7, 2022 at 16:12
  • Snoopy can understand Woodstock though. It's kind of like R2D2 or Chewbacca from Star Wars. The audience has no idea what they're saying, but the other characters understand them just fine. Feb 7, 2022 at 18:03
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As an example of putting subtitles into a comic

Speech bubble with speech shown in teo languaged

5

Some other popular solutions that haven’t been mentioned so far: putting foreign text in italics, or adding a footnote * in Narnian.

4

If there is only a minority of second language spoken, how about writing everything in the language it is spoken in, and then translating the key parts? Leave the reader to infer the rest from context.

I have an English translation of War and Peace that works this way. The original would have been in Russian, with a smattering of French. The copy I have is in English, leaving the French untranslated. Even in the original, the French parts are short. At most 3 sentences or so of French at a time. If a character had a lot to say in French it was offered as a summary rather than written out in a language most readers where less familiar with. However, there are shorter segments where a character's spoken French is given as is. In the copy I have, the translator has added footnotes only where what is said is not obvious from context; either when it's a longer statement, or is a surprising thing to say. Shorter, more predictable statements are left for the reader to infer.

You have a comic book, so presumably there is more context that a typical text-only book would offer. So for short, and predictable sentences, there is no need to translate at all. The reader will guess what they mean, and the guessing makes us feel clever, which is always nice.

This approach is only viable if the minority of your book is in this second language. It has the advantage of retaining the flavour of two languages without creating excessive footnotes, and to some extent, makes the reader feel smart.

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    That probably works better with languages that are relatively close to English, like other European languages, so the reader can recognise something in them. On the other hand, if the text was '油切れ予告装置' then there are no clues at all for an English-speaking reader. Feb 6, 2022 at 12:48
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    @user1908704 It really depends on how you handle it. If you just stand on the language itself for clues then yes, but if the rest of the characters understand it and respond appropriately in English, general meaning can often be inferred by the reader without them knowing anything about the other language. Think of Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy or Chewbacca in Star Wars, the combination of the rest of the scene and how the other characters react to their comments provide enough to understand the gist of what they are saying. Feb 6, 2022 at 14:02
  • @AustinHemmelgarn that is an interesting example, do either of those characters ever have any of their speech directly translated? I seem to remember R2D2 having some speech translated, but that could be my imagination.
    – Clumsy cat
    Feb 6, 2022 at 16:56
  • @user1908704 your not wrong. I omitted that War and Peace also contains some Latin, used by the freemasons, which I really don't speak any of. That is perhaps closer, although I still can imagine how text in Latin might be pronounced, even if I cannot guess the meaning.
    – Clumsy cat
    Feb 6, 2022 at 16:59
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    @Clumsycat I believe they might in some media, but it’s hard to say for certain as I’ve not seen anywhere near the entire corpus of media for either franchise. You are correct about R2-D2 though, at least a couple cases of comics did have direct translations (and Droidspeak actually did get fleshed out into a (minimalistic) conlang in some of the older extended universe materials that Disney threw out). Feb 6, 2022 at 17:37
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The way I've seen it done is that an initial part of the dialog is said untranslated, usually a phrase that is known by non-speakers in the audience's vernacular or reasonably should be. The dialog is translated into its English Language equivalent phrase in some kind of open/closing punctuation other than quotes (I've seen the Less than/greater thans used (<>) as well as parentheses and brackets ([]). Generally, parenteses may be avoided because in comics, they can be used to denote a comment said under one's breath.

Generally after the initial dialog is given a translation, it will receive a footnote (almost always denoted by a single asterisk following the dialog (*) which directs to a text box in the same panel that will include the phrase "Translated from (insert language here). -Ed." In this context "Ed" is short for "Editor" although it's rare for the actual editor actually had to do that. This is more because traditionally in comics, text boxes were used by the narrative voice in the gold and silver age of comics (neither Peter Parker nor Ben Parker originally said the phrase "With great power comes great responsibility" in Amazing Fantasy #15. Rather, it was said by the narrator of the Spider-Man story in the final text box in a sort of "Moral of the story" fashion.). In modern times, the text box increasingly became the place to put the thoughts of the protagonist of the story (or rather, the narrative voice in comics has shifted from third person to first). The "Ed" character came along to provide footnote info to the story and denote that the text is directly telling the readers something that can't always be gathered in reading due to the limitations of the medium. "Ed" will also appear to tell readers about a sequence of events that happened in a previous issue. A character might make a passing remark about the events of their last encounter, which was depicted in Title #115, which "Ed" will note in a footnote style rather than flashback if it's a passing mention and repeating the sequence would be a waste of story space.

One final note is that languages will typically get treated differently depending on the script used in the language. If the language uses the Latin alphabet, it typically is written as is. If it uses the Cyrillic alphabet, modern works will typically never transliterate the language to Latin alphabet in its initial writing, but will do so in comics published back when the computer wasn't as common (dietetics in Latin alphabet also follow this convention) because of the limitation of typewriters. Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are more likely to be initially spelled out in romanized spelling because of the difficulty of the written characters for Western audiences with little experience. Typically if there is no intent to translate the language for the audience, then the Asian languages will be rendered with proper characters (such that the writers/editors understand the proper characters). The one exception is constructed-alphabet languages which in comics typically tend to have a one to one substitution for the Latin alphabet. D.C. Comics has two prominent features in Kryptonian (spoken by residents of Superman's home world) and Interlac (a lingua franca between alien species by the year 3000 and frequently used by the members of The Legion of Superheroes). In both of these languages, the dialog is still English but the dialog is rendered in the substitution alphabet. If you're nerdy enough to dig up your ciphers, you can read these without the translation, so "Ed" doesn't help you out here. And while the letters represent the same sounds as a Latin alphabet, in story dialog does note they are not spoken anything like English (dialog from one of Superman's stories suggest that spoken Kryptonian sounds like Swedish... from a dock worker in Gotham City guessing... so not the best expert on linguistics). Interlac hasn't been given a proper voice and in universe is constructed on the basis that all aliens can produce those sounds (which seems dubious considering the Latin alphabet does not represent the same sounds among all languages that use it). Which... I'm no linguist but seems suspect as human languages exist that have fewer sounds (Hawaiian only has 12 sounds in the language, Japanese uses 22 and had to create characters to close the gap for loan words) and some languages have more sounds (the Cyrillic alphabet has 33 symbols to the Latin's 26). Typically the speakers of these languages only do so among themselves or in settings where they don't know any better and will switch to English when they realize. Certain substitution ciphers are only used for depictions of writing and never in dialog. In Star Wars comics, The Arabesh alphabet is only used for in universe written communication, since it's pronounced like English, so comics will render dialog for "common" in Latin alphabet. Klingon is similar in Star Trek comics with the added complication that written Klingon was never developed by the series, despite spoken Klingon being a very verbose conlang. The in universe written Klingon was developed to look like alien language... not to actually translate, so Klingon is always written in phonetic Latin alphabet. Uniquely, it was also designed to "sound alien" so uses common sounds that are rare in most Earth Languages and also uses capitalization as part of pronunciation guide lines. In these cases, written languages will show up in background scenery but not in.

One final note, although not comics, the British television show "'Allo 'Allo", a comedy series following a group of people in the French Resistance in WWII used accented English to denote language. The French characters all spoke English with French accent, the Germans spoke English with German accent, the English spoke with exaggerated English accent. While not consistent (the Germans would almost always speak with German accent to the French characters, who responded with French accent) when the language barrier was needed, the accent = language was enforced. What's more, the people who spoke the language poorly often added malaproposes to their dialog - an English spy who was aiding the resistance would often greet everyone with "Good Moaning" (good morning) and would note that he wasn't staying long and was merely "pissing through" and thought to "piss along some information" (passing through/passing along some information). The explanation here was that, as the series was set in rural France, the French speakers were using an obscure rural accent while most non-native speakers had learnt the Parisian accent - one of the English soldiers tries to communicate with the French characters and makes the same mistakes as the recurring spy, to the French characters' confusion. He then switches to English and tells his commander that he wished the spy character was there because the spy was the best French speaker he knew (the studio audience was in hysterics with this).

3
  • A minor nitpick - the number of symbols in an alphabet is only an approximation of the number of sounds it can represent. The original Greek alphabet had symbols which fell out of use as the sounds they represented stopped being used; conversely, e.g. English has many sounds which are denoted by digraphs (like sh, ch, oo, ee, au, etc). Other languages use various accents to modify existing letters, and so you get German ö ä ü, Scandinavian æ ø å, Czech č ď ě ň ř ť ž etc. or digraphs like English (Dutch, Polish, etc)
    – tripleee
    Jan 2, 2023 at 9:05
  • ... The Cyrillic letters ц, ч, ш, and ж basically correspond to what in English would be the digraphs ts, ch, sh, and zh (and щ is conventionally transliterated shch, though that's really not how it is usually pronounced). Somewhat similarly, the soft vowels я, ё, ю are usually transliterated as ya, ye, yu though the proper pronunciation has some further nuance.
    – tripleee
    Jan 2, 2023 at 9:10
  • Some symbols also have a context-dependent sound, like in English y can be a half-vowel like in "yet" or a vowel like in "fly". In Swedish many sounds are modified if they occur before or after r, so the regular ö sound differs from the one in "öre" and "örn" and many consonants are retroflexed in (mainland) Swedish after r, like "kort" /koʈ/ and "korn" /ku:ɳ/
    – tripleee
    Jan 2, 2023 at 9:24

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