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How do you explain that the people talking English in a comic books are talking in another language than English? Let's say in panel 1, 2 and 4 the people don't talk in English but the dialogues are written in English inside the text bubbles, but 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 and speaking English. All dialogues are written in English.

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    I'm a fan of translating the local idioms word for word; but it doesn't cover many of the cases.
    – Joshua
    Feb 6 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 at 23:50

7 Answers 7

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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 at 6:04
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    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).
    – towr
    Feb 6 at 13:36
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    It is so common that it is the example on TV tropes.
    – larsks
    Feb 6 at 15:58
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    @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 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 at 22:02
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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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    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 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 at 15:58
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    @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 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 at 18:00
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    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 at 18:21
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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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    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 at 8:58
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    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 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 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 at 22:19
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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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    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.
    – towr
    Feb 5 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 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 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 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 at 18:03
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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 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 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 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 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 at 17:37
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Some other popular solutions that haven’t been mentioned so far: putting foreign text in italics, or adding a footnote * in Narnian.

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As an example of putting subtitles into a comic

Speech bubble with speech shown in teo languaged

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