Translation of Comics. Using the Example of „Superman“

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

20 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Marie H. (Author)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. How to Analyze Comics
2.1. Semiotic Translation
2.2. Translating Images
2.2.1. Blend between Words and Pictures
2.2.2. Collaboration between Words and Pictures

3. A Man of Steel for a New Generation
3.1. An Analysis of the Original Version
3.2. Evaluation of the German Translation

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Comics are “texts organised into sequential units, graphically separated from each other” (Saraceni 2003: 5) and “employ […] both words and pictures” (ibid.). First, American comics were translated and pirated versions of works done by Rodolphe Töpffer, a Swiss illustrator (cf. Duncan, Smith 2009: 25). In 1895, Richard F. Outcault published funny illustrations in the Sunday edition of Pulitzer’s New York World, focusing on the New York Slums (cf. Schröder 1982: 12). “Hogan’s Alley” soon became a popular weekly series featuring a little boy as the protagonist: The Yellow Kid, named after the accidentally “new” color of its nightgown (cf. ibid.). Outcault experimented with panels and word balloons, switching “back and forth from Victorian to modern comic styles” (Petersen 2011: 98). The Yellow Kid polarized the newspaper audience: on the one hand, people started anti-comic campaigns; on the other hand, it became a huge success for Pulitzer (cf. Schröder 1982: 12-13). However, Pulitzer’s success through The Yellow Kid led to a war between him and William R. Hearst, resulting in naming the sensational papers The Yellow Press (cf. ibid.: 13). Also due to its success, the Comic Con in Lucca, Italy had an annual award named after Outcault’s pioneer comic strip series (cf. ibid.). This little excerpt of American comic history does not only define comics, but also gives background information on how it all started in the United States of America.

Important literature used for the paper at hand is the compilation Comics in Translation edited by Frederico Zanettin as well as the language of comics by Mario Saraceni. Both writings focus on the linguistic parts of a comic analysis and do not only help understand its structure but give aid on how to analyze the comic as well. Nevertheless, the most important work used is the comic book Superman: Earth One itself, as it is the principle part of the analysis below.

The aim of this term paper is to analyze a spread taken out of Superman: Earth One by focusing on the translation of images. The base for this analysis is given in the second chapter, where comic translation theories are discussed. Thereafter, those methods are applied to excerpts from the comic book Superman: Earth One, ascertaining which one might be the best to analyze the word-image-relation. Also, the German translation will be analyzed. The final conclusion resumes the results, which were detected in the prior analysis and will answer to question whether the translation from English to German made errors and what the reasons might be.

By analyzing this spread, I want to find a base to evaluate the German translation. In the conclusion I want to answer the question if I were able to translate a comic book as well using the knowledge I acquired by writing this paper. I chose Superman as the ground for my analysis, because he is the most famous superhero in American comic history and is therefore not only iconic, but also symbolic. This is because of his name recognition, which makes him a symbol not only for all superheroes, but especially for the thought of superhuman abilities being in every normal person (e.g. “My husband is my personal Superman”).

2. How to Analyze Comics

2.1. Semiotic Translation

There are “three kinds of translation, or ‘ways of interpreting verbal signs’, namely, intersemiotic translation […], interlingual translation […] and intralingual translation” (Jakobson 1992: 145; quoted in: Zanettin in Zanettin 2008: 9-10). “In Jakobson’s definition […] translation always involves the interpretation of verbal signs (i.e. natural languages) into other sigs which can be verbal or non-verbal languages or sign systems” (Zanettin in Zanettin 2008: 10). While interlingual translation, or translation proper, describes the translation from a verbal source language to a verbal target language (e.g. English to German), intralingual translation, or rewording, is “defined as ‘an interpretation of verbal signs by means of the same language’” (Jakobson 1992: 145; quoted in: Zanettin in Zanettin 2008: 9-10), meaning for instance synonyms or metaphors. Intersemiotic translation, transmutation respectively, is an interpretation of a source language into a non-verbal target language, e.g. images (cf. Zanettin in Zanettin 2008: 10). However, there has been made a further differentiation of Jakobson’s model. Toury “proposes a first-level distinction between intra- and intersemiotic translation” (ibid.). He then allocates intrasemiotic translation (as a second-level distinction) into intra- and inter-systemic translation (cf. ibid.). Thereby, an interpretation of non-verbal signs by means of non-verbal signs, as in a translation from the source language music into the target language comics, becomes possible (cf. ibid.). The other researcher, Eco, categorizes interpretation. The first typology is the interpretation within or between other semiotic systems, such as the interlingual interpretation, translation proper respectively. Therefore, rewording (as in a translation within natural languages) and the translation within other semiotic systems are included in the intrasystemic interpretation. The intersystemic translation, on the other hand, includes not only the translation proper, but also rewriting, i.e. translation between other semiotic systems, as well as what Jakobson and Toury define as intersemiotic translation. Eco divides the latter into the categories adaption and transmutation. It may not be forgotten, that additionally to natural languages, non-verbal semiotic systems (e.g. music) may be translated in a similar interpretation process.

An example of transmutation in the scope of comics is the comic adaption to for instance literature, paintings, music or cinema (cf. ibid. 11). Most profitable is the transmutation to film as well as to “other visual languages, such as illustration and graphic design” (ibid.). Since it also focuses on the relation between words and images, the intersemiotic translation (transmutation) is going to be the base for the subsequent analysis. Afore the analysis I will describe how to examine the relation between words and images in the following subchapter.

2.2. Translating Images

Since comics feature written text as well as illustrations to convey information, there must be an interactive relationship between the two.

2.2.1. Blend between Words and Pictures

One way to describe the relationship of words and images is called blend. To understand how they interact in comics, one must break them down into semiotics1 and first take a closer look at each one separately. In this subchapter I will explain that pictures are not always solely iconic and words not always just symbolic, but that there are no clear boundaries.

The words written on paper can be regarded as images and hence, they are not only verbal but also visual (cf. Saraceni 2003: 14). Therefore, one must be able to built words out of the images to understand their meaning (cf. ibid.). Another visual aspect of words is used especially in comics, since they are usually handwritten (cf. ibid. 20). Size, for example, is an indication of volume (enlarged is loud, reduced is low volume), whereas boldness emphasizes the words (cf. ibid). Furthermore, the handwriting may also allow for a relation between text and character, by varying to italics or another font (cf. ibid. 21). Thus, it is “neither purely verbal nor purely visual, but a blend of the two” (ibid. 20) - consequently, their “meanings derive from their visual as well as from their verbal value” (ibid. 22).

The images’ meanings sometimes differ culturally. For instance, in European culture, there is an icon of a man, a woman respectively, on the restroom’s door, hinting at the gender for said restroom. However, since the people see it and immediately know what it implies, even though it does not look exactly like a human man or woman, there must be a blend of the images’ symbolic and iconic features (cf. ibid. 14, 24). In comics, images are often stylized2, which makes them more a symbol than an icon and thereby similar to linguistic elements (cf. ibid. 25). Examples for this phenomenon are facial expressions - especially the lines of the mouth and eyebrows are responsible for the face’s symbolic value (cf. ibid.). If they are drawn as straight lines they represent something completely different than when they are drawn as curves, which helps the reader of the comic to understand the meaning: straight lines stand for sadness or anger, and while curves imply happiness, a combination of both can represent indecisiveness or fear (cf. Saraceni 2003: 25). Symbols to describe the character’s mood can also be placed around the figure’s head: hereby, “small stars represent pain; zigzagged lines […] anger; bubbles […] drunkenness or confusion; [and] sweat drops mean great surprise or anxiety” (ibid. 26).

All in all, the “blend between words and pictures refers […] to instances where the verbal and the visual are merged together in the same sign, which is therefore both symbolic and iconic” (ibid. 27). The next subchapter will focus on another relation of words and pictures: the collaboration of both, which “refers to cases where the two remain distinct from one another, but work together in order to convey meaning” (ibid).

2.2.2. Collaboration between Words and Pictures

In children’s books, the pictures illustrate the words, because the book’s main function is to help children learn how to read (cf. ibid. 27, 28). Although, to the learners the words are yet unfamiliar and they only know the meaning of the image; to knowing persons the word-image relationship is redundant (cf. ibid. 28). Contrarily, in comic books the affiliation of words and images is not superfluous, but “each of the two contributes its own share for the interpretation of the text” (ibid.). Image 1 gives an example on the word-image contribution.

Image 1: The Joy of Tech (Source:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten.

If the verbal text was without the drawing, the president of the United States of America would just give a speech about a great crisis, which must be stopped (cf. Image 1). However, the joke of this comic is only perceived in combination with the images: he is not talking about a political issue, but about his cell phone reception (cf. ibid.). Therefore, the “verbal text alone doesn’t tell the whole story - it needs collaboration from the visual text, which provides the reader with fundamental elements for interpretation” (Saraceni 2003: 32).

In conclusion, to translate comics, the translator must not only translate the verbal messages of the comic panels, but also take a look at the images to obviate translation errors (cf. Celotti in Zanettin 2008: 43-47).

In the chapter below, I will analyze an abstract of the new Superman book Earth One: Superman Volume 1 with regard to the transmutation. Thereafter, the German translation will be analyzed concerning the interplay of words and images, its correctness respectively.


1 An icon is a picture, which looks similar to what it represents (e.g. the image of a dog resembles the dog itself); an index is a picture, which shows something, but means something else (e.g. the index smoke indicates what it stands for: fire); lastly, a symbol is a picture, which has the same virtue or shares a same convention with its meaning (d-o-g conventionally means the animal dog) (cf. Saranceni 2003: 15).

2 Stylize: “to represent or design according to a style or pattern rather than according to nature or tradition” ( 14.02.2015).

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Translation of Comics. Using the Example of „Superman“
RWTH Aachen University  (Anglistik)
Translation Studies
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translation, comics, using, example, superman
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Marie H. (Author), 2015, Translation of Comics. Using the Example of „Superman“, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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