Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Chninkel Project

As I mentioned earlier, I’d been preoccupied with reading European comics. Actually, let me clarify that - I’ve been reading scanlations of translated French comics. I only recently found a site that allowed me to download several comics that seemed interesting enough for me to consider reading them.

Shortly after downloading them, I got the idea of doing a OneManga site for BDs again. Americans aren’t used to the rhythm and pacing of French comics, which could explain why they’re reluctant to try something they’re not familiar with. Its easier to stick with what you’re used to than waste time and money on something that you might not like. Even so, I’m still amazed at their ignorance of Asterix & Tintin, two of the most basic BD ambassadors. Not knowing those universal icons is like not knowing who Mario or Mickey Mouse are.

However, I didn’t want to set up an European scanlation site without contributing something myself. So I thought I’d take one of Manga-Sketchbook’s translations, Chninkel and put their translated text onto the colourized version. While others might balk at stealing another group’s efforts, I thought it could serve as gateway to interest in translating other European comics. Especially since I found that the colours actually helped emphasize some of the subtleties that otherwise would’ve been lost.

This was clearly a case of putting my eggs before the horse; transferring translated text without asking Manga-Sketchbook’s permission. For my first foray into pseudo-translation, I found it to be a much harder job than usual. While most of the balloons were white, some of the sound effects in the scanned version were left out entirely, or retranslated. Also, I had trouble replicating the background for some of the booming voices. I had to borrow the library copy to find out what was originally said, and also scan a page that was missing. In essence, I improved on Manga-Sketchbook’s translation by adding some text that was lost.

While most Mangas have large blocks of empty text for their speech balloons, European comics have multiple panels, each one about the size of a claustrophobic American comic balloon, which makes translating their text so they’ll fit properly can be a mind-bending task in itself. Either you shrink the text to near-intelligible levels, or try to position the phrasing so the long word will fit neatly in the middle. Another major difference from Manga (apart from the colour) is that BDs are pretty wordy in themselves, and need more than a passing glance before turning the page. You need to linger on each panel before moving on to the next one. Not to mention that like the Japanese, they’re more open with portrayal of casual nudity, slight swearing and black caricatures that’re borderline racist. (Even in children's titles) And like in Japan, there are some words that simply have no English equivalent. Sounds such as “Bobo”, “Hop” and “Bof” could be loosely translated as “Oops”, “I say”, or “Bah.”

It was only after I got about halfway through moving the text that I decided to take a break and read some of the stuff I’d downloaded. After a few albums, I started to get a little irritated at some of these translations. They were in English sure, but the results felt more like they’d been cobbled from Babelfish than an actual emphasis in making a clean unnoticeable translation. Indeed, there were instances where I was so disgusted with their efforts that I decided to re-edit the results myself.

Like Matt Thorn who can’t enjoy Del Rey’s translation of Nodame Cantable because they constantly get the subtle phrasing wrong, so too do I balk at the rough translation of BD projects. I can’t read much French, so the language barrier is a large hurdle for me. The shoddy sentence structure bothers me more than the fact that they’re written in comic sans. (Yes, poor punctuation is a bigger sin than sloppy lettering)

Considering the amount of effort it’s taking for me to transfer the translated text over, I can see why more translations of BDs aren’t easily available. Working on one BD page takes more effort than editing a single Manga page. Part of the problem is that most of the available raw scans are in Dutch, rather than the original French. So we’re left with a translation of a translation, and the overall effect feels very clunky in comparision. Even so, I find some of their efforts to be embarrassingly amateurish.

At first, I thought that the lack of a proper translation was what was keeping the popularity of European comics back. If the results were more poetic and fluid, maybe people would sit up and take notice. (Hence my re-editing other people’s efforts) Here’s the fan translation of the first of Seven Stories of Seven People; Seven Psychopaths; about seven assembled people with the mission to assassinate Adolf Hitler;

Now compare the above with Boom! Studios’ translation by Dan Heching, who gives the charismatic Joshua a bombastic flair of speech. There’s never a moment while seeing the man talk that I wasn’t completely caught up with whatever he was talking about.

However, lousy fan translations may be beside the point - it’s to broadcast attention to a French comic that might’ve been overlooked. If enough interest builds up, companies may take notice, and make an effort to bring these properties over. We should be expanding our knowledge of cult hit BDs that won’t be seen due to lack of knowledge or popularity.

After reading several more translated albums, I figured out why there wasn’t much demand for an European scanlation site. Most of these stories can be rather depressing unless they’re in the humour category. And some of the “humour” tends to be rather unfunny unless it’s particularly well-drawn. Continuously reading multiple stories that end in disaster is not a formula for success from an audience used to escapism.

Some other common deterrents that keep BD from gaining popularity include:

1. Stand-alone storytelling. Each album can be picked up in any order without having to worry about reading the first one, and can be enjoyed out of sequence. What’s made Asterix & Tintin so enjoyable is considered a hindrance in other series.

This may sound paradoxical, but the most common of these kind of stories are one-page gag strips, and their writing may not be as strong as the competition. The general feeling is of “if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all”. Unless they’re able to mix up the formula in later volumes, audiences won’t appreciate reading the same jokes over and over. Yen Press’ efforts at releasing all three albums of Toxic Planet in one volume recieved very little attention. Some comics have run for so long that new volumes keep getting added solely to remind the public that these comics still exist. The worst thing to happen to a beloved creation is obscurity.

2. Conversely, the reverse is also true. While serial stories are a popular mainstay of Manga, it wrecks havoc of expectations with European models. Like Yoshihiro Togashi of Hunter X Hunter fame, European comic artists are given a year to write and draw a story that is first published in serial format, then collected in a hardcover album of 48-62 pages . The ease of flow in album format means that when its serialized, it can look rather choppy since there’s no obvious chapter breaks.

This also means that it’s difficult to pick up an ongoing series if it hasn’t already gotten a reputation with multiple albums. Usually in such cases, going back to the beginning can make new audiences wonder what the big fuss is about, which is why comics such as Thorgal and The BlueCoats have their later books released when their later albums became more polished and less controversial. (Compare the first seven volumes of Yu-Gi-Oh! before becoming obsessed with card games, or Dilbert’s early years before focussing on office humour)

3. Even more disappointing if an author starts out with an ambitious project, then loses interest about halfway through. It’s particularly frustrating because NMB released Isaac the Pirate and Astronauts of the Future as onmibus collections, each book containing two albums each. They were going at a steady state... and then they were simply abandoned with the 5th and 3rd albums respectively.

Another related reason is that a translation project may be tried out at first, then abandoned from lack of interest. Normally, a Manga would easily get a following online after reading the series up to a point, then have the the translation carried out by another team aggravated at not seeing the rest of the story. However, BDs are another story. Many early publishers tried their hand at releasing English versions of popular BDs with minimal results that vanished after a few albums. Even Toren Smith, founder of Dark Horse Manga admitted that European comics were a hard sell anywhere. It’s only recently that Cinebook’s made a serious effort to circumvent their translations.

Too often, translators chose the first English equivalent of a word rather than use synonyms that would fit better. In addition to constantly translating “mais” as “but” when other propositions would work just as well, some of the most constant translation errors include:

Using personal pronouns twice. (Me, I’m...)

Not using contractions properly or at all. It makes the characters sound like Data.

Misunderstanding the use of past tense terms. “If it had been your goal...” instead of “If it was your goal...

Using question or exclamation marks interchangeably. “What do you think you’re doing!” is not a question, and more of a demand.

In other instances, it’s a case of lousy proofreading. Here’s an example from the first album of Hugo, a child adventurer in a fantasy world. On this page, he’s fighting against a knight who’s also a shape-changer.

The composition of the panels can be slightly confusing, since it moves around the pages without a single arrow pointing to the next one. The reader has to figure it out for themselves, and this was printed way back before the style of Manga right/left reading caught on. Even so, there’s a glaring oversight in the middle. If you haven’t noticed it by now, it should read:

Armour: Ha ha... so you want to be clever?
Mouse: And what is an elephant most scared of?

The translator’s job is not only to transcribe the material but also to make sure that the text matches the character talking. Otherwise it just looks like lazy editing. The purpose is to make the transition of a story be as smooth as possible while remaining faithful to the source material. In some cases, the weirdly worded dialogue of these people could be considered faithful to the French language, not English. Here’s another example when Hugo later joins up with some vegetable warriors.

Hospitable, not Hospital! Just because they sound alike is no reason to sit back and relax because spellcheck didn’t catch your little mistake. I’ve passed over buying some books because they were obviously written by people so used to hearing these words they had no idea how they looked when spelt. Common mistakes include not being able to tell the difference between “of”, and “off”, “to” and “too”, "lose" and "loose", "thing" and "think", not to mention the dreaded “there”, “their” and “they’re”.

I’m reminded of the lecture Detective McNulty got from a judge about his written report in The Wire:

Judge: Look here Jimmy, you misspelled culpable, and you’re confusing then and than. T-H-E-N is an adverb used to divide and measure time… “Detective McNulty makes a mess and then he has to clean it up.”
McNulty: Thanks teacher. It’s great that you’re going through every word but…
Judge: Not to be confused with T-H-A-N, which is most commonly used after a comparative adjective or adverb as in, “Rhonda is smarter than Jimmy”. Yeah?

It’s not difficult people!

So far, the most popular outlet for translated French comics is still Heavy Metal magazine. Of course, given that practically every cover has a skimpy-covered babe, its not exactly gender-friendly unless a woman is already hip to the conventions of European comics. This could also be considered as planned targeted marketing. If they didn’t show some skin, European comics would go by almost unnoticed.

If Heavy Metal does have a fault, its that they don’t have collected versions of their short stories spread throughout multiple issues. I’d love to see all the adventures of con men Burton and Cyb, Fernando De Felipe’s Museum, Boucq’s Jungle businessman, as well as the 3-page answers to fantasy questions such as “Why do heroes never die?

So far, there’s already an official European scanlation site; Zampano. The German site only recently started showing their scans in English and French. There’s only six comics available that update one page a day every week. Four of them are by the same author/artist, Boller, and so far it seems promising.

Don Caneloni is a humoristic take of an Italian Godfather threatened with being taken over by a rival Mexican gang.

Endless Sky is an autobiographical series about a Switzerland comic artist hoping to work in the American S-hero business by attending the Joe Kubert school of art. (My favorite next to Don Caneloni)

Aïr is about political rebels in Niger, and so far, the least interesting comic for me.

Bakuba is a collection of short African stories. The first one is extremely difficult to understand, since it deals with a lot of abstract art, but everything after that is easier in comparision.

Tell is a pseudo-S-hero story about a cloned man reducing crime in a totalarian city, which is just what the ruling class want. With its cheesy narrative and dialogue, its not really my kind of thing.

Katastropolis is a police procedure in a future fantasy setting. Not quite Finder, but not that bad either.

It looks like I’ll have to keep my planned online BD website on the backburner since I don’t know beans about designing a webpage in the first place. (Despite all the OneManga clones) If anybody expresses any outrage about my project, I won’t bother uploading my scans of Chninkel in the first place.


  1. I disagree about the double use of personal pronouns, it's emphatic (at least in this case). But the rest really sucks and is somewhat common...

  2. Oh, and if you get serious about the OneMangaish thing, you should definitely check the Scanlation Valley at the Komics-Live forum.

  3. My friend, for the same amount of time you spend looking for all those mistakes, you could have done a full album yourself.

  4. I think the main reason why many French scanlations are less than perfect is that most scanlators who do eurocomics aren't native English speakers. Most of them are from continental Europe and learnt English in school as second or third language.

  5. zampano is no scanlation site, its the comic authors website

    LeChatVert is right. I'm no native English speaker myself and recognize the poor translations easily

  6. great post, but european scanlations have come a long way. If you look out for books translated by the 'Alice' team or 'data9724' it's anything you could get from marvel or dc. heck, if you look at all the typos in Ythaq from marvel-soleil then 'Alice' might actually be better! Here's one example: