According to the Moscow Times, the comic strip Garfield has now been translated into Russian for the first time by Mikhail Khachaturov and is being published by Elf Comics. “Russia practically doesn’t have any of its own comics,” publisher Elena Depeille told the paper. “Apart from just translating Garfield, we want to create a culture of comics in Russia.” Since comics are such a highly visual form, they pose special challenges to the translator. In the case of Garfield, Depeille mentioned that since Russian phrases tend to be longer than English ones, Khachaturov had to take some liberties with the words in order to make them fit into the small speech bubbles.

This news got me thinking about the process of localization — changing references to meet the understanding and expectations of an audience in another country. In comics, this can be hard to handle, since the images are there for all to see. Garfield’s lasagna, for instance, can’t be changed into borscht. But the sources of humor in Garfield are very general — such as gluttony, laziness, or rivalry with Odie — and can easily be appreciated by a Russian audience (unlike comics by Tom Tomorrow, for instance, which are not only very political but also populated with cultural and sociological types that are extremely American).

At the New York Comics and Picture-Story Symposium in 2012, Adam McGovern gave an interesting talk about translating Italian comics into English, which I was able to find online. McGovern is not a translator, and doesn’t even know Italian, but he collaborated with Italian comics editor Andrea Plazzi. Plazzi would do an initial, literal translation, and McGovern would turn it into natural-sounding or slangy or clever English, depending on the context. I think this process — having an Italian work on the text at one end and then an American rewrite it — wouldn’t work for many kinds of documents. But with the images of the comics at his disposal, McGovern knew how to transform the stilted English that his Italian friend provided. From the examples he gives, his translations sound terrific, and he’s found creative ways to retool Italian jokes and cultural references.

Apparently even the style in which a comic is drawn can be localized. French translations of Captain America changed some of the images along with the language, leaving out an “impact star” where Captain America punches his adversary and multiple “speed lines” that trace the movement of his arm. On his blog, linguist Neil Cohn suggests that these changes may represent a translation of “American visual language” into “French visual language,” since French comics tend to have a cleaner look than American comics.

It just goes to show that translating something into another language is a complex process. When translating languages, we’re also translating cultures. And the Russian culture may turn out to be very receptive to Garfield. According to the Moscow Times, “the Russians like cats.”

Image: Garfield in Russian, via the Moscow Times.