Graphic Novels in Translation

Graphic novels are literature too, with the same capacity to influence culture, politics, and ideas as any of the more traditional forms. This was the message that Ana Merino, director of the MFA in Spanish Creative Writing at Iowa, wished to impart during her talk on “Translation as a Space of Cultural Power,” the third in the Iowa Translation Workshop’s spring colloquium series. Graphic novels and their translations, Merino insisted, bear on cultural spaces in a number of ways.

It is widely known that novelists like Salman Rushdie were persecuted in their home countries for writing allegedly seditious prose, or that artists like Ai Weiwei were imprisoned for engaging in political activism through their craft. But rarely do we consider graphic novels and comic books controversial material. While the genre’s perceived triviality has helped it slip under the radar of censorship, the act of translation can bring it back into popular consciousness, thereby highlighting the political and cultural questions a more autocratic government may wish to keep buried. While such activity plunges graphic novelists and their translators into the ranks of artists at risk, it also emphasizes the political and artistic importance of translating these works. 

Translations of graphic novels likewise communicate cultural awareness to a global audience. Comics in translation have played a leading role in reimagining the public sphere as a space of knowledge rather than simply a new market in which to sell books. In this way, “a translated text spreads that work into the influence zone of the new language,” says Merino. For example, the colonization of knowledge in Latin America happened in no small part due to the translation of Disney comics. Once a work arrives in its new sphere of influence or is adopted into a new language, it can bring intellectual knowledge to a new level.

Nevertheless, graphic novels remain a marginalized genre in the field of translation. Reasons for this include the challenges of reconceptualizing images as their associated text changes in translation and the limited number of publishing houses with a thorough understanding of the value of translated graphic novels. Only a handful of individuals with a passion for the cause have so far undertaken to advance the genre, facilitated in large part by the particularly internationalized nature of the graphic-novel-writing community.

All the more reason, then, for Merino and other translators of graphic novels to continue their good work. Comics and graphic novels can promote particular cultural understanding on a universal stage. Let us pay attention.