Award-winning comics translator: "Modern comics are for intelligent people"

From Hell, Photo:

Last Saturday, hundreds of comics fans from the Czech Republic gathered at the Mlejn Club in Prague for a day of discussions, lectures and friendly chatting about what's hot and what's not in the world of comics. Part of the daylong gathering, called comiCZcon 2004, was an award ceremony at which prizes including Best comic writer, artist and publisher, were awarded.

Alan Moore's graphic novel "From Hell" was awarded a prize for best publication in 2003 and was also voted best book by the visitors of the gathering. As if that was not enough, "From Hell", or in Czech "Z pekla", also received an award for best translation. The awarded translator is Viktor Janis, and he came to our studio this week to tell us more about last Saturday's gathering of comics fans and about comic books in this country in general.

"It was actually a meeting of people who have some stake in comics, be they writers, artists, translators or publishers. And they discussed things of mutual interest in front of an audience of three hundred people."

Czech kids don't grow up reading comic books as much as American or British children do...

"Absolutely correct. In America, comics is part of their culture. It is absolutely unbelievable that someone could grow up and never hear of Spiderman or Batman - which is what happened here. The Communists never liked comics as such, as a medium. They thought of it as another weapon of the "imperialists". So it happened that in our country we had something like fifteen comic series at maximum in over forty years, whereas in the United States it was hundreds of different series of, of course, different quality and level. And it is rather troublesome for the translator because, let's say, fifty years of comics development is missing."

Can you tell us something about the history of comics in the Czech Republic or former Czechoslovakia? Where are the beginnings of the genre?

"Well, comics in our country has always been associated with two names. The first comic is called "Rychle sipy", in English "Fast Arrows". It is basically a club comics about five boys and their different adventures. It was written by Jaroslav Foglar who was a famous writer for kids. The other comics is "Ctyrlistek" which is written for kids of the age of let's say ten years. This doesn't really mean that there was nothing apart from those two comics. There were several very good comics published by the "ABC" magazine as series. These were the series I grew up on."

What is the situation now? Has it changed after the fall of communism in 1989?

"Yes, it has changed a lot. Basically, now you can publish whatever you want. There are no ideological constraints. This doesn't mean that there are no constraints at all! There are financial constraints now. Actually, it is very expensive to publish comics nowadays. You work with colour - that means that that you are going to pay a lot of money just for the colour. You have got to pay the artist and, of course, you have got to have a very good writer. And since comics in our country is thought of as a little bit childish medium, you can't get very good writers. Fortunately, there is one young author who doesn't think so. With the prestigious publishing house Labyrint he published a comics called "Bily potok", in English "White Stream". His name is Jaroslav Rudis. It is very fortunate that this comics has been widely reviewed and that it sold out in two-months' time. It is being reprinted now and what is interesting is that the publishing house Labyrint is preparing an English version of it."

"Well, I don't think that we have got reliable data as yet but the notion that only children read comics is absolutely wrong. In the United States the average comics reader is about thirty years old and he is probably a graduate. And in our country, you get readers that not only have one or two degrees but obviously, this reader must have quite a lot of money on his hands because the average comic book or graphic novel, as it is called, costs about six hundred crowns (20 euros). I would say that in that readership you have got a lot of potential. You can tell stories that are quite interesting, detailed and that can be compared on any level with the highest literature."

You are a translator of comic books, among other things. What are the specific difficulties of translating comic books?

"There are, of course, differences. You have got to be very careful about your language. And I'm not talking about rude words now. You have got to almost count the letters in your sentences because everything has got to fit in the bubble, in this space. The second great difference is that the words are tied to the image and that if a person in the comics tells a joke and you have got a picture of an audience laughing, you have got to have the joke yourself - which doesn't hold true in literature because there you can always compensate for the joke in some other place. And as I said comics is now written for intelligent people. That means that you have got a lot of allusions in the comics. Comics is self-referential: you have got to read a lot of comics before you can translate comics. You have got alliterations, you have got puns. You have to do quite a lot of research while translating comics. So it's not easy. Not at all."

Find out more at