The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 233 | Found in Translation: Magnetic Press banks on the single issue’s continued relevance

Leaving Proof 233 | Found in Translation: Magnetic Press banks on the single issue’s continued relevance
Published on Tuesday, July 22, 2014 by
On this week’s Leaving Proof: Magnetic Press sets out to prove that the single issue still has an important role to play in the current market for English-language editions of foreign graphic novels.

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Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge’s translations of Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix helped introduce many Anglophone readers to the world of Franco-Belgian comics. [Pictured: Cover for the English-language edition of Asterix the Gaul.]

Like a lot of comics readers who grew up outside of the Francophone sphere, my introduction to the world of bandes dessinée (Franco-Belgian comics) came by the way of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge‘s excellent English translations of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Asterix comics. For those unfamiliar with the art and craft of translation, rendering a comics script in another language may sound like a fairly straightforward matter requiring nothing more than word substitution and allowing for structural differences in grammar. That’s rarely the case, however.

Effective translation isn’t just about transposing a work’s semantics and syntax from one language to another—it’s also about accounting for cultural context. It can be very easy for the essence of topical allusions and culture-specific word play such as idioms, puns, and similar devices to be lost in translation, and what sets the foremost translators apart from the merely adequate is their skill in capturing and recreating the underlying spirit of the source material using more appropriate constructions that, on the surface, might appear to be wholly unrelated to the original text as far as being literal interpretations. Such an ability requires of the translator a deep understanding of the work as well as the nuances of the foreign language, its associated culture, and even the history and current events of the material’s originating country. The best translated comics don’t read like translations at all, and can be easily mistaken for native language works even by a native language reader.

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Bengal’s cover art for Naja #4.

The importance of effective and artful translation in comics came to the forefront of my mind earlier this week, when I finally got around to sampling the latest translated bandes dessinée offerings from the California-based publishing start-up Magnetic Press. The brainchild of ex-Archaia Entertainment executive Mike Kennedy and former BOOM! Studios veep Wes Harris, Magnetic Press’ immediate focus seems to be on bringing previously untranslated Franco-Belgian comics to the US market, although the current digital publishing line-up also includes an original series from Brazilian comics creator Caio Oliveira and a look at the publisher’s website reveals a slate that will eventually include works from renowned American comics illustrator and painter Dave Dorman, Mexican artist Tony Sandoval, as well as original comics written by company co-founder Kennedy.

Three of Magnetic Press’ four titles currently on offer on comiXology are works made wholly or in part by veteran French comics writer Jean-David Morvan and the mononymous French artist Bengal. Magnetic Press launched its digital comics line-up two months ago with Morvan and Bengal’s Naja, which was followed by the July releases of the first issues of Zaya (written by Morvan and featuring art by Chinese artist Huang Jia-Wei) and Meka, a second Morvan/Bengal collaboration.

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Huang Jia-Wei’s cover art for Zaya #1.

The translation on all three titles (from what I assume is the original French) is actually handled directly by Kennedy and not by a subordinate staffer—not all that surprising given this early stage in the company’s lifespan—and he does a reasonably solid job with the resultant English-language editions. I will say, though, that Naja seems to have noticeable (to me, at least) instances of dialogue that can come off as just a little bit unnatural or awkward when subvocalized. It’s a phenomenon I find in many translated manga as well, and offhand, I think it’s due to my expectations for the language being different when reading a comic like Naja, which is set in a contemporary, real world-ish setting: In these cases, I reflexively expect a more colloquial tone to the script, something that can be difficult to maintain through the translation process. By contrast, the more fantastical nature of Zaya and Meka, I think, results in a reader giving the characters more leeway for stylized and literary utterances.

But while the comics that I’ve read so far are good—to be perfectly honest, I’m more interested in these books for Bengal and Huang’s exquisite art than Morvan’s writing, for which my feelings run hot-and-cold—it is Magnetic Press’ business model that has me really intrigued about the company’s future. I don’t think that it’s innacurate to say that price is one of the biggest barriers—if not the biggest barrier—to Anglophone readers from North America (and elsewhere) picking up translated comics. On top of the usual production and distribution costs incurred when publishing any comic, a company like Magnetic Press obviously also has to pay for the license to the original work along with other expenditures unique to the business of translating comics, and no matter how creative it gets, some of that will inevitably be passed on to the consumer.

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Bengal’s cover art for Meka #1.

The recent trend in translated comics is that they are often sold exclusively as trade paperback or hardcover “graphic novels” (regardless of whether or not they’re self-contained works). That’s great for the fan who is already committed to purchasing the book, but it isn’t a format that facilitates casual discovery by the curious reader-on-a-budget: The $15, $20, $30, or even $40 price tag for many of these volumes precludes them from becoming “impulse buys.” Far too often, picking up a translated graphic novel is a bit of a gamble for your average comics buyer, even with all the information available on the Internet.

What Magnetic Press is doing to encourage readers to try their publications is dividing the books into 24-page installments and offering them as competitively-priced single issues on comiXology. For example, Naja, which was originally published in Europe as a series of five 48-page albums, is now being offered by Magnetic Press as a digital-exclusive ten-issue limited series. Going the digital-exclusive route for the single issues will certainly help mitigate production and distribution overhead and while it’s possible that some readers will be content to read the entirety of Naja in its digital form, it is Magnetic Press CEO Wes Harris’ hope that the relatively cheap digital single issues will also serve as a “try before you buy”-style promotion for the premium hardcover. For the prospective, on-the-fence customer, spending $1.99 on Naja #1 is a small price to pay in order to make an eminently more informed decision on whether or not to drop $30 for the hardcover or $27 for the rest of the digital limited series.

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Magnetic Press’ Zaya hardcover collection hits warehouses at the end of the month.

Is Magnetic Press’ strategy working? Are readers discovering the works of Morvan, Bengal, and Huang through the digital single issues and preordering the hardcovers when they decide that they like what they see? Without access to comiXology’s sales numbers and a way to correlate them to preorders on Magnetic Press’ site, it’s foolish to speculate, but I do know from personal experience that the purchase of a series’ entry-priced single issues can lead to a switch to the acquisition of collected editions. Had I not taken a chance on a stray, single issue of Blade of the Immortal at my local comics shop and found Hiroaki Samura’s samurai epic to be worth the price tag, I don’t think I would have sought out the series’ trade paperbacks (priced at $14.95 US/$23.95 CDN per volume circa 1999), regardless of how good the reviews were making it out to be.

Of course, Dark Horse did eventually discontinue the publication of individual issues of Blade of the Immortal in 2007 due to declining single issue sales and shifted to releasing the series straight to trade paperback, but I think that development can be viewed less as a failure of the single issue format as a gateway to the title for new readers and more as a sign that the majority of existing buyers of the English-language version of Blade of the Immortal to that point had already been converted to “trade waiters” because of the significant savings the trades provided over the single issues. By issue #79 of the Blade of the Immortal comic book series, the cover price per 30-page issue had gone up to $2.99 US/$4.99 CDN while prices for the 200-page trades were at $14.99 US/$23.99 CDN—American readers saved three dollars and Canadian readers saved six dollars off the cover price every time they chose to buy a trade paperback instead of the six individual issues it collected. In the case of relatively short series like Naja, Zaya, and Meka, however, the single issue may never lose its utility as a promotional tool for the collected edition, as long as it is priced competitively.


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