A brief history of the foreign language in comics


As Comic-Con descended on our headquarters city of San Diego, Calif., for its first large-scale event since the pandemic, it raised thoughts about diversity, foreign languages, and their representation in comics. So many comics contain characters from different worlds, as well as different cultures in our own world, so one would imagine many languages ​​would be present, but that wasn’t always the case.

Non-American, non-English speaking characters in comics have had a bit of a dark history, being portrayed with negative stereotypes and racial portrayals. Although some might say it was parody and comedy, much of it, especially in the early 1900s, was grossly derogatory, offensive, and in bad taste. As the comics go back to the end of the 19e century, at a time when racism and hatred were more widespread and accepted, the books were influenced by the reality of the time, which in turn evolved as society saw race relations and acceptance foreign improve over the years.

Fiction often reflects reality and the times in which writers and artists work. From the era of World War I when America’s enemies became enemies and villains in American comic books, to the advances toward inclusion and equality we see and seek today, there are had a big shift in the representation of diversity and culture in comics. Whether a character is implied to speak another language or directly displayed in comic book text, from Super Man to Star Trek, other languages ​​have slowly been incorporated.

In the beginning, most comics would not have text other than English, so when depicting a non-English speaking character, the text would be written in a way that exaggerates the English language so that the reader way like this breed, communicating language with typed accent stereotypes and pronunciation. In some cases it makes sense, like distinguishing between an American and a Brit, where they speak the same language but there has to be a differentiation. For example, words like “Hello” instead of “Hello”. A real-world example comes from a 1956 comic strip, Yellow Claw #1, with the line “I vould neffer vork for you”, providing a stereotypical German accent with distorted English rather than using the actual language with a American translation next.

When it comes to displaying multilingual text rather than just garbled English, it took decades. It started with a combination of languages ​​used, such as “Spanglish”, the combination of Spanish and English. Use Spanish words mixed with English text, or variations of words that combine the two, such as “Es un cat” instead of English “It’s a cat” or Spanish “Es un gato”. It was the new way to show language and context.

One of the earliest mentions of a non-English language in American comic books comes from one of the greatest superheroes of all time, Superman, who was cast in 1939. Born on the fictional planet Krypton, the fictional/alien language Kryptonian, or Kryptonese, was eventually introduced. He’s been speaking English all the time since he came to Earth as a baby, but he’s also been known to speak virtually every language… he’s Superman, of course. Beyond Superman eventually working in Kryptonian, either by reference or by text and images, other languages ​​didn’t come into widespread use until the 60s and 70s.

Beginning in the 1960s, mainstream comics intensified their diversity with an influx of ethnic characters. The evolution of comics in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with, and was inspired by, the societal shift and racial equality taking shape in America. The comics continued to reflect reality by becoming much more inclusive during the timeline of the Civil Rights Movement and foreign/American activism. Meanwhile, a superhero named Black Panther burst onto the scene, the first African American superhero, originally introduced in a Fantastic Four issue in 1966, he soon got his own comic and is still relevant today. Along with Black Panther, his homeland is fictional Wakanda, which has three official languages, Wakandan, Yoruba, and Hausa, the latter two being actual African languages.

In the 70s, the famous X-Men comics introduced several characters of German, Russian, Japanese, Kenyan and other origins, which helped to push things a little further. An example being the popular Nightcrawler from Bavaria, Germany, who often spoke in a mixture of English and German sentences. Around the same time, the first Latin American superhero appeared in the mainstream, White Tiger.

Speaking in Spanish and English, White Tiger not only had his own comic, but he went through several issues of Spider-Man from the 70s to the 80s and then the popular Daredevil comics in the 2000s, which was huge. . for the character and for diversity in comics in general. Whereas previous non-American and multilingual characters were portrayed with stereotypes and distorted English, in passing and in small roles, they now figured prominently, and while cliches and stereotypes continued to exist in the comics , it was a very big step forward. for diversity and equality.

In the late ’70s and ’80s, after their debuts in television and film, two of science fiction’s greatest entities arrived in comics, Star Trek and Star Wars. With characters hailing from all corners of the universe, many new languages ​​were introduced. In Star Trek, various languages ​​from Klingon to Vulcan were eventually introduced. While many of these languages ​​are primarily featured in movies and TV shows, there were comics devoted entirely to the Klingon language, including a special comic and an additional 5-part comic mini-series written entirely in Klingon (with English versions available for non-Klingon speakers).

Just as so much fiction is based on reality, reality also comes from fiction. Star Trek’s fictional languages, Vulcan and Klingon, have been turned into full-fledged languages ​​with set grammar and vocabulary, so anyone can learn and speak it. To go even further, a Klingon Language Institute (KLI) was formed, which now has about 5,000 members and holds annual conventions. It has become so popular that language-learning platform Duolingo has added a Klingon course attracting over 100,000 learners, and although they report that the fastest growing languages ​​are Asian languages, the KLI’s website claims that Klingon is the “fastest growing language in the galaxy”.

With Star Wars, one of the best-known franchises of all time brought us some of the best-known characters, many of whom speak other languages. From the Huttese spoken by Jaba the Hutt, to the Jawaese spoken by the popular Jawa characters, to the Shyriiwook or Wookiee spoken by the beloved Chewbacca, Star Wars has introduced many new languages ​​to the world. Although mostly a fictional alien language, it would be hard to find anyone, Star Wars fan or not, who couldn’t recognize and speak a little Wookiee.

Star Wars brought us droids like R2-D2 who speaks in droid language, communicating with robotic beeps and boops, then there’s C-3PO, a protocol droid designed to help with etiquette, customs and translation, fluent in over 6 million forms of communication. Ultimately, he is an interpreter, language service is his specialty. With so many characters in their world, 65 different languages ​​have been included in their comics, books, movies, and TV shows over the years.

The trend of incorporating other languages ​​into comics eventually included American Sign Language (ASL) along with several popular and lesser-known characters. One character, Jericho from Teen Titans, can control others with eye contact, and while he cannot speak vocally, he can communicate with ASL. Another example, Hawkeye, from one of the greatest superhero teams, the Avengers, lost his hearing twice, which led him to learn and speak ASL. One issue of the Hawkeye comic was even told entirely in ASL.

Now, in the 2000s, more and more diverse characters have made their way into the mainstream. From Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American superhero who speaks Urdu, to America Chavez, a Puerto Rican superhero who speaks English and Spanish, it has become a common theme. In recent years new versions of Spider-Man have been introduced, one of the most popular versions, Miles Morales, is also Puerto Rican speaking Spanish and English. These characters have not only found their way into mainstream comics, but they’ve also been given their own hallmarks in film and television.

From the early days of comics to today, things have come a very long way. The industry has taken decades to evolve, reflecting American society and how the country has taken so long to evolve into accepting all races, cultures and languages. Although it took the comics so long to start the inclusion process and slowly introduce more diverse characters, once they did, they never looked back. With this integration continuing over the years, the protagonists and antagonists of comic book culture are more diverse than ever, and there’s no limit to what the future holds.

For more information about Interpreters Unlimited, Inc., please visit www.interpreters.com or call 800-726-9891.

About Interpreters Unlimited, Inc.

The IU group of companies includes: Interpreters Unlimited, Accessible Communication for the Deaf, Albors & Alnet, Arkansas Spanish Interpreters and Translators and IU GlobeLink, LLC. Their headquarters is located in San Diego, California as a minority-owned corporation. IU Group is committed to providing equal opportunity in the work environment with its diverse team to help provide language and cultural interpretation services to clients. A combined 70 years in the industry has demonstrated a surplus of leadership and best practices, which has helped establish its respected role in the language services community. Its services include interpretation, document translation and non-emergency medical transportation.

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