In 2009, I happened upon a one-shot Spider-Man & Human Torch story. Side-by-side on the rack at my local comic book store were an English-language version and a Spanish-language version, both of which were called ¡Bahía de los Muertos! (literally Bay of the Dead). The Spanish version was also marked “Edición Boricua en Español,” meaning that it was the Puerto Rican edition. I’ve included two images, below. The one on the left is from the Spanish version and the one on the right is from the English. In panel 1, Johnny is getting hit by a monster. In panel 2, Spider-Man is driving the flying car and asks Johnny if he’s okay. In panel 3, Johnny goes supernova to help defeat the monster. Both of these images are equivalent except for the linguistic text.

In panel 1, the sound of the monster’s tentacle striking Johnny is English <THWAP> but Spanish <FUAP>. Writer Tom Beland and artist Juan Doe have used sounds that are similar but not exactly the same. English <THWAP> shows two basic differences from Spanish <FUAP>. First, word-initial <TH> stands in for word-intial <F>, and though they look remarkably different, they are very similar phonetically.

In phonetics, <TH> is described as a voiceless interdental fricative. ‘Voiceless’ means that the vocal cords don’t vibrate during production of the sound. ‘Interdental’ means that the tongue protrudes between the teeth, and ‘fricative’ indicates a ‘hissing’ flow of air passing over the tongue, through the teeth, and out the mouth. Similarly, <F> is described as a voiceless fricative. But <F> is labiodental rather than interdental, meaning that the tongue is contained behind the teeth (it doesn’t protrude). Specifically, <F> is made when the top teeth are placed on the bottom lip and the speaker forces air through that space. Again, the ‘hissing’ sound is characteristic of all fricatives.

The other notable difference in panel 1 is that the value of <A> in English <THWAP> differentiates it from the <A> in Spanish <FUAP>. For most US English speakers, <THWAP> rhymes with <CAP> and shares the same vowel as <HAT> and <LACK> and <STAND>. The value of Spanish <A> is slightly different, sounding more similar to English <FATHER> or <POT>.

A greater difference in rendering sound effect is noticeable in panel 3. The Spanish <FWAAASH> has a vowel like English <FATHER> and this is an elongated <A>, like we would say when wrestling with a tongue depressor in the doctor’s office. The English <FWOOOSH>, though it shares the same initial consonant cluster <FW>, contains a very different vowel as its core sound. An English-speaking reader knows that the vowel sound in <FWOOOSH> rhymes with the vowel sound in <FOOD> and other similar sound effects like <SWOOSH> or <WHOOSH>. But a Spanish-speaking reader might make the vowel in <FWOOOSH> sound like the <O> in <OCEAN>. (Admittedly, for some English speakers, the vowel sound in words like <SWOOSH> might rhyme with the vowel in <COOK> rather than <FOOD>, but this is a minor detail and doesn’t really affect the Spanish-English comparison.)

Spanish <FWAAASH> probably sounds like English <WASH>. However, if the rules for <THWAP/FUAP> in panel 1 are applied to the effects in panel 3, then English <FWOOOSH> would probably be spelled as Spanish <FUUUUSH>. The problem is that Spanish <FUUUUSH>  wouldn’t have a sound like English <FW>. Instead, the vowel <U> would be elongated, sounding much like the English word <FOOD>. Or <FOOOOD> if we’re looking for an iconic spelling.

The writer and artist, then, compensate by making two spelling changes. Instead of <FU> as in <FUAP>, they use <FW>. Even though the <FU> and the <FW> are different spellings, they are similar pronunciations. Further, the Spanish <FWAAASH> has an <A> vowel and the English version has an <O> vowel. The sound effects, then, sound the same at the beginning but sound very different in the center, and they end up with an <SH> combination at the end of the word.

Another way of looking at it is to say that in the Spanish version, the sound effect in panel 1 <FUAP> and the sound effect in panel 3 <FWAAASH> are most likely pronounced very similarly, with the exception of the end of the words. But the rules for spelling the consonant clusters and the vowels are problematic, and the writers seem to use various strategies to make the sound effects work.

What remains unclear for me is that typically Spanish doesn’t spell words with <SH>, so do Spanish-speaking comic book readers know how the <SH> sounds? If so, how do they know? Is it a general familiarity with English-language comic book conventions? Further, would an English-speaking comic book reader know that the Spanish word <FWAAASH> probably does not rhyme with <FLASH>?

I think the writer & artist here are trying to accommodate audiences with two different linguistic codes, but their spelling choices here demonstrate that the phonological rules of Spanish and English sound effects vary somewhat. This means that even though the images of the comic are identical, the linguistic codes have to be handled with care so as to respect and accommodate readers’ linguistic resources.


About Frank Bramlett

Until June 2014, I am a visiting lecturer in the English Department at Stockholm University, where I offer seminars in Sociolinguistics; Language and Gender; and Language and Comics; among others. For Fall 2014, I will return to the English Department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

12 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    It would be interesting to know what, exactly, the conventions are within mainstream comics for altering the sounds effects when translating a comic.

    I own both the English and Spanish language editions of two She-Hulk (`Shulka’ in Spanish) trade paperbacks. All of the sound effects in She-Hulk: Jaded are identical in the two versions. So in this instance, at least, the comic must be relying on the audience’s assumed familiarity with English (in addition, none of the in-picture text is altered: street signs, storefronts, etc. all retain their English spellings).

    As a matter of convenience, this makes sense – the lettering, which must be translated, is typically ‘laid over’ the original art, while the sound effects are part of the original art. So presumably translating the dialogue is simpler than translating the sound effects.

    The difference, I think, is that the comic you discuss was a sort of ‘special event’. Tom Beland and Juan Doe were quite explicitly crafting a comic in two languages, instead of the more common practice where a comic is made in English and then translated. The two versions were marketed together. In addition, Beland (who seems to be quite the Puerto Rico-phile) took the language issues quite seriously, noting that:

    “It may seem like a gimmick, but the fact is, you can’t have a story focus on an area where everyone speaks Spanish and not give them a chance to enjoy the book in their own language.”

    For more, see:

    I wonder – is the general rule at Marvel to leave the sound effects alone? In particular, when sound effects end with punctuation, do the Spanish editions insert the ‘matching’ punctuation at the beginning? I noticed that some ‘drawn’ dialogue – screams of “AARGHHH!” and the like, have the initial, upside-down “!” added in the She-Hulk trades I looked at. But two Shulka trade paperbacks is a pretty small sample size. Anyone out there have more Marvel comics in translation?

    At any rate, if the general practice is to leave the sound effects alone, then the ‘special status’ of your example makes it all the cooler.

    • Roy,
      I appreciate the link to the news item about the Boricua edition. I’m going to see if my comic book store has a copy of “Fantastic Four: Isla de la Muerta,” because this may make an interesting comparative study.

      I’d love to hear what comics artists have to say about their practice. You said that the lettering is typically laid over the original art, and it strikes me as much easier to change the orthography inside speech balloons than the sound effects themselves. Perhaps there are different techniques, among artists themselves but also across publishing houses.

      What I don’t know is how this may get applied to webcomics. Are there webcomics that have been translated? How easy is it to alter digital images to accommodate different linguistic representations?

  2. Boris Smelov says:

    A huge amount of thought goes into translating sound effects in manga from Japanese into English. Here’s a link to just one article I found on the topic:

    Although I cannot now remember who it was, I had heard of a person at the University of Minnesota who did his senior paper in Japanese on translating sound effects in manga. So, it is a very-often thought about area. Japanese provides a far greater challenge than Spanish, too, because the phonology and phonotactics of the language are so fundamentally different to those of English. No consonant clusters, a third the number of vowels, etc. And interesting linguistic challenge, and with an occasionally strong impact on the integrity of the art in a panel.

    • Boris,
      You raise a great point about the case of Japanese, and I plan on writing about some of that in future posts!

      One example of a manga translated into English is “Summit of the Gods” by Yumemakura Baku and Jiro Taniguchi. I only have volume 1 so far, but in that volume most if not all of the sound effects are translated into English. So when a mountain climber hammers a spike into the ice, the sound is spelled “tnnk tnnk” and the howling of the wind is spelled “whoooohh.” I wondered what the Japanese-language version looks like, so I did a quick search on the internet to see if I could find an image containing a sound effect, but I didn’t find anything except cover images.

  3. What a fascinating question, Frank! Thanks also for taking time to break down these phonetic terms and distinctions which reveal some interesting decisions on the part of the writer, artists, and/or editor. I wonder about the extent to which the translation to Spanish influences the physical appearance of the words? Since the font and design (and even color) are a major component of how the sound effects operate not just as language, but as pictures, perhaps the unusual decision to retain the in the third panel has to do with maintaining a particular aesthetic effect? Other, more accurate word endings might have slightly altered the balance and composition of the page design (something that is surely a risk in any translation).

    • That interplay of word and image you mention is so important, Qiana, and I’m glad you mentioned the possibility that the visual has an impact on deciding how to render the linguistic code.

      How long should a word be in a given panel? How large should those letters be? In panel 3, for example, the initial consonant cluster is relatively small, the vowels progressively get larger, and the end of the word has letters (sounds) that are three times the size of our hero! If we take the size of the letters as iconic, then the sound starts a little more quietly than it ends up, growing louder over time. The sound lasts so long that it spills past the edge of the panel, slightly more so in the Spanish version than the English.

      The impact, as you suggest, is that the artists achieve a parallel in the visual composition as well as the linguistic code.

      • roytcook says:

        This is such a great example of Eisner’s idea that “Word reads as image” – that is, that text plays both a linguistic and pictorial role in comics (one corollary of this is that panels that are empty except for sound effects are still ‘pictures’).

        Sounds effects are particularly important here, since they carry so much content – not just that there was a “FWOOM” sound, but in addition the shape, color, and style of those letters provides information regarding the nature (both physical and emotional) of both the sound and the object or event that caused it.

        As you note in the original post, the Spanish and English texts differ precisely because the creators are attempting to acheive the ‘same’ effect in two different languages. In this case they are helped by the fact that the two languages share an alphabet.

        This raises an interesting further question with regard to English and Japanese versions of manga: Are there aesthetic effects of Japanese sound effects that just cannot be reproduced at all in English because the difference between Japanese and English characters are so different (or vice versa)? In other words, might it be the case that the additional information given by shape and style in some Japanese sound effect just cannot be reproduced since English ‘equivalents’ just won’t have the same shape-or-style-based additional content?

      • Boris Smelov says:

        Regarding Roy’s question about Japanese sound effects:

        Japanese can be written top-down, and a lot of manga pages are structure to be interpreted primarily vertically. Exaggerated panels are tall and thin, rather than broad and squat like American comic panels are. Often Japanese sound effects have to be left intact and the English translations superimposed or added in parentheses because they simply can’t be replaced by equivalent Roman letters.

  4. Antonio says:

    You might be interested in knowing that there is a dictionary of onomatopoeias in Spanish:
    Diccionario de onomatopeyas del cómic by Ramón Gubern
    The ISBN is 8437625017


  5. I am interested, Antonio! And I’m very glad to see your post about this. It looks like I have some reading to do.

  6. […] quite a selection. If you’d like to know more about comic book sounds in Spanish I also have an article on that too.  Enjoy your Friday, it is tiiiime for lunch here. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailLike this:LikeBe […]

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