Reflections on Translations – IV: Embedded, Untranslated Text, and Tintin

Louis Mackay has an interesting article at the London Review of Books Blog (‘Tintin in China’, 11 June 2012) , which continues an examination–commenced by Christopher Taylor (LRB, 7 June 2012)–of the Chinese artist Zhang Congren’s influence on Tintin‘s creator Hergé. (In particular his influence on one of Hergé’s earliest Tintin adventures, The Blue Lotus.)

Zhang influenced Hergé in a couple of ways. First, he helped Hergé develop an attitude in The Blue Lotus that is ‘consciously satirical towards European notions of cultural superiority’ [Mackay citing Taylor] and as such is

credited with bringing about this change in Hergé’s attitudes, as well as with helping him develop a sense of pictorial composition that owes something to Chinese aesthetics.

But Zhang also helped enhance the realism of Herge’s work by providing ‘Chinese writing in signs, wall-hangings, posters, graffiti, and occasionally speech bubbles.’ As Mackay notes, this text is all intelligible, and would have made perfect sense to a Chinese reader.  They most certainly were not ‘merely random characters included for atmospheric effect’, noise to pad out the background. They were meant to make sense, whether observed by Chinese eyes or not.

This ‘intelligible’ Chinese text richly informs the backdrop for Tintin’s adventures:

One prevalent poster is an advertisement for Siemens (西門子, ‘Xi-men-zi’), which had run factories in China since 1899. Indoors there are proverbs andshanshui poems. Political slogans are daubed on outside walls. Some are incomplete but all would have been instantly understood by a Chinese reader. A truncated line of graffiti refers to 三民主義, the ‘Three Principles of the People’ adopted by the Chinese Republic under Sun Yat-sen (national self-determination, democracy and the welfare of the people). A torn poster reads: 取消不平等… (‘Abrogate the unequal…’). Any Chinese reader would know that the final missing characters were 條約, ‘treaties’. The ‘agreements’ imposed by force after the Opium Wars, which established Western and Japanese commercial dominance in the treaty ports, with extraterritorial rights giving foreigners immunity from Chinese law, were deeply resented.

This nod to fidelity to locale in Hergé’s work was demonstrated vividly to me in the course of reading the second Tintin-Chang adventure, Tintin in Tibet. At the beginning of the tale, Tintin, having dreamed about Chang being in trouble, flies to Kathmandu with Captain Haddock to commence an expedition into the Himalayas. To this end they arrange for a Sherpa guide and some porters. While walking through the streets of Kathmandu, Haddock bumps into a porter, and as is his wont, lets loose with a volley of colorful invective. But on this occasion, Haddock’s outburst is not met with the usual stunned silence. Rather, in response, the porter flies off the handle, loudly delivering a lungful of indignation to  Haddock’s flabbergasted face.

The porter’s  Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani outburst was written in the Devanagari script; I read it and chuckled. The line was perfect in its tone and archness; the long-suffering, hard-working porter finally driven to the end of his tether by always-bumbling overlords.  In perfect Hindustani, in the middle of  a Tintin book. Till then, Hergé had placed his familiar characters on the background of a foreign, mute, land that paid silent witness to the adventuring of others. Then suddenly, it intruded and spoke. A little Easter Egg for those in the know; a reassurance of attention to detail for the rest.

5 thoughts on “Reflections on Translations – IV: Embedded, Untranslated Text, and Tintin

      1. It’s one of those things that stick in your head when you’re 10 or 11!

  1. There was a very good documentary made on these subjects in 2003 called Tintin and I. It includes a long audio interview with Hergé, and the reunion with Chang in 1981. If you’ve not seen it (and you can find it) it is well worth a look.

    1. Russ:

      Thanks for that. Netflix doesn’t have it, so I’ll have to cast my net a bit wider. I can’t remember the name of the Herge bio I read a while ago (loaned to me by an Australian friend!) that described his working methods very well.


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