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Translating a Comic Book from English to Hebrew

Over the summer of 2023, Joshua M. Edelglass and I agreed to collaborate on an independent single-issue comic book called "Brother's Keeper". The book tells my grandfather's story from Israel's 1948 War of Independence.


That story, which begins with a fierce battle at a kibbutz on the outskirts of Jerusalem, took on a whole new meaning in October, when history echoed and kibbutzim in Israel were attacked once again. I've already written about the strange experience of having my story's meaning suddenly shift in this way.



Josh and I originally planned for a slow and casual release of the book, but with the outbreak of war, we determined that the story had to be made available faster, and to a broader audience. As part of that new strategy, I really wanted to find a way to translate the book to Hebrew, and to make it available in Israel.


Step One: The Translation

The first step to translating any comic book is - of course - the translation itself. Although I'm a fluent Hebrew speaker, growing up in the US has left me with a vocabulary that's full of holes. The book features military and medical terminology that I knew I wouldn't be familiar with, and I imagined that there are turns of phrase in the English that would require some finessing in order to feel similarly natural in the translation.


So I recruited the help of my parents, both of whom have translation experience. My mother, in particular, has been teaching University-level Hebrew for decades, and is extremely well-versed in the language. They worked off of my book script, and went caption-by-caption and dialogue-by-dialogue to translate the entire work. Of course, there was no need to translate the panel descriptions - those are merely instructions for the illustrator, and don't appear in the published book.



This would normally be the end of the primary translation process. But since we were translating to a language that I can speak, I was able to review the work and suggest changes.


In fact, the three of us got together one afternoon and combed through the translation line-by-line. The translation was accurate as far as the individual meanings of the words went, but there were questions of tone and style that had to be addressed. This is where translation shifts from being a craft to being an art. In one panel, a caption reads, "Some of us ran out of luck" in proximity to an illustration of a dead soldier on the battlefield. Idiomatically, the literal translation simply didn't pack the same emotional punch in Hebrew. So, together, we explored different Hebrew idioms, and settled on something like "for some of us, this was the end of the story."


With the translation complete, it was time to prepare the book for Hebrew lettering.


Step Two: Reversing the Pages

Comics stories are told in individual illustrations, called "panels", that are usually meant to be read in a particular order. In English language comics, you begin with the top-left panel of the page, then work your way gradually across to the right, then down, largely following the same visual flow that you would follow if you were reading sentences and paragraphs in a book.


Within each panel, speech bubbles are arranged strategically so that you read them in the same left-to-right manner. In fact, when illustrators illustrate comics, they try to place the first character who speaks on the left side of a panel so that the character's speech bubble can easily be placed where it will be read first.


When translating a comic book to a right-to-left language such as Hebrew, it becomes necessary to flip all of the pages so that the action and dialogue also flows right-to-left. This is important page-wide, and also within individual panels.


For much of "Brother's Keeper", flipping the pages was rather simple. One click in Photoshop, and the whole page was a mirror-image of itself. (Remember, we're dealing with illustrated pages at the moment, not the captions or speech bubbles - those come next.)


There were some pages where this simply could not be done. These were pages that included panels with illustrated text. For example, the first page of the comic includes illustrations of postage stamps. Flipping that page would have caused the text of the postage stamps to appear backwards!


For these pages, a more complicated approach was necessary, wherein the 'unflipable' panels had to get rearranged. Panels on the right got moved left, and panels on the left were moved right. Some individual panels got flipped, while others maintained their original orientation. The goal remained: to preserve a clear and easy reading flow for a right-to-left language, while also preserving the original orientation of the panels that had illustrated text.



Once this was accomplished, it was time for the lettering.


Step Three: Comics Lettering in Hebrew

Since the comic book translation largely followed the original, re-lettering in Hebrew mostly required replacing the English text in speech bubbles and captions with its Hebrew counterpart.


The first challenge we encountered was that Adobe software is notoriously clunky when it comes to right-to-left languages. Simply copying and pasting Hebrew text from a Word document would result in the letters arranging themselves in reverse order. Imagine copying the words "comic book" from one document, pasting it into another, and getting "koob cimoc" instead.


To fix this, I had to install an international version of Photoshop that had right-to-left language features... but even then, I had to manually turn on right-to-left properties for every single text box in the book. What should have been a simple cut-and-paste process turned out to be very labor-intensive.


The next step of the process required adjusting word balloons and captions to fit the new text. When you translate from one language to another, the resulting sentences are rarely identical in length. Hebrew, in particular, is a very economical language, so many of the sentences in the Hebrew version were shorter than those in the English. This meant that speech bubbles and caption boxes had to be adjusted - often shrunk - to fit the new text.

In addition, since some pages and panels got flipped, while others didn't, careful attention had to be paid to whether the reading flow was still working. Are we still finding a clear reading path from the start of the page to the end of the page? In some cases, speech bubbles and captions had to be moved around in order for the reading flow to work. Josh did most of the work here.


Step Four: Exporting as a Right-to-Left Book

With all of the new lettering complete, it was time to compile a PDF of the book to provide to e-book retailers and others. Luckily, this is an area where Adobe has things figured out. It was just a matter of tweaking a couple of settings, and the resulting PDF, when opened to 'two-page view', correctly places the pages in a right-to-left reading order.


Although many people don't read PDFs in two-page view, it's a great way to get a sense of how a comic book's "spreads" flow together.


The PDF also became the source file for e-books, such as the one that is available on Amazon.com. Generally, when you swipe to turn pages in an (English) Amazon e-book, you swipe from right to left, as if you were turning a page. For this Hebrew e-book, we had to make sure the settings were correct for a reverse reading order. If you read the e-book, you'll note that it does swipe left-to-right, in an action that matches what you would do if reading a physical Hebrew book.


The Result: A Comic Book in Hebrew!

The process of translating "Brother's Keeper" to Hebrew was more labor-intensive and time-consuming than I expected it would be, but I am very happy to see that the book is now available to readers in Israel.



The cover of the Hebrew edition of "Brother's Keeper"


It's difficult to find publishers in Israel who would agree to publish a single-issue floppy comic, but the book is now available as a Hebrew e-book in Israel on several platforms, including Amazon.com and the popular Israeli book website, www.e-vrit.co.il. Direct links below. If you read "Brother's Keeper" in Hebrew, please let me know what you think of it! If you've also read it in English, I'd love your thoughts on the translation!


Where to Find Brother's Keeper in Hebrew and in English


"Brother's Keeper" is available in Hebrew as the e-book שונמר אחי at the following sites:

"Brother's Keeper" is also available in the original English as an e-book here:

While supplies last, physical copies of the book can be ordered here (US only, for now). Volume discounts are available for schools and other institutions. Contact for retailer pricing.

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