Christmas Calvin & Hobbes

I wrote before about discovering Calvin & Hobbes Chinese translations here in Shanghai, and about how the two characters’ names were translated into Chinese. I got some requests for scans.

I think the comics are translated mostly quite well. I’m still unsure of the legitimacy of the publication, though. The cover looks all nice, and I bought the books for 20 rmb each in a major Shanghai bookstore (思考乐), but the paper is rather low quality and the reproduction sometimes comes off as a shoddy photocopy. Also for that reason, my scans aren’t real great. (That and I’m still learning how to get the best scans from my new scanner.)

Anyway, below are the five comic strips I chose to share. I think they have a few interesting translation issues, and they’re Christmas themed to boot. I’m not going to comment specifically on the translations (you readers feel free to go crazy in the comments, though!), but I did provide the original English beneath each panel, with areas of interest highlighted in red.

So without further ado:

1. On Santa’s Omniscience

2. On the Legality of Santa

3. On a Hypothetical Good/Bad Case

4. On Being on the “Bad” List

5. On the Spirit of Christmas

Finally, I’d like to add that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Bill Watterson, so if what I’m sharing here in the name of translation study is deemed unacceptable by Bill Watterson, I’ll take them down immediately. Higher quality English Calvin & Hobbes scans are all over the internet, though, so I doubt this counts as much.

Merry Christmas!


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Da Xiangchang Says: December 24, 2004 at 5:33 am

    Here’s the BIG QUESTION: Does Hobbes really exist or is he purely a figment of Calvin’s imagination? If he does exist, how come everyone else just sees him as a stuffed toy?

  2. Da Xiangchang,

    Uhhh, no, actually the big question for this entry is “how’s the translation?

  3. John, scan at 300dpi to MASTERS and then Photoshop to web optimzation for best results online.

  4. It seems like a straight-up proper translation. But I’d be more interested if they had added “Chinese characteristics,” so to speak. For instance, in the “On Santa’s Omniscience” comic, they translated CIA spook as, well, CIA spook. It would have been a lot more interesting if they had translated it as 幹部 or whatever else would be the Chinese equivalent of someone who snoops on you.

    The Taiwanese South Park on Channel V does that a lot. It replaces the names of American political and pop culture stars, place names, historical events, etc. with the Taiwanese equivalents. So you have Eric Cartman complaining about the 白色恐怖 or Radiohead translated as F4.

    And I’m 99% sure that Bill Waterson ain’t seeing a penny from those books.

  5. Oy vey.

    Though my Chinese isn’t great, I think the translation is basically pretty shoddy. Without having read through all the strips carefully, here is an example: I think whoever was translating tripped over “judge and jury” in ‘On the Legality of Santa.’ Instead of consulting a really good dictionary, they just sort of paraphrased the concept so that the Chinese would make since, without really understanding the English version. In my opinion, this is a big no-no in translation. You MUST really, totally and completely understand the original version before you attempt translation. I suspect the best way to translate this sort of fixed expression would be to use a chengyu. Then look at’Salamander.’ It is completely lost. ‘Salamander,’ in addition to being a kind of lizard, can be a portable heating device or a fire spirit, whence probably comes the reference to setting a fire, right?

    Again this is just my opinion, but I find the level of English-Chinese translation in China is not really all that high. The market has just not really developed yet, so shoddy workmanship is acceptable. The general attitude among people I know who do translating in Shanghai is ‘Put the least possible amount of energy into it and see whether the customer will pay. If he doesn’t pay, then improve it a little bit.’ I’ve seen a professional PR company get paid a lot of money for extremely shoddy translations.

    I applied for a job in Germany as a translator when I was a grad student. I took a test that I thought I aced. The supervisor then picked through my test translation. She came up with all this tiny little issues that I had never even considered. And I thought at the time that I was totally, totally bilingually fluent in German. But my arrogance shattered against the wall of a high professional standard. The experience really burst my glass bubble. I suspect that as the market develops, some Chinese translators will face the same issue of having to reevalutate their skill level.

  6. Chinese-English of course is much worse.

  7. And another thing that always bugs me. I hate the lyric “He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.” The first part says that you should be good, because you will be rewarded for your virtue. But then the second part goes on to say that you should be virtuous because virtue in itself is its reward.

    Anyhow, I don’t see what the problem is with a lot of the stuff you highlighted in red. 哎呀 is a fine translation for ‘gosh’, 暫時失常 is a fine translation for ‘temporary insanity.’ Some of the stuff wouldn’t be unnecessarily confusing if you tried translating more literally in the limited space provided, like ‘the judge and jury bit’ or the ‘salamander incident’ bit. I know it’s a C&H in-joke to always refer to the so-called salamander incident without ever learning what really transpired, but I think that putting ‘蝗蟲事件’ or whatever there would just confuse people.

  8. I thought the translation was generally adequate, although some things rubbed me the wrong way. It’s also pretty flat for, you know, a comic book, which is disappointing, as some of the (official) translations, like the Chinese editions of Harry Potter, conform excellently in tone with the original.

    The direct translation of “CIA spook” as “中情幽灵” strikes me as almost certainly wrong – 中情间谍, maybe? And translating the line “how cynically enterprising of you” as 玩世不恭 seems to miss the tone of the original, too, but I can’t think of anything that’d work better.

  9. Wayne – as for the “salamander incident,” you’re probably right about it being confusing rather than funny to most Chinese readers, but still. Maybe ‘你不是指你那次”蝾螈祸事”吧?’

  10. There’s a weekly comic that runs in 南方周末 called 我是豆豆 that’s highly derivative of the schoolboy-related C&H strips. There’s a collection, I think, and probably an online archive somewhere, if you really feel the need.

    A comic has so little text that the creator spends a much longer time polishing it than writers do in other forms (Oscar Wilde excepted). Each sentence is more important to the strip than the average sentence is to a novel. Translators, I’d venture to guess, are not paid enough to duplicate that work in a second language. So the places where the translator inevitably falls short of the ideal are more conspicuous than those in a novel. Ms. Rowling’s adverb-fests, then, translate better than the brief, immaculate dialogue of Mr. Watterson.

  11. Wayne,

    The red was not supposed to indicate something wrong. As I wrote, those were “areas of interest.” I found it interesting to see how “gosh” and “heck” were translated, which phrases were rendered as chengyu, which were changed altogether (e.g. “the salamander incident”).

  12. I always interpreted “for goodness sake” in that song as being just an emphatic modifier (and a pun of course).

    I’d like to see a translation of one of the sunday comics. Because a lot of C&H sunday comics are very dialogue-driven, and lax translations of “judge and jury”, “cynically enterprising” etc could suck a lot of the vitality and humour from the comic.

  13. nane cumaria Says: December 31, 2006 at 8:59 am

    y the f are u guys arguing about it?
    who f’in cares?and yes hobbes is real…when no 1 else is around…otherwise how else would he do the things he does?
    like in 1 strip he eats a piece of susie’s chocholate cak at her birthday party and when the time comes for the cake to be eaten hobbes has already taken a slice of it

  14. Broken image links fixed. (Sorry for the several-year delay!)

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