Translating comics and cartoons – the challenge of onomatopoeias

Onomatopoeic words are words that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to. Onomatopoeias play an important role in comics because they relate to both the visual and the verbal elements of a comic. They are essentially verbal in nature, but their design has a distinct visual appeal. For example, onomatopoeic words are normally written in large, colorful, frequently uneven letters, and they are arranged in the panels in a very distinct way – usually they are not laid out very neatly in straight lines, and quite often they take up a significant amount of space, as the two examples below show. They lend a third dimension to comics, namely the dimension of sound

There is no such thing as a universal stock list of onomatopoeias. Words tend to vary across different nationalities and cultures, sometimes dramatically. Each country therefore has its own collection of onomatopoeic expressions.

Here are some examples to get us started.

  • English – TICK TOCK (the sound of a clock)
  • Korean – CHIK CHIK POK POK (the sound of a train)
  • French – RON PSHI (snoring)
  • Japanese – PACHI PACHI (the sounds of a crackling fire)
  • German – MAMPF MAMPF (munching)

Common occurrences of onomatopoeias include animal noises, such as “OINK,” “MEOW,” “ROAR” and “CHIRP,” and machine noises, like “HONK” or “BEEP-BEEP” for the horn of vehicle, and “VROOM” or “BRUM” for the engine.

Although onomatopoeic words can, as we will see later, be considered a linguistic problem for translators, their translation also causes considerable technical problems. The technical difficulties are since onomatopoeias are usually integrated into the drawings, so that if they are translated into a different language, the drawings – and not just the text in the speech balloons and narrative boxes – must be modified. From a technical point of view, this is much more complex than simply printing the translated text into the speech balloons, which are normally delivered empty to each specific country’s editor of a comic published worldwide and therefore make the task of the editor a relatively simple one. However, it is not just the degree of difficulty of modifying the drawings but, to a large extent, the additional expenses incurred by the publishing houses that make the translation of onomatopoeias a major technical problem.

Hard to define

Onomatopoeia is defined as the formation of a word from a sound associated with what is named.
The word itself has Greek origins and made the transition to English via Latin in the 16th century. It literally means “word-making.”

But onomatopoeia is a strange concept because its definition is challenged by different languages worldwide. The sound of something is generally the same wherever you are in the world. If you drop a glass on the floor in England or Korea, for instance, it makes the same noise, yet the sounds used to describe it can be significantly different in different countries.

Here are examples where the same sound comes across differently due to the sound inventory of different languages.

A dog barking

In English, “WOOF WOOF” is used to describe the noise of a dog barking, while in Russian “GAV GAV” is predominantly used. If they are small dogs, on the other hand, then Russians tend to use “TYAV TYAV.” In French it is “OUAF OUAF.”

A baby crying

“Wah-Wah” is used to describe a baby crying in English, yet “OUIN OUIN” is used in French and “BUA BUA” is used in Spanish. “EUNG’AE-EUNG’AE” is what Koreans use to refer to the noise a baby makes when it cries.

A gunshot

“BAM,” “BOOM,” “BANG” and “POW” are used to convey the sound of a gunshot in English. “BOUM” and “PAN” are used in French, “BUM” and “PUM” are used in Italian, and “BA-BAKH” and “PIF-PAF” are used in Russian.


“OUCH” is used in English when someone gets hurt, yet in French a person would scream out “AIE” instead. Elsewhere, in German, someone would use “AU,” “AUA” or “AUTSCH” to indicate pain or injury.

A leaking tap

The sound of water hitting the surface of a sink from a dripping tap is described as “DRIP DROP” in English. “PLIC PLOC” is used to make the sound in French, while “PLITSCH PLATSCH” is used in German.

Shared understanding

But while the words are completely different, there is a sense of shared understanding in most cases.

In the case of a leaking tap, for example, “DRIP DROP,” “PLIC PLOC” and “PLITSCH PLATSCH” all use the same initial sound – a plosive. This makes sense for the most part as the “P” conveys the sound of the water hitting the surface.
So, by pointing at a leaking tap and saying “PLIC PLOC,” it is likely someone who speaks a different language would know exactly what is going on.

Onomatopoeia is therefore an extremely useful part of language. It can bridge gaps and establish connections.

The noise that cats make is another example of shared understanding between onomatopoeias.

In English, the sound is described as “MEOW,” while in German it is “MIAU,” in French “MIAOU,” in Spanish “MIAU,” and in Chinese “MIAO.”

They all use the same sound, in this case the nasal sound “M”– so although the translations are not identical, they are still easily recognizable to people of different nationalities and cultures who use different languages.

Philosophy of language

Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist and semiotician, claimed that onomatopoeic words could, in fact, be coincidental, evolving from non-onomatopoeic origins, rather than having any direct link between word and meaning.

He used the French and English onomatopoeic words for a dog’s bark as an example (OUAF OUAF versus WOOF WOOF) of this randomness, while he also dismissed interjections with a similar argument, pointing primarily to the contrast in pain interjection in French and English (AIE versus OUCH).

On the other hand, Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher, argued that Saussure tried to make onomatopoeia external to the essential arbitrariness of the internal system of language, seeing it as a cultural threat.

He regarded onomatopoeia as a natural process that was ingrained in the evolution of language.

Both points of view have fueled heated debates among linguists for hundreds of years. But the fact remains that onomatopoeia is going nowhere, it is here to stay and will continue to play a role in societies around the world.

This paper is based on “Onomatopoeias in different languages” written by  Yusuf Bhana, Head of Digital at TranslateMedia, and “Problems in the translation of comics and cartoons” written by Tatiana Taran, Doctor in theory and practice of translation and lecturer at USEM

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