On the milestone 1st anniversary V&Q Books released its third batch of exceptional writing from Germany, which included its first graphic novel. Birgit Weyhe’s Madgermanes won the Berthold Leibinger Foundation Comic Book Prize, and has been translated into English by Katy Derbyshire. While translating is a familiar discipline to Katy, since setting up V&Q Books, she has had to acquire many other hats and learn many new skills. In today’s guest post, Katy explains just what it takes to bring a German graphic novel to an Anglophone audience.

1. Choose a graphic novel!

Birgit Weyhe’s Madgermanes is an amazing work of art. There are many things I love about it: the way it calls attention to a forgotten injustice, the way it illustrates universal themes such as belonging and racism, and the way it unfolds a subtle humour and horror as the story progresses. Weyhe uses images from nature, tongue-in-cheek comparisons and everyday situations to show us how her storytellers feel – as well as their own words.

She based the book on a series of interviews with Mozambicans who came to East Germany as contract workers. Expecting new opportunities, they faced hard work under tough conditions, but they also found love, excitement – and great loss. Only to be cheated out of much of their pay after being forced to return to war-ravaged Mozambique. Continuing to campaign for what they are owed, they are now known as Madgermanes. 

What a story, so beautifully told. It was just what we were looking for. 

2. Translate the words!

This part is almost the same as translating a standard book – making sure dialogue is believable, retaining differences between speakers, deciding whether to keep any original words or make them all English – but everything has to fit in the bubbles. I did the translation myself, but first I talked to the writer and graphic-novel translator Thomas Pletzinger, who advised me to separate each utterance into lines, to make it clear where every word goes on the page. This makes the text look like this:

3. Put the words inside the bubbles!

Our typesetter Fred Uhde bravely tackled this task, called lettering. He gave me lots of useful feedback, chose special fonts, and helped me decide a key issue: Do we keep the n-word? In the end, we left it in German in graffiti in the background (as a kind of documentary evidence of racism in 80s and 90s Germany) and abbreviated it in the translated speech bubbles. 

4. Make a cover!

We felt the original German cover wouldn’t work in our format, so we asked our designers pingundpong to create a new one out of images from the novel. André Wandslebe, who made the cover, told me he’d lived down the road from a hostel for foreign contract workers in the GDR, so Mozambicans, Angolans, Cubans and Vietnamese people were very present in his childhood. We’re both very fond of the drawn socialist insignia and brands in the novel, so several of them found their way into the new collage design.

5. Get it printed!

We worked with the same printers as the German publishers avant-verlag used, because they’ve done it all before, down to the subtleties of picking the exact Pantone shade for the inside and adding a tiny dab of extra black to modify it. Who knew there were so many different shades of golden brown? Pozkalprinters in Inowrocław, that’s for sure! T minus one was proofs, to check everything looked OK. They looked like this:

6. The finished product!

Madgermanes is out on 1 October. I really hope it reaches plenty of readers – both as a beautiful and moving book, and as a way to add wind to the sails of those former contract workers still campaigning for their back pay.