Photo comic creator Ype Driessen: “Dutch speakers have a lot of opinions about English-that-sounds-Dutch.”

I’m a big fan of Dutch comic artist Ype Driessen. I find his work funny, relatable and intelligent. When I read that his photo comic novel “Het Nadeel van de Twijfel” had been put onto the US and UK market in an English translation, I immediately asked him for an interview!

Ype Driessen – the only autobiographical photo comic creator in the world

If you live in the Netherlands, you probably know Ype Driessen’s work, even if you do not know his name. His photo comics appear in Het Parool, Onze Taal, New Scientist and DUB. You can also read them on Ype’s own website

Congratulations on the English translation of your novel! How did you make it happen?

I wrote lots of publishers from all over the world. English-speaking ones, but also Finnish and Italian ones. Street Noise Books, from the USA, got back to me straight away.

Street Noise Books publishes lots of graphic memoirs, and has a big heart for minority representation. They fit me like a glove, I couldn’t be happier with how it has worked out.

What was the process for getting an English translation?

When my novel was being translated into French by my French publisher, the translator (who speaks English and Dutch) asked for an English version as an extra resource. I could have sent her a basic translation, but because I was already planning on pitching the novel to English publishers I decided to use the opportunity to make a “proper” English translation.

I asked friend and translator Lenny Kouwenberg, who has also translated some of Marten Toonder’s Tom Puss comics. She made the first English version, and then I went over it and spiced it up a bit. After that, I asked an American friend to read it, and also showed it to some Dutch friends. The Dutch speakers were much more critical than the native speakers!

In my view, Dutch speakers have a lot of opinions about English-that-sounds-Dutch, and they tend to take that much too far. My Dutch proofreaders had long lists of corrections (often contradicting each other!), whereas my American friend just had one or two remarks. 

In the end, I decided to ignore a lot of the Dutch people’s feedback. And it seems I was right, because when I asked my American publisher Street Noise Books if they needed a new translation, their response was “no, it’s fine, we love it”. 

I notice the novel has a different title and cover in English, how come?

I originally pitched the book with a more literal translation of the Dutch title “Het Nadeel van de Twijfel”. There isn’t really a good opposite of “the benefit of the doubt” in English, but I had landed on “the downside of the doubt”. I wasn’t totally satisfied with that translation, though. 

Liz from Street Noise Books suggested an alternative title: “The last gay man on Earth”. I was taken with it immediately. I like the way the new title puts the homosexual themes of the book front and centre, as opposed to the Dutch book, which covers them up a bit. 

The new cover image is decidedly sexier than the Dutch one, was that on purpose?

Haha, it’s a thirst trap! But seriously, with a new title it made sense to choose a new cover image, and there was one picture in the novel that was just right. 

Dutch cover
English cover

What’s your relationship with English?

We speak a lot of English in our friendship group because of our American friend Joe.

It used to be a little awkward; I would be speaking in English and thinking in Dutch. But by now we’ve all got used to it, and when he leaves the room we’ll just continue speaking in English.

If there was one language I wanted to translate the novel into, it was English, simply because so many people speak it. I like having a version of my novel that is accessible to many people. But, as I said previously, I also pitched my novel to Finnish and Italian publishers. The more languages, the better, really!

Ype’s regular photo comic sometimes features his American friend Joe. (Zoom in to read the comic.)

Is there a difference between translating a comic and translating a regular novel?

Yes, the lettering! When making comics, you need to think carefully about how you place the words in the speech balloons. I always do my lettering myself, also for any other languages, because I like to stay in control. 

Speech balloons make it very noticeable that languages differ in length. French is much longer than Dutch, and English is shorter, meaning the speech balloons are bigger in the French translation, and smaller in the English one. Yay for English, because with smaller text balloons, you get to see more of the image. There might one day be a German version, too. I foresee very big balloons for that one…

Another difference was that in French, I was not allowed to split up sentences in certain ways. In English, nobody cared!

Was there any word or phrase that had a translation that stood out to you?

Yes! At some point, an over-dramatic character proclaims “houd me vast met twee paarden!” I’m not even sure if that’s correct Dutch, a friend of mine from Zeeland always used to say it. My translator Lenny chose the translation “f*ck me sideways” which I thought was just hilarious.

People sometimes tell me my humour is typically Dutch. They think it won’t work in other countries. I don’t agree. Humour is more universal than people think. There might be small differences, like the French like slapstick more than we do. But that doesn’t mean Dutch humour just doesn’t translate.

Your novel does not have many Dutch cultural references. Did you make it universally understandable on purpose?

No. I guess that’s just the way I write. It did make the translation that much easier.

There was a tricky bit, though. In the middle of the novel I explain the history of photo comics in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, photo comics were never a thing in America. In the Dutch version, I reference “bouquet-reeksromans” to explain the typical photo comics from the 70s.  In the end, I translated this with the term “romance novels”. We just translated the concepts as best we could.

Your name is Ype, and there are a few other Dutch and Frysian names like Ymke, Fedde and Willemijn in the novel. Did you change these for the English version?

Do you know what, I’m not sure. [Checks book.] No, we’ve left them all as they were. The American publisher was fine with our Dutch names.

It’s not a strange question, though. My first few comic books were called “Ype en Willem”. In French the title was changed to “Yves et Guillaume”.

Ype + Willem, Twee onder één kap: Ype’s third comic book, from 2011
translated into French as “Yves + Guillaume dans Homme Sweet Homme” in 2013

The English version has been on sale in America and the UK for a week now*, how is it going?

I have no idea about sales figures, and I’m curious myself to see how it will play out. 

In the Netherlands I have made a bit of a name for myself, and the novel did quite well. In France there is a bit more of a photo comic tradition, and the genre has been gaining in popularity in the past few years, largely because publisher flblb, which also publishes my books, has been heavily promoting the genre. 

But for the English-speaking world this format, a novel-length photo comic, is unique. That can be an advantage, because it stands out, but also a disadvantage, because people can’t place it. I really don’t know which way it will go.

(*This interview was conducted on 13 June 2023)

What about the reviews?

The two public reviews that have come out about the English version by now are both very positive. One of them even analysed my novel. I got the feeling they understood it better than I did. I thought “Oh, so that was what I wanted to say with my book!” [laughs]

Click or swipe through the gallery to see two Dutch pages and their English translations

Zoom in to read the text

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(Some more English content from the novel here. Some pages from the French version can be viewed here.)

Buy the book

To buy Ype Driessen’s work in Dutch or French, including photo comic novel Het Nadeel van de Twijfel, visit Ype’s webshop here.

To buy The Last Gay Man on Earth, go here if you live in the US, or here to pre-order it on Amazon UK. 

Heddwen Newton is an English teacher and a translator from Dutch into English. She thinks about languages way too much, for example about how strange it is that these little blurb things are written in the third person.

Heddwen has two children, two passports, two smartphones, two arms, two legs, and two email newsletters.

English and the Dutch examines all the ways Dutch speakers interact with the English language. It has more than 800 subscribers and is growing every day. Sign up here.

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