Manolito Gafotas and the importance of illustrations

Manolito Gafotas is one of those books I remember reading when I was growing up. Created by the Spanish writer Elvira Lindo, Manolito is an iconic character that everybody in Spain knows very well, probably even these days.

The humorous style in which the books of his series are written and the fact that they depict the daily life of a working class family assured its success. Whether you have read the books (or watched the movies) or not, if you are Spanish I am sure that just by seeing the illustration of Manolito you could immeditaly recognise him.

That’s why I was puzzled when I came to Poland and found that the Polish version of Manolito Gafotas, which has been translated as Mateuszek (first hint that something terrible is about to happen…), looks nothing like the original.

Now, the problem with this is that Manolito is a very well-known character in Spain and the illustrator of the book is Emilio Urberuaga, who is considered to be “Manolito’s father”, and winner of the National Illustration Award in 2011 (for his general artwork, but an important part of it is Manolito’s illustrations).

This is how the original characters look like:


And this is how the Polish characters are illustrated:


You can tell the differences between these two illustrations, not only from an artistic perspective (obviously the drawings in the Polish version are more detailed), but also from a cultural point of view. The Polish characters look very Polish. The illustrator of the Polish edition is Julian Bohdanowicz, a very famous Polish artist who has also won many illustration awards like his Spanish counterpart and is well-known for his caricatures.

This is a clear case of domestication and it’s very interesting to see it manifested in a medium that is not written, but visual. What this means in this particular translation is that the publishers decided to translate the book in a way that would be closer to the target readers (the Polish children – or Polish readers in general), so that they would feel like this is a book that was originally set in Poland. However, that would “make sense” if the text would support this translation strategy. But as I will show you in a study that I’m working on about the translation of cultural references in the Polish version of Manolito Gafotas, that’s not 100% the case.

We could talk endlessly about the differences between both versions, starting by the name choice: Mateusz is a usual name choice for a kid (the ending in -ek denoting affection in Polish, as the ending -ito does in Spanish); the Polish version has not maintained the “Gafotas” (“four eyes” or “big glasses”) reference in the title, etc. But today I just want to focus on the power of illustrations.

If we take the example of other editions in different countries we find that the Spanish illustrations have been maintained in the English, Finnish or Italian versions:


Interestingly enough, the Russian and Bulgarian editions are way different than the original because they chose a different illustrator:


Although the Russian illustrations are different from the original, the resemblance is evident. I don’t have words to describe the Bulgarian version, though. It’s quite… disturbing.

In the end, it all depends on the publishing house and their choice based on what they believe will have a better impact on their readers but, from a cultural point of view, changing the illustrations of the original text can eliminate a cultural reference that is vital to understand the book. My point is, if you want to change the cultural references in a book to make it more “convenient” or “understandable” for the target readers of a different country, why not just find a nice local author who will give you exactly that? Why the need to domesticate a character that is specifically Spanish so that the Polish readers will feel like it’s a Polish character?

I firmly believe that those changes only contribute to the general knowledge ignorance of the new beginner readers and that is – honestly – everybody’s fault.

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