The Case of the Arab Henchman
While I haven’t yet met anybody whose favorite Tintin adventure is The Crab with the Golden Claws (Crab), it is certainly an important text in the scheme of Hergé’s overall story about the boy reporter.* For one, Crab is the album in which Tintin meets, is repeatedly almost killed by, and ultimately befriends the perpetually drunk Captain Haddock. In 1941, Crab was also the first story Hergé published during Belgium’s occupation by Nazi Germany in the newspaper Le Soir. But what I find most intriguing about Crab (besides its recent Simpsons cameo) is its long and sorted history of edits, some of which I will explore today. Deckhand “Jumbo” becomes markedly whiter.
Soon after World Word II, Crab and the other completed black-and-white Tintins were colored by Hergé in hopes of marketing the comics to a larger global audience (spoiler alert: it worked). During that process of colorization (where Hergé usually took the liberty to self-edit), the only thing that changed about Crab content-wise was the language in the speech bubbles. However in 1959, Hergé was asked to make revisions to the nearly twenty year old panels at the behest of American publisher Golden Press, who were looking to make The Adventures of Tintin available in the United States. Chris Owens has written a thoroughly fantastic account of Tintin’s move to (and ultimate failure in) the American market in the 1960s on Tintinologist.com in a piece titled, “Tintin Crosses The Atlantic: The Golden Press Affair.” He does a bang-up job at highlighting the specifics of the move, so instead of going into all the adjustments (“Snowy” to “Buddy,” no drinking Whiskey from the bottle, etc.) I want to focus particularly on how Hergé adjusted the race of his more problematic characters. As Owens puts it:
Before the translations [into American English] began in earnest, Hergé agreed to redraw several panels for The Crab with the Golden Claws depicting black characters. The US censors didn’t approve of mixing races in children’s books, so the artist created new frames, replacing black deckhand Jumbo with another character, possibly of Puerto-Rican origin. Elsewhere, a black character shown whipping Captain Haddock was replaced by someone of North African appearance.
Put simply, Hergé replaced his black characters with a possible “Puerto-Rican” in one instance (illustrated above) and an Arab in the other. I addressed Hergé’s sarcastic attitudes about these edits a few posts ago, but today I want to call to question specifically why he changed the mysterious and speechless henchman featured heavily in the latter pages of Crab from African to Arab.Privately, I’ve come to refer to this textual change as “The Case of the Arab Henchman” and it is a case I often refer to while trying to locate Hergé’s view on non-white people. As interviews with Hergé are scarce, often the best point of entry one has into the man’s personal beliefs are scattered throughout the pages of the comics themselves, which he truly poured himself into throughout his life. Not to overstate this, but having read both versions of Crab — one with the African Henchman and one with Arab Henchman — it is remarkable how similarly they flow. Put differently, even though he changes the race of a character featured in upwards of 12 panels, nothing feels different narrative-wise. Which forces me to ask, as usual, why?The question Hergé had to answer (probably implicitly) when requested to edit out the nameless black henchman he drew in 1921 for someone new in 1959 was “who can I change this with so that the narrative will maintain its plausibility, but without offending anyone’s sensibilities?” The answer came in the new acceptable stereotype of Arab lackey, which is precisely harmful as most stereotypes are because of its vagueness and interchangeability. To be clear, I’m not saying that this new henchman was a worse stereotype than the old one, or that the original crude depiction shouldn’t have been changed, but I am questioning how this new stereotype was acceptable in a way that the old one was no longer. And while I’m not pointing out anything you can’t find worded better in Said’s Orientalism, I still find the need to point it out pressing, especially considering the Arab henchman was re-presented without question to an Arab audience upon Tintin’s translation into Arabic: This is from an edition of Crab I was fortunate enough to find during a recent trip to the Cairo book markets. As best as I can tell from these books, Tintin was translated (legally) into Arabic all-at-once in 1979 and thereafter made available in the album format for a receptive Arab audience.** However, I should briefly note that Tintin adventures have been available in colloquial Arabic for Egyptian consumers as far back as 1956 in the pages of Cairo-based Samir Magazine (but that is a post for another time!). During the translation/transition into Arabic, it is important to note a few things were adjusted to fit better culturally among the new readership. However, while the censors of Golden Press were enough to make Hergé change a henchman from African to Arab, there clearly wasn’t enough sensibilities being upset to make the henchman change yet again. The Arab Henchman was accepted, and future generations of Arab children (including yours truly) would internalize the mustachioed man whipping their beloved Captain Haddock, hoping for Tintin to interrupt with his gun in the name of justice. Equally intriguing as I’ve reread Crab is what did get changed as Tintin learned to speak Arabic:I’ll give you a second to re-read the dialogue from the top panels. As it is available on bookshelves today (English readers, check your collection!), Captain Haddock calls the Arab Henchman a “Negro.” I was curious to see how this bad bit of editing was translated into Arabic, only to find that it wasn’t translated at all. As you can see (from right to left because that’s how Arabic works), Haddock tells the police to arrest the “man,” not the “Negro.” Therefore it appears the translator/s were aware there was a weird edit in the pages, and their solution (with Hergé’s old age no doubt a factor) was to accept the art and change the words. Elsewhere, the Arabic version of Crab contains another bit of tidy work:Above in the desert shoot off between Haddock and another unnamed Arab, two distinctive edits are made in the Arabic translation. First, instead of saying “By the beard of the Prophet!” as Hergé supposedly imagined an Arab in combat might, the reference to Prophet Mohamed is replaced with “You won’t escape.” Second, instead of keeping the nonsensical squiggly lines that Hergé used to represent a phrase in Arabic, the translator put actual Arabic text (“This will be the last shot!”). I find these two subtle edits to be a positive element of the Arabic editions of Crab. Instead of accepting Hergé’s stereotyped language decisions for an Arab character (prophet-referencing, fury squiggles) the translator took it upon herself to create language based slightly closer to reality. While these edits don’t produce the same culturally-balanced product as Hergé’s famous collaboration with Zhang Chongren in The Blue Lotus, they do help the work take a small step away from being based solely on Hergé’s mind-forged manacles. The translators clearly made a conscious effort in the small wiggle room they had access to, but when faced with a speechless character like “The Arab Henchman,” it seems an eraser is the only way to effectively curb a misguided stereotype.
*To put this in context, I even met someone who named Soviets as their favorite album.
**See my brief overview of how these editions look, including alternate pages in color and black-and-white here.