Finally a post on one of the inspirations for my blog name. What follows is an article by Anthea Bell.Anthea Bell has translated all 30 Asterix books with her colleague, Derek Hockridge.
With Asterix now a record-breaking French movie, Anthea Bell, translator of the classic comic-strip books, reveals the trick to turning the famous Gallic puns into English jokes
A STRIP cartoon? Aren’t they strictly for children? That was my reaction when I first saw one of the early Asterix and Obelix books years ago in a friend’s house. I picked it up out of curiosity – and I began to read, then I began to laugh as the brilliantly detailed artwork and convoluted ingenuity of the French text sank in.
Soon I was captivated by ancient Gaul, by the stories of Asterix and his friends consistently outmanoeuvring Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire, thanks to native cunning and a druid’s magic potion.
Now Asterix the Gaul is on the big screen in France. Not as an animated film, but with human actors: Gérard Depardieu plays the hero’s hefty-but-dim sidekick Obelix. It seems the film is breaking records in France, and I for one am delighted, after years of helping to convert Asterix into English.
But translating the text had once seemed to UK publishers an impossible task. The humour was so French; surely it would never cross the Channel? The original adventures first appeared in book form in 1961, jointly produced by René Goscinny (text) and Albert Uderzo (drawings). It was not until 1969 that, at last, an English publisher bravely dipped a toe into the icy waters of the Mare Britannicum, and I was co-opted as a translator.
Just what can explain the subsequent popularity of the Asterix series in translation – 30 books published to date, and many millions sold? First, it has one of the greatest storylines of all time: I think of Asterix as a comic version of wily Odysseus. He even does a fair amount of travelling, touring the known world of the time, and the unknown world, too: after a trip to America the Gauls remain convinced that it is one of the Roman colonies, perhaps Crete or Thrace.
And I would call the comedy not solely French, but European. French children’s history books traditionally open with a tribute to nos anctres les Gaulois. Sellar and Yeatman’s book 1066 and All That and the television series Up Pompeii and Blackadder are in the same tradition: all of us in Europe enjoy making anachronistic fun of the past. Well, western Europe, anyway: as an eminent Slavonic scholar said to me recently, it is inconceivable to think of the Russians showing this kind of affectionate disrespect for their history and culture.
And third, the Asterix strip cartoons are crammed with jokes. For we Brits, again like the French, enjoy the dreadful puns in which the Asterix stories abound. But if you translate a pun straight, it is no longer a pun. You have the situation, you have the facial expressions of the characters and the size of the speech bubble, and you must devise a new pun to fit.
In the French original of Asterix at the Olympic Games, athletes from all over Greece enter the arena in procession, and the arrival of the team from the island of Melos – or, more commonly, “Milo” – is announced with the words “Ceux de Milo sont venus aussi”. This neat play on the Venus of Milo doesn’t work in translation. So in English, the words become: “Some of the competitors from Attica are mysteriously eleusive” – refering to the ancient Greek mysteries of Eleusis.
There are jokes for all ages in the original French, and I hope the translations provide the same mixture. Some jokes are simple, aimed at eight-year-olds. In the latest book, Asterix and Obelix all at Sea, it was at last possible to work in that hoary old gag “The galley slaves are revolting,” so that an irate Caesar could tell the trembling admiral who imparts this news, “And so are you.”
Some run to extended literary references, for older children and adults. In Le Cadeau de César there is a whole page where Asterix, defending the local innkeeper, slips into the character of Cyrano de Bergerac as he fights a duel with a Roman while composing a ballade. Quotations from Rostand, Cyrano’s creator, come thick and fast.
The translation replaces them with probably the most famous sword fight in English literature, Hamlet and Laertes, and suitable Shakespearian quotations: the innkeeper’s wife begins by advising her husband, “Act with disdain!”, whereupon the belligerent Roman can point out, accurately, “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane,” thus launching the literary sequence.
Lateral thinking is required. My brother Martin recently mentioned in these pages that our late father was the first compiler of The Times crossword puzzle. He used to try out clues on the family at breakfast. (“Die of cold?” The answer is an “ice cube”.) The lateral thinking of the cryptic crossword clue is not far removed from the translation of wordplay.
For Asterix, references have to be dredged up from elsewhere. There are the names in the French originals, about 400 in all, and only a very few, like Julius Caesar and Vercingetorix, are genuine. The rest are French compound phrases ending -ix for Gauls, -us for Romans, -os for Greeks and so forth, and they need rethinking in English. Asterix and Obelix, luckily, are no problem. But their chieftain Abraracourcix (literally, “with arms shortened”, as in “ready to pitch in”) is Vitalstatistix in English because of his girth.
Obelix’s dog, Idéfix, turns into Dogmatix. A couple of minor Roman legionaries become Sendervictorius and Appianglorius. In the most recent book the French name of the high priest of Atlantis is Hyapados ( from “il n’y pas d’os”, or “there’s no snag”). In English he becomes Absolutlifabulos; even if the famous television series fades from memory, the name should still fit, since Atlantis really is a place of fable.
Then there are the songs: like those of the French originals, they have to be both recognisable and capable of anachronistic distortion. Hence such lyrics as “I’m dreaming of a white Solstice,” and “Wonderful, wonderful Durovernum.” Believe it or not, people write dissertations on this kind of thing: one German student complained to me that she had consulted English songbooks, but could not find any of them.
And there are the national stereotypes, with their funny foreign accents. I suppose the comic-strip cartoon is about the only genre that can still make harmless use of politically incorrect, xenophobic attitudes. On the whole, we in these islands share the French view of such stock figures as the obsessively tidy Swiss and the proud Spaniard – but what about those phlegmatic characters, our own ancestors, the ancient Britons?
In Astérix chez les Bretons, they speak French with a truly dreadful English accent. This was a huge problem in translation. We visited the genial René Goscinny, whose own English was excellent, to discuss the proposed solution: a stilted English style, the language of the upper-class twit as encountered in the pages of P. G. Wodehouse. “I say, jolly good, eh, what?” “What ho, old bean!” “Hullo, old fruit.” At this last, Goscinny’s eye lit up. “Ah! I wish I’d thought of that one. Vieux fruit,” he murmured. It is a pleasing memory to cherish after his sadly early death. (Subsequently his partner Uderzo continued both writing and drawing the series in the same vein, consistently paying tribute, in text and pictures alike, to the enduring contribution of his friend’s inspiration.)
Goscinny kept a close eye on his translations, and rejected the first German version for being too nationalistic. Since Goscinny’s death, all translations published are still rigorously scrutinised at the French end of the operation, and the freedoms we translators take must be approved. Luckily it is appreciated that, in this case, it is far more important to observe the spirit than the letter of the originals.
And the spirit of Asterixian humour is kindly at heart – another reason why it goes down well in the English-speaking world. The Caesar of Goscinny and Uderzo, constantly thwarted by incompetent subordinates as well as the druid’s magic potion, ends up on terms of quite friendly enmity with the Gauls.
Actually I used to feel rather guilty about my Asterix-induced inability to take this great historical figure seriously – until I came upon that passage in Book VI of De Bello Gallico where, sketching in the local colour, Caesar describes the way the ancient Germanic tribes caught elk. Since elk, says Caesar, have no joints in their legs, they sleep standing up, leaning against trees. You only have to locate their favourite trees, saw them almost all the way through but not quite, arrange them to look natural and wait for the elk to feel drowsy. Down go the trees, down go the now helpless elk, and dinner is served.
It makes me feel far less guilty about the real Caesar to find that he was gullible enough to fall for such a tall tale – or as the French phrase goes, “une histoire à dormir debout”.
Here’s the link to the original article: