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Making Asterix funny in English

Anthea Bell has been translating Asterix for 40 years. She talks to Oliver Rowland about what's involved

MOST readers will have heard of Goscinny and Uderzo, the French writer and illustrator team whose Asterix books have sold 325 million copies. However, Asterix would not be a household name in English-speaking countries without the skills of translator Anthea Bell who (previously with Derek Hockridge, recently on her own) has made the adventures of the Gauls fresh and fun to generations of English-speakers. Oliver Rowland spoke to Ms Bell, 73, from Cambridge, about her work, including translating the new album Asterix and Obelix’s Birthday - The Golden Book (Orion Books Ltd) which marks the character’s 50th anniversary.

It is said you get your lateral-thinking from your father, who compiled The Times crossword?

Yes, he was approached by the editor of The Times with a problem - The Daily Telegraph had started this new-fangled craze from America and The Times needed to keep up. [Bell’s brother is former BBC correspondent and MP Martin Bell.]

Did you study modern languages?

I did English - languages would have been my alternative. I had no idea I would turn out to be a translator. I just went on reading and reading French and German books, which I would have done anyway; but having a good grasp of English is very important for a translator, especially with something like Asterix, where you’ve got to play tricks with words. These days people set out to be a translator but it happened accidentally to a lot of people in my time.

You work in French and German

Yes, though I have read on the internet I have Polish as well - it’s not true, I translated Wladyslaw Szpilman’s The Pianist [made into a film by Roman Polanski] from the German version, because that is what the author, who was still alive, wanted. In no other circumstances do you translate from a translation.

You are also known for your translations of Goscinny’s characters [scheming grand vizier] Iznogoud, and [schoolboy] le Petit Nicolas

Le Petit Nicolas has just been revived, very successfully, by Phaidon Press. To my surprise it has gone down very well in the USA as well. You think of him as being so typical of his time and place, but he seems to inhabit that kind of no-man’s land where the English Just William stories live. It still seems to amuse people.

Goscinny’s work with Jean-Jaques Sempé was his other great partnership. Sempé’s drawings were so brilliant for that world of little boys scuffling about below adult waist level.

How did you and Derek Hockridge get involved with Asterix?

Our families lived in Leicester and had children at the same school. Finally, a decade after the first publication [in 1959] in France of the stories, at last a British publisher decided to have a go - Brockhampton Press, the children’s side of Hodder, who were in Leicester. They thought two people working on it would be a good idea. Derek was a French lecturer at a local college and was the expert on the topical references - in the earlier books there were a lot of topical allusions - and I was the main translator. I had already done several children’s books for the publisher.

Are the topical allusions a problem as the years go by?

Well yes - for instance in one book there is a character based on Jacques Chirac, much younger than he is now (see Naming Names box). It’s a tall order to expect young English readers to recognise him; but it doesn’t really matter because Goscinny’s writing is so witty.

Why did it take the English so long to cotton on to Asterix?

People thought “it’s too French and it’s impossible to translate.” In fact experience has shown Asterix travels easily all over Europe. He is very popular in Germany and the Netherlands and Scandinavia. The USA has a different sense of humour. My American friends say they love Asterix and their children read him, but they are people in publishing and academia; he doesn’t seem to hit the funny bone of the general public. To generalise wildly, the Americans don’t understand irony as much as we do. Also a big joke for Europeans is making fun of our own history and the Americans just don’t have as much of it. That’s why “our ancestors the Gauls” are even funny in Britain, where we don’t know this famous French phrase. We have our equivalents, like “1066 and All That.”

Did you know Asterix before you were asked to translate it?

I had seen an album. I thought, “well, the strip cartoon is not really my favourite form of literature,” but when I opened it I saw how witty it was and how brilliant the drawing.

How was the translation and publishing order decided?

The first was Astérix the Gaul, as it was in France, then the order was mixed up [until the end of the 1970s when the English versions caught up with the new French ones]. In that one the puns and allusions are not as thick on the ground as they became later. Some of the early French ones presented some problems, like the Le Tour de Gaule d'Astérix [Asterix and the Banquet] with lots of regional accents. It seemed essential to do Asterix in Britain early on, though that was the most difficult of all because of the terrible British accents with which the ancient Britons speak French. It has gone down very well in Britain.

Goscinny spoke good English - which comes through in the funny English-style expressions the characters use

He spoke excellent English. While he was alive he was the one who gave the go-ahead to all of the translations and I visited him in Paris to discuss what to do about the British accents.
I am not completely happy with it, but the only solution seemed to be to adopt a dated style of vocabulary such as you might find in the novels of PG Wodehouse, set in the early 20th Century. It couldn’t be as good as the French, but Goscinny approved of it. I had them say a lot of “I say old chap, jolly good, what ho! Old fruit...” he laughed at “old fruit” and said he wished he’d thought of that - “vieux fruit.” The book laughs at the idea that the Britons knock off battles at 5pm for a cup of tea, things like that. I think the rugger match is a brilliant scene.

One thing about Asterix that is similar to English humourous writing is that it tends to be kindly. You see the Romans bashed about, but there’s no bloodshed.

How long would it take you and Derek to do a typical album?

There is no answer to that. The jokes would sometimes come overnight. You puzzle away thinking of references and allusions - and you’ve got to fit the length of the speech bubbles and it must fit the expressions on the characters’ faces and if there is a pun or an extended passage of wordplay it’s no good doing it literally because then it’s not funny anymore.

Some of the later ones by Goscinny have long passages of extended literary allusions. In Le Cadeau de César [Caesar’s Gift] Asterix duels with a Roman soldier and he does it in the character of Cyrano de Bergerac, it’s wonderful, it goes on for almost a page. I sat looking at that and thought “the most famous swordfight in English literature is probably Hamlet and Laertes,” and the whole thing was done with quotations from Hamlet in the end.

When you make a change because the British won’t understand a cultural allusion, are the French publishers OK with it?

Yes, we don’t do anything without permission from the French. Uderzo only speaks French, so he has the books checked by a lovely Englishwoman who lives in Paris. Her mind and mine work very much alike.

What happens when you are going to do a new translation - do you get a script?

In the latter ones, it’s been a script or lately a CD, labelled “confidential.”

Translating the character names must have been a challenge

Yes - there are 400 of them now. The druid Panoramix could have been kept as Panoramix in English, but the name Getafix presented itself as if on a plate. Some people say they are shocked, but I have a perfectly good explanation, which is that there is a theory that the ancient peoples used standing stones as an astronomical observatory to “get a fix” on the stars. In a way I regretted losing the dog’s name Idéfix [idée fixe - an obsession], which could have been understood in some circles in England, but not universally and there again Dogmatix presented itself on a plate. There are many English words ending in “ous” and those come in handy for the Romans - we had two soldiers called Sendervictorius and Appianglorius.

It was sad Goscinny died so young - what was he like?

It was tragic. He was a good friend and delightful company.

What happened after that?

Uderzo wondered about whether or not to import a writer and decided against it. Before they got together both he and Goscinny had both written and drawn their own bandes-dessinées [cartoons]. I have seen one of Goscinny's and the drawings were only just adequate, they were little pin-men figures, but Uderzo is a brilliant draftsman and he decided he would go on.

He more or less observed the pattern of “home and away matches,” in which the Gauls would outwit Caesar and his legions at home or they go abroad.

The first one on his own [The Great Divide] is about a couple called Fanzine and Comix, which are both names of English origin, but we had settled on calling all the women names ending in “a” - so we called Fanzine Melodrama and her lover is Histrionix. I felt a bit apologetic to Fanzine, who is bright as well as beautiful and I cite her if people say that Asterix is sexist.

Which bits did you enjoy working on in the new one?

It was nice to come across a section about travelling in France which Goscinny had written. It was great fun that again one was translating something dating back to him; and there were lovely parodies of great works of art towards the end.

Do you know if Uderzo, 82, plans to do any more?

I don’t know - he has agreed with Hachette that Asterix can continue with other people after him.

Do you feel any qualms about that?

Yes, but it’s not my business.

Will you carry on?

It depends on a lot of incalculables.

The books have been very successful - do you get any royalties, or a set fee?

Not now, at the start I got a small translator's royalty.

But it must be good to be involved in something so well loved

Yes, my sons grew up with the books and now my granddaughters are enjoying them. Really, the enmity between Caesar and the Gauls is a friendly one - they are almost old mates by the end.

-- Asterix in Britain will be the fourth Asterix film. Laurent Tirard, who directed Le Petit Nicolas, has been given the go-ahead by Editions Albert-René. The filming and release dates are unknown. A change of cast is expected, as Clovis Cornillac and Gérard Dépardieu signed exclusivity deals with the producer of Asterix at the Olympic Games, according to Le Parisien.

Naming names

ASTERIX and Obelix, needed no changing in English as the meanings (asterisk and obelisk) are the same as in French. When it came to the 400-strong supporting cast, however, Anthea Bell had carte blanche. In Obelix and Company, Saugrenus (saugrenu, ludicrous) means nothing to an English-speaker, so instead he became Preposterus. The character, a Roman official who tries to corrupt Asterix's village by making the inhabitants compete for money and status, is based on a young Jacques Chirac, prime minister at the time.

A youngster in Asterix the Gladiator, Keskonrix (qu’est-ce qu’on rit - we’re really having fun), became Picanmix. Some other name pairings include: the (talentless) bard Assurancetourix (assurance tous risques, fully-comprehensive insurance), becomes Cacafonix, British leader Zebigbos becomes Mykingdomforanos and Agecanonix (âge canonique - venerable age) becomes Geriatrix.

All the Gauls have names ending in -ix, in homage to the Gaulish leader Vercingetorix (in reality the suffix - rix was for a king).

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