TRANSLATION Asterix and Obelix

If you know anything at all about children's book translation, you'll have heard of Anthea Bell, translator of Asterix. Julie Sullivan is in awe...
All my professional life, I have felt that translators are in the business of spinning an illusion – the illusion is that the reader is reading not a translation but the real thing.
—Anthea Bell (1936–2018)

You may not have heard of Anthea Bell, but you have probably read, or at least seen, her books. Her career spanned more than 50 years, and included translations of Le Petit Nicolas, Inkheart and its sequels, stories by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Hans Christian Andersen, and Otfried Preussler, besides the grown-up books she translated, like the much-acclaimed translation Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, and works by Freud, Kafka and Stefan Zweig, among many others.

Her most famous translations, though, are unquestionably the dozens of volumes of Asterix she set into English (with Derek Hockridge, a lecturer in French and later actor, who would understand the French cultural references Bell might have missed).

Anthea Bell was born in 1936 in a literary, word-loving family; her father and brother were both journalists—as is her son Oliver Kamm. Her father also created crossword puzzles for the Times, and would test the clues out on his children; she later said this taught her 'lateral thinking'. As a girl, Anthea learned French, German and Latin in school, before taking a degree in English at Oxford; this classical training stood her in good stead for translating a series that, although comic, tried to get its basic history and literature right. Her first translation was almost an accident, when a publisher needed a translator for a children's book. She did not stop for many years. Her translations earned her an OBE in 2010.

Goscinny (left) and Uderzo were the closest friends from the time they met till Goscinny's early death, in 1977. Uderzo died in March of this year.
The creators of Asterix were not as French as you might think. The writer, René Goscinny, though born in Paris, was from a Polish/Ukrainian Jewish background and grew up mostly in Argentina, where he went to French schools; at 19 he moved to New York City, and only returned to Paris permanently when he was 25. The illustrator, Alberto Uderzo, was from an Italian immigrant family in France and did not become a French citizen till he was seven. Both of them knew what it was to be treated as outsiders. Despite this, it must be said that the books often use gross racial stereotypes. 

The original French names of the villagers, and where they live
Many readers have seen, in the indomitable Gauls resisting the Romans, a hint of resistance to empires in general, and the Nazi occupation of France in particular. The character of Asterix was started from the friends' conviction that French children needed their own comics, not just the US ones that were inundating the market. They went back through the history of France to find emblematic times, rejecting cave men (the Americans had already done it) and picking up on the famous words of an old French children's history text: 'Nos ancêtres les Gaulois...' or 'our ancestors the Gauls'—which, as generations of historians have pointed out, was not a correct generalization about the French nation even 200 years ago. The names of the two heroes come from two printers' marks, the astérisque * and the obèle (obelus in English— )—Goscinny's family had owned a printing company.
Translations into Thai, Welsh, Chinese and Gaelic
The Asterix books have sold more than 380 million copies in 111 languages, including Hebrew, Welsh, Breton, Cornish, Corsican, Irish and Scots Gaelic, Urdu, Réunion Creole, Esperanto and Latin. More than 100 scholarly articles and university theses (as well as a parody of one, which you can read herehave been dedicated to the books and Bell's translations, which are widely considered a masterpiece. 

Like most Americans, I did not know about Asterix as a child. Anthea Bell's translations, although masterly, are very British and the mainstream US audience perhaps, Bell once suggested, lacked the "irony" needed to appreciate them. I learned about the books living in France when my children were small. They learned to read with Asterix. To my surprise, I loved these cartoons almost as much as they did. 

Original map
Anthea Bell's translation of the map
Asterix and his plump companion Obelix come from a village in "Armorica" (Brittany) that continues to resist Caesar after the Roman Conquest of Gaul. The local druid brews a magic potion that makes the village warriors invincible, and fighting Romans is their favourite sport. The two friends also travel the classical Roman world, visiting, among others, the Northmen, Britain, Spain, the New World, Germany, Switzerland, Greece, Egypt, India, Persia, and of course Rome, as well as the other parts of France—Corsica, Brittany, and the foreign destination of Paris (Lutetia), making fun of all of them mercilessly. 

Asterix, in French, is full of allusions and jokes that reach well over children's heads to amuse adults as well. The cartoons abound in allusions to movies, paintings, political figures, celebrities, popular songs and expressions, literature and other cultural references. Among the faces you might recognize among the characters are Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kirk Douglas, Jacques Chirac, the Beatles, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemon, Peter Ustinov, Sean Connery, and Laurel and Hardy.

Some of the jokes Anthea Bell worked into her translations. The American version will translate all the Latin in footnotes, as few US readers have studied Latin. Fluctuat nec mergitur is the city motto of Paris ('It floats up and down but never sinks')

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop with her years ago, and a couple of years later, I also saw a presentation she gave in Cambridge on her work on Asterix, in which she described the wordplay and many puns that went into those stunningly clever translations. Translating the punny names of 325 characters was one of the biggest challenges. Almost all the names in French are jokes, with the Gauls mostly having names that end in -ix (like the genuine Gaulish leader Vercingetorix) and the Romans -us or -ius. Bell kept these endings with names like Crismus Bonus, the Roman centurion, or Vitalstatistix, the village chief. The dog Idéfix (idée fixe) became Dogmatix. Jokes that French adults would easily see were changed to jokes that English-speaking grownups might enjoy. To translate these wordplay-filled books so that children still think they're funny, but adults enjoy them too, was a remarkable feat, accomplished with great flair by Bell. 

Asterix makes his first appearance in the new magazine Pilote, 1959
An experienced American translator, Joe Johnson, is now translating them into US English with appropriate changes. He has kept most of Anthea Bell's beloved names for the characters, but says he has not read any of Bell's translations to avoid being influenced. He also says he may not read the is hard to compete with a legend.


Julie Sullivan has translated two children's books and feels nothing but awe before Anthea Bell's achievements.

Picture credits

Logo: Jess Stockham

Anthea Bell in 2015, receiving a high award in Germany: Wikipedia

Asterix jokes in translation: Factor Daily, "Anthea Bell – Illusionist par excellence and PUNdit extraordinaire," by Gautham Shenoy

Cover of Pilote: from The Comics Journal's obituary of Uderzo by Cynthia Rose, 27 March 2020

1 comment:

  1. I adored the Asterix books (still do) and had no idea until I was almost an adult that they were originally written in French - so the illusion worked on me.


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