I came across a nice little interview with Anthea Bell, who along with Derek Hockridge translated the great Asterix books I grew up with (she translates the latest ones on her own, but I stopped reading them after Goscinny died).
I’ve always been fascinated by the extent to which the books ‘changed’ in the translation, because I remember reading them in French for school and not finding them nearly as amusing. I’m sure they are to native French readers, but the wordplay in the English translations was spectacular. Bell talks a a good deal about this in the interview:
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.
I love that idea of a ‘lovely Englishwoman in Paris’ who checks the cultural allusions. The whole process seems incredibly civilised and rather lovely. Which is what you’d expect from a project that produces characters with smiles like these: