Where else would you start with a canter through children’s literature in translation?! The Adventures of Asterix by Goscinny and Uderzo recently celebrated their 50th anniversary and are still going strong. Asterix, Obelix and the rest of the village of indomitable Gauls have been thumping the Romans since their first publication in France in 1959. While it was ten years before Asterix the Gaul appeared in English, they have had the same English translator ever since. Taking a somewhat loose approach to historical fact, and playing on all kinds of national myths and stereotypes (Asterix in Britain is instructive in how the French see us…), they have travelled the world, meeting such figures as Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, and spreading mayhem and merriment in their wake.
The series was certainly one of my first conscious encounters with books in translation and it must have been the same for countless other children around the world. The Official Asterix Translation Exchange reckons that the books have now been translated into 107 languages and dialects, while their current UK publishers, Orion, put it at 111:
“Asterix is the world’s highest-selling book series, and has sold over 350 million copies worldwide.” Source: http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/promotions/asterix
Reading Asterix in English was also, although I didn’t know it at the time, my first encounter with the great Anthea Bell OBE. Working with Derek Hockridge for many years, and then on her own, she created the names and jokes that were a big part of my childhood, even if a lot of them went over my head. They have produced elegant solutions to the problems of translating humour, topical references, visual gags and puns, many of which have literally become textbook examples, and in this interview she explains some of the processes involved and how it all got started in the first place.
Asterix was also one of the first real books I read in French – school text books don’t count. The familiarity made it a good starting point and the pictures provide plenty of clues to help with the meaning. Lacking an understanding of the topical references and so on – I only discovered from reading Anthea Bell’s interview, for example, that the Roman official Preposterous in Obelix and Company is based on a young Jacques Chirac – I was convinced that the books just aren’t very funny in French. This misconception certainly increased my respect for the translators and their punning.
So let’s raise a gourd of magic potion to Asterix and Anthea Bell, and a real tour de force of translation!