Posted on Friday, December 4, 2009
Category: Etymology, Translation
In 2009, the popular French comic strip series “Asterix,” featuring a pint-sized Gaul with super strength, celebrated its 50th anniversary – and the people responsible for the comic translation were placed in the spotlight.
With comic translations in over 100 countries, four live-action films and its own theme park near Paris, “Asterix” has become a worldwide name.
In the comic and its translations, the title character lives in ancient Gaul, battling against Roman soldiers with his best friend, Obelix. Luckily, the village druid whips up a magic potion that gives the Gauls the strength to battle multiple soldiers apiece.
But despite the international acclaim, much of the humor in the “Asterix” books are based in the French language – its wordplay, puns, and humorous dialect jokes are a staple that seem impossible in a comic translation.
So how have the comic translators brought the series to such a global audience?
The Translators Behind the Comic
Anthea Bell, who has translated every “Asterix” comic for British audiences since the first one appeared in 1969, made many of the changes English speakers associate with the beloved comic. Robert Steven Caron later made additional comic translations to localize the text for American readers.
“If you are faithful to the spirit in translation then you have to be free with the letter – fidelity to the spirit is what matters,” Bell explained in an interview to the UK’s The Guardian.
In her comic translations, Bell took great lengths to maintain the spirit of a joke or pun, rather than follow literal cues.
In one example, when Obelix dives into a pool of water to hide, Roman soldiers demand to know his whereabouts. In French, the chief responds, “Mes Gaulois sont dans la pleine” – a reference to the famous French quote “Les Gaulois sont dans la plaine” (“The Gauls are on the plain”).
Although the two sentences sound the same when spoken in French, the chief’s meaning is “My Gauls are in the full one,” referring to the men hiding in the full pool.
Because English readers aren’t familiar with the famous quote and can’t hear the similarities between the two phrases, Bell changed the chief’s response to “Pooling your resources” – making the pun on “pool” even more clear.
Bell’s comic translations are similarly inventive when Asterix and his friends from Gaul encounter English speakers. In the original strip, the creators poked fun at the British characters, who spoke French using English sentence constructions. How to suggest this in a comic translation?
Bell solved the problem by using dated “upper class” phrases like “old bean” and “what ho” to poke fun at the stereotypical “stuffiness” of her own countrymen in the same way the original comic did.
Humor in Any Language
One of the recurring jokes in the “Asterix” series is the wordplay in the characters’ names. The authors come up with Gallic and Roman-sounding names – which also have a another meaning when said out loud.
Check out how the comic translations preserve these linguistic jokes:
This original name for the puttering village elder was a play on the French phrase “âge canonique,” or “canonical age.”
Bell played on this idea of an advanced age when she came up with his new name for her comic translation, “Geriatrix.”
Said out loud, this name of the Gaul village chief sounds like the French “à bras raccourcis,” a phrase referring to someone ready to fight. In English comic translations, he is renamed him “Vitalstatistix.”
The name of a fictional Roman camp, Babaorum is a play on baba au rhum, a tasty French pastry.
British comic translations list the town as Totorum, referencing the “tot o’ rum” a Brit might request to drink. In one of the American comic translations, a similar camp is named Nohappimedium.