Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The French Connection

I came to Asterix rather late in life – at about 15. (Amit’s on a shoot, so can’t get the dates for him!) For a year or so after that, all I did was look for more titles and read them with an appetite that only burgeoned as it was fed. I felt then that I’d found Asterix too late in life, having wasted so many good, Asterix-savouring years!

But perhaps it was just as well. I was old enough to sense the genius, to relish the amazing illustrations and to savour the puns. I was also old enough not to let the story distract me from the various strains of pure genius in the books – the art, the story-telling, and the translation.

I love the series because it’s irreverent (none of Tintin’s right-wing politics here) and intelligent (what a range of puns!). It has a lovely sense of being anti-establishment. But what really makes it tick in English is the brilliant translation. I read a French Asterix some years back and I know now what most readers sense – that creating the English versions must have been almost like writing the stories from scratch! Puns have been reinvented, and names have been changed, adding a whole new dimension to the characters.

Like the chief’s name in the original is ‘Abraracourcix’, which I read somewhere means with your fists at the ready, sort of cocked for a fight. Now that changes to ‘Vitalstatistix’ in English, setting off a whole paradigm change. To us the chief is an important man, but one who is also being ribbed for his girth – his statistics. His willingness to fight isn’t foregrounded here, though we do know that he is brave. To our minds, he is, above all, a fat, important guy! The gentle ridicule starts off here.

I love all of them but my favourites are:

Asterix and the Normans (especially that scene when Justforkix looks up and sees all these horrifying, blue-eyed Vikings staring down);
I love Obelix and Co. (unforgettable slimy management-type, with his lovely pidgin and his full-on, MBA-style condescension);
Mansions of the Gods is my fantasy-favourite – imagine a whole tract of forest being cleared for a gated township, and then being reforested magically overnight – sigh;
The Soothsayer I adore for its brilliantly cinematic illustrations – especially stunning is the scene where the soothsayer enters dramatically with thunderclaps in the background;
Another all-time hit is Corsica. I love it for its thrilling Mafiosi moments and the hilarious machismo of the men;
Britain, Switzerland and Cauldron are also well-loved because of the gorgeous layering of the text and the artwork (the ghastly, P G Wodehousian Brits, the sweet but obsessive Swedes, and the wily Chief Whosemoralsarelastix in the Cauldron!).
Cleopatrafor her nose, and Squareonthehypoteneuse, the architect!

René Goscinny died early, at 51. That must have left Uderzo, his comrade-in-arms, with so much artistic energy, but no one to ideate with. So he’s been writing and drawing the books of late, and I must say – regretfully – that there’s a serious drop in the inventiveness of the stories. Which is an unbearably sad tribute to a brilliant writer…

Anthea Bell, one of the translators, has written a detailed article on the challenges of translating Asterix.

And for those of you who are interested, here are Bengali and Hindi versions!


Mukul said...

anita, thank you so much for this post! it was amazing to see the indian language versions of asterix. once agin i'm poaching a post from you for my blog! :)

Rajesh J Advani said...

For me, Asterix and the Big Fight was the funniest Asterix ever! I'd burst out laughing at every page, the first five times I read it :)

Space Bar said...

last comment for the day, promise! my son lerrrrrves asterix. I kind of thought i ought ot counter the pull of the tintins, which he discovered a couple of years ago. and now it's amazing to see him get some of the milder jokes, even if he doesn't get all of the nuances. there's plenty i still don't know: for instance, that one frame in Great Crossing, think, the banquet, which is a Breughuel straight off.