The success of the Asterix series of comic books has been the source of much debate since the little Gaulish Warrior first hit the newsstands in Belgian weekly Pilote over fifty years ago. Nowhere more so than in the UK, where Goscinny and Uderzo’s comic book hero has sold over twenty million copies since the English translations started appearing in 1964. While by no means the only Franco-Belgian title on sale across the English Channel, Asterix titles have made up the lion’s share of the UK comic book market over the same period. Anecdotally, many have put the success of the series down to the quality of translations offered by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. Regularly lauded by journalists, some have even gone so far as to suggest that the English translations are an improvement on the French originals. However, until very recently, it was impossible to explain precisely why readers felt this way.
In Le coq Gauloise à l’heure Anglaise : Analyse de la traduction anglaise d’Astérix published by Artois Presses Université in 2009, translation studies experts Catherine Delesse and Bertrand Richet offer us some insight as to why the Asterix series has been so successful. As the blurb explains on the back cover, they undertook a systematic analysis of the English translations in order to look, in-depth, at how the complexities of the French word play and humour, conceived in the originals books by Goscinny and then Uderzo, were handled by Bell and Hockridge. Dividing the main problems into four sizable chapters, their investigations into the treatment of proper nouns, wordplay, accents and cultural allusions offer a microscopic perspective of the mechanisms at play in the process of translation.
However, although fans of Asterix might be interested in such a book, it does not make for light reading. Written entirely in French, its scientific drawl is aimed primarily at an academic audience and, perhaps more specifically, at those with a keen interest in the translation of humour. Furthermore, there isn’t a single illustration to be found within the work’s four hundred plus pages. So even when the authors suggest that bilingual readers might find it an interesting read, it will almost certainly seem daunting to all but the hardiest of two-tongued booklovers. From an academic and professional perspective however, it should be regarded as somewhat of a seminal piece.
Considering the book encompasses Bell and Hockridge’s work on all thirty-three titles, over a fifty year period, and incorporates analyses of some of the most demanding problems a translator can face in the act of translation, it is safe to say that a study of such scope and detail may never be undertaken in this field again. What’s more, because Delesse and Richet are able to offer an explanation as to why Asterix has enjoyed such remarkable success in translation, by identifying instances of improvement vis-a-vis the originals (“les cas de bonification par rapport à l’original”), it is probable that this book will become something of a bible to translators of comic books and humour for a long time to come. However, as a long-time fan of Asterix, Bell and Goscinny, I can’t help thinking that no matter how brilliant and useful this book may be – I won’t be the only one wishing I had never picked it up; for I can’t help but agree with E.B. White who explained in Some Remarks on Humor (1941): “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”
It might seem surprising to publish such a weighty tome on the subject of comic books without including a single drawing, illustration or picture from the titles under scrutiny. However, as explained in the introduction, images are of marginal concern in a study which is focussed primarily upon the text. While they have not been forgotten, as there are a few exceptional examples where image retouching was deemed necessary in order to facilitate translation, one supposes that the inclusion of images would also raise questions of semiotics and text-image semantics which are areas that neither Delesse nor Richet are particularly well-known for. For readers familiar with the Asterix series, this decision does not take anything away from the effectiveness of the analysis. In fact, it enables the reader to marvel at the ingenuity of both the original and translated texts without the distraction of how they are graphically presented in their original form.
For those already acquainted with her, it might also seem surprising to dedicate an entire book to Anthea Bell’s work on Asterix – because she has already penned numerous articles elsewhere on her various translation decisions. However, as Michel Ballard points out in his foreword, this study offers a level of objective scientific analysis that one supposes Bell would be unable to offer (as a professional literary translator, it’s unlikely that she would have undertaken such a work), and as respected academics the fields of linguistics and translation studies Delesse and Richet are able to present a detailed analysis based on a rigorous analytical framework – which they launch straight into after the briefest of introductions.
It would be wrong though to suggest that Le Coq Gaulois à l’heure Anglaise targets an exclusively academic audience as there are many instances where fans of the little Gaulish Warrior will discover something new. I was certainly surprised to learn how Obelix’s dog came by his name. Idéfix, it turns out, wasn’t actually baptised by the authors until after a competition, run shortly after his first appearance in Pilote, when it was chosen from suggestions sent in by readers (p.110). Regular referrals to the five American translations of Asterix, by Robert Steven Caron, also serve to remind the reader that the translation for the UK market did not result in universal appeal across the Anglophone world. Then there are the innumerable explanations to the jokes, in both French and English, which for readers of either language make it an enjoyable read throughout.
Although they describe their work as the fruit of cooperation between the two authors, Richet and Delesse acknowledge in their introduction that they have each dealt with two different aspects of the corpus: Delesse – proper nouns and accents, dialects and foreign languages; Richet – wordplay and cultural illusions. While no doubt there has been much cross-fertilisation and discussion between the two concerning all four subjects it is not difficult to spot their different approaches to analysis.
With Richet there is a strong emphasis on statistics which he uses to uncover trends and patterns in the act of translation. Graphs and tables play a central role in his examinations – examinations which he also litters with acronyms and abbreviations in order to facilitate his analysis. At first I found this approach enlightening. Certainly, the impression that puns played a central role in Goscinny’s work is debunked early on in the second chapter when Richet reveals a sudden leap in their usage following the author’s death in 1977. However, after a time I found this a rather sterile and, frankly, confusing approach. Richet’s constant reference to tables T0-T4 meant I had to keep flicking back to his introduction, where I had made notes in the margin, in order to fully understand his observations. Throw in an acronym or six and the reader is left realising that there is much truth in the old adage that you can prove anything with statistics. Indeed, I found his insistent inclusion of a redundant “100%” at the end of every column and row in every table of figures somewhat irritating by the end of his analysis on cultural illusions. While Delesse also uses tables and figures to examine trends, she is avoids saturating her text with them – which makes consumption of her analysis far less demanding.
Thankfully Richet’s study is not comprised entirely of percentages and shorthand references. In the chapter on cultural allusion he is able to add weight to the argument that the quality of writing took a downturn when Uderzo took over script duties. His observation that Uderzo demonstrated “…une glissement vers les notes plus sérieuses, litéralement explicatives.” (p.338) suggests that certain elements of Goscinny’s approach to humour also died with him. Both of Richet’s chapters, like those of Delesse, amply highlight the mechanisms at play in Bell’s solutions to the myriad of problems presented by the source text which make for fascinating, and always amusing, reading. The only complaint might be that they have usually taken the time to explain the joke in each situation, which for the Asterix purist might be considered sacrilege of the worst kind. I did notice one incidence however where Richet neglected to explain Bell’s choice of a translation in compensation of a pun on the Latinism “pilum” (p.204). Whether this was intentional is hard to say, but the fact that there’s doubt as to whether he got the joke or not might be a “bitter pilum” for him to swallow.
Perhaps what is most impressive about this book is the amazing depth and detail to which both Delesse and Richet are able to analyse both the source and target texts, and the discipline with which they manage to undertake their separate areas without encroaching on the work of the other. For instance, the example highlighted on page 40 is placed firmly in Delesse’s arena because the humour relates directly to the names of the characters, although it could have sat just as well under Richet’s section on added cultural allusions. Both offer a drill-down approach to their chapters beginning with an introduction that defines and outlines the boundaries of their research leading the reader progressively into the deeper complexities and mechanisms of each problem. Some problems are more complex than others of course so the deeper the analysis must go. Richet, for example, identifies four key types of translations for wordplay and puns: absence, literal, reappropriation and additions. The first type, absence, occurs rarely and therefore needs little explanation and so requires little more than a single page of analysis, but the third type, reappropriation, is a persistent problem which requires a number of different solutions and therefore warrants its thorough fifty-plus page analysis. This approach ultimately makes Le Coq Gaulois à l’heure Anglaise something of a reference book for translators seeking answers to a variety of translation problems. It does however also make it somewhat exhausting to read. Halfway into Delesse’s chapter on proper nouns I started hoping she was going to avoid explaining every single instance of Goscinny’s neologisms as well as their respective translations – as I was unlikely to be able to reach the end of the chapter without another double espresso.
It is amusing to think now that when I picked up my very first Asterix book as a child I was under the impression that it was English; but I can’t have been the first child, nor adult, to be found guilty of such ignorance. To this day I still get as much pleasure out of reading the translations as I do the originals. So the question is: do Delesse and Richet ultimately offer a satisfactory explanation as to how Bell and Hockridge were able to construct this illusion of Asterix as a British invention? In short: yes. The key, it seems, lies in the successful decoding of the source text, or as Delesse and Richet put it “La richesse de l’analyse…” (p.431); which our translators have proved themselves particularly adept at. Provided every characteristic of the source text can be appreciated then a solution can be found for the target audience. However, four key characteristics are defined as being fundamental to the success of the Bell and Hockridge’s translation: respect for the form, a meticulous appreciation of the source text, an integral view of the whole piece and the ability to make numerous high-quality additions. Put more simply, it has been their ability to compensate for loss of humour found in the original, due to pictorial, cultural or lexical constraints, by introducing new, equally funny, elements elsewhere that has lead to the English versions being so universally loved. It is hard not to agree with Delesse and Richet’s final analysis that in translation “…nulle machine, ne saurait parvenir à un tel résultat…”
In their conclusion Delesse and Richet describe Asterix as “…un monument de la bande dessinée franco-belge et la traduction proposée par Anthea Bell et Derek Hockridge est elle-même monumentale, par sa durée bien sûr, par sa qualité surtout.” and who could argue? Nevertheless, fans of Asterix, French-English bilingual or not, are unlikely to want to read a book that is as hefty and graphically-naked as Le coq Gauloise à l’heure Anglaise : Analyse de la traduction anglaise d’Astérix. However, academics specialising in linguistics or translation studies, or professional translators themselves, will rightly regard it as a highly important piece of research – into the translation of humour and comics. Indeed, my own research has been greatly enriched by this book – which I am now very pleased to own. My only complaint would be that some of the magic of Asterix is lost in reading such a scientific ‘dissection.’