Wednesday, 19 October 2011

For whom Anthea Bell toils

The Adventures of Tintin comes to the cinema next week, so I thought I'd write about the cartoon character people who don't like Tintin are said to prefer: Asterix. The series' co-creator, Albert Uderzo, announced last month he was retiring from the comic-book frame, 52 years after the plucky Gaulish hero's debut, alongside special chum Obelix, pet Dogmatix and chief Vitalstatistix.

Recently I had the chance to hear the books' English translator, Anthea Bell, talk as part of the Institut français' excellent, inaugural BD & Comics Passion festival. The translator of several works by Stefan Zweig and WG Sebald's Austerlitz, Bell was especially concerned with the problems of conveying the puns and cultural references that populate the Asterix books thanks to wordsmith René Goscinny, who died in 1977 - since when Uderzo worked alone.

Bell sees the books as a comic version of Odysseus - with its journey, quest and homecoming - and was keen to play up the historic accuracy of Uderzo's artwork, something Tintinologists tend to emphasise in the work of the boy reporter's creator, Hergé. One slip, however, was drawing the villagers' houses with chimneys, as they would have only had smoke holes.

There is controversy, too: in the same way Hergé is pilloried for his depiction (visually, dramatically and linguistically) of any number of non-European characters, the Asterix albums have a black pirate who speaks a sort of patois, something Bell would have no truck with in the English editions.

She pondered Asterix's lack of success in the USA. Accepting these were huge generalisations, Bell suggested that irony doesn't work on the other side of the Atlantic, and that Americans don't have enough history to be anachronistic about. The translator transposed the Gauls for William the Conquerer (our comedy equivalent being 1066 and All That), Byron for Victor Hugo, and Hamlet for Cyrano de Bergerac...

Bell claimed to have been accused of corrupting youth in her naming of the druid Getafix, though she justified this as druids 'get a fix' on the stars. Observing that people often say 'asterix' instead of asterisk, and the same for 'obelix' she said, 'I think I've done violence to to the English language.' As to the future of Asterix, following Uderzo's announcement: 'What is going to happen to the series now, one doesn't quite know.'

Tintin fans may be interested in a lecture, 'Tintin - Ace Reporter', by Michael Farr at the Wigmore Hall this Saturday afternoon, click here for details.

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