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Asterix and the golden jubilee

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As the perennially plucky Gaul turns 50, Michelle Pauli travels to France to meet his co-creator and the translator who helped him conquer an English readership.

Asterix fever is hitting the French capital this week. As the doughty little Gaul and his man-mountain of a friend Obelix mark their 50th birthday, the whole of Paris seems to be celebrating with them. There are official dinners with members of the political elite, street parties, a flypast courtesy of the French air force’s aerobatics team, a special exhibition and a commemorative book.

It’s a glimpse into just how far France has taken these comic book creations to its heart since 1959 when writer René Goscinny and artist Albert Uderzo first sketched out their idea for a story set in a remote village on the Brittany coast, the last outpost of ancient Gaul holding out against the Roman invasion, where the villagers have become brave warriors through the help of a magic potion.

Those original sketches and typescripts, on worn pieces of exercise book paper, can now be seen, along with other pieces of early work, and Goscinny’s Keystone Royal typewriter, at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. In the atmospheric setting of the third-century Gallo-Roman baths of the museum of the middle ages, the exhibition brings together the plates and manuscripts the pair created for the first edition of Pilote magazine, where the comic strip was unleashed on a France that had just seen Charles de Gaulle become president, and traces the evolution of the cartoon through the 33 albums of work since. The 34th, Asterix and Obelix’s Birthday: The Golden Book, has been released this week, a collection of comic vignettes that revisit some of the 400 characters that have appeared over the 50 years.

Of course, the comic strip’s success in France tells only part of the story. Asterix is now a global phenomenon, with the Gaul’s adventures selling 325m copies in 107 countries and the franchise reaching an even wider audience through three “live” films, a theme park and the inevitable merchandising, from soft toys to Happy Meals.

For Uderzo, who is still sprightly at 82 and has continued to create new Asterix adventures after the death of his friend Goscinny in 1977, taking on the scripting as well as drawing, the international appeal of the characters was unexpected but reassuring.

“This success was not expected at all. Even in France the success was not expected. We were pleased to discover the international appeal, firstly in Germany, which compared with that in France,” says Uderzo. “We were reassured because we had been told that Asterix in a way excused General de Gaulle and moreover that it only tickled the French, which was not what we wished. We were somewhat reassured when it became a success in other countries.”

What makes Asterix’s popularity outside France even more surprising is not so much that the comic strip is firmly rooted in the French national character – “It is clear that Asterix was made with the image of the French,” says Uderzo. “We took the tics and the manners of the French” – but that it relies so heavily on ingenious wordplay and puns for its humour. How does that work in translation?

For Anthea Bell, who has translated Asterix into English since the first album crossed the channel in 1969, it is the type of humour embodied in Asterix, rather than the specifics, that crosses national boundaries.

“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,” she explains. “It is European humour rather than French. It doesn’t cross the Atlantic so well, the American sense of humour is different. We and the French like the humour of historical anachronism. We have a lot of history behind us and we like to laugh at it in both nations.” And for all its use of national stereotypes – the proud Spaniards, the phlegmatic Brits, the cowardly Romans – the humour is, says Bell, essentially “kindly at heart”.

Nonetheless, finding English equivalents of the French made-up names – all ending in -ix for the Gauls and -us for the Romans – requires the kind of lateral thinking beloved of crossword compilers, says Bell, whose father was the first compiler of the Times cryptic crossword.

Her ingenuity in finding these new names for the French characters, some of which arguably work even more effectively than the originals, has been credited with opening up Asterix to an English-speaking audience. Asterix’s faithful canine companion, Idéfix, has become Dogmatix; the tone-deaf village bard, Assurancetourix, is Cacofonix; a couple of Roman legionaries become Sendervictorius and Appianglorius; and the chief druid Panoramix, who mixed the potion into which Obelix fell into as a child, resulting in his enormous strength, is Getafix. Bell is amused that the latter has provoked accusations of corrupting youth. “It doesn’t have to be about drugs!” she asserts, laughing. “The druids used Stonehenge to ‘get a fix’ on the stars …”

Ironically perhaps, Asterix in Britain was a particular challenge to translate because one of the joys of the original was the way in which Goscinny captured the British characters speaking French with a dreadful English accent. It is also a favourite of Uderzo.

“While I like all that we have made, I have a little preference for Asterix et Les Bretons, for the way that René made the British speak with the structure of the English language transformed into French. I found it an extraordinary idea,” he says. “For René, who knew English perfectly, it was like a child’s game”.

Bell, who always ran her scripts past Goscinny when he was alive, was relieved to find that her translation solution – to use very dated, stilted, ‘upper class twit’ language in the style of PG Wodehouse – met with the French writer’s approval. “I told him that we were intending to use phrases like ‘what ho, old bean!’ and ‘hullo, old fruit’ and his eyes lit up,” she said. “‘Vieux fruit! I wish I’d thought of that…’ he murmured.”

While other nations have generally taken their lampooning by the comic book heroes in the spirit in which it is intended, life in the Asterix camp itself has not been entirely good-humoured in recent years. Uderzo’s choice to continue Asterix alone after his great friend Goscinny’s death, and his more recent decision to sell the rights to Hachette and allow new albums to be created after his own death, has attracted criticism and led to a rift with his daughter, Sylvie, who accused him of betraying the spirit of Asterix by selling to a large commercial business rather than sticking with the family business they had created together.

Asked what he hopes the future holds for his creation, Uderzo gives the verbal equivalent of a splendid Gallic shrug. “I hope for it, I hope that it will survive us, that it will be able to still live. You know, the life of a hero is held only by the goodwill of the readers, that does not depend so much on the author. If it must continue, it will continue; if things turn out differently, one is not master of that.” For Bell, whose life has also been entwined with the little Gaul’s for the past 40 years, so that she describes him as “an old friend”, the way forward is clear. “For me, there should be no more Asterix after Uderzo’s death. It will be, as they always say at the end of their books, ‘LA FIN'”.

But for now, Uderzo and France are looking back, not forward. For 50 years a French comic book hero has conquered the world and as Uderzo says, with another of those magnificent shrugs, “Extraordinary success must be lived well, because if you don’t live well that much of a success, what would make you live happily?”

 The Guardian

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