When I was a child I was frequently on airplanes, either as an unaccompanied minor or with the parents, off to wherever dad had found himself. Holidays, half terms, even sometimes just a long weekend off boarding school – an exeat. If we flew with our parents, my brother and I would get a treat from WH Smith at the airport. A translated comic book from one of the revolving racks. Asterix or Tintin. We flew frequently enough that we built up a decent sized collection of these books that were a phenomenon in the seventies that carried through most of the eighties. We still have many of them. Too good to chuck.
In adulthood, the appeal of the Tintin books has waned, frankly. Too earnest, perhaps? Very much only for children – or maybe that’s just my conclusion as they were my childish favourites. If I’m waiting for something and there’s one to hand I might pass my eyes over it for nostalgic purposes. But there’s nothing much to hold onto. Not so the Asterix books. They are much more joyful, dense with puns and allusions and arty jokes. They reward picking up again from time to time.
A famous example of the teamwork between Rene Goscinny the writer and Albert Uderzo the artist is a frame in Asterix the Legionary where the pirates are wrecked and Uderzo, just for the sake of it, has drawn them in a reference to a famous French painting from 1810 – The Raft of the Medusa, by Géricault. Goscinny has the captain exclaim “Je suis meduse” – (I am dumbfounded).
It’s a reference that you’ll never pick up as a kid, and probably not many of us as an adult. The frame works whether or not you know the painting though. If you get the reference you have a moment of smile. If you don’t get the reference you don’t lose much. And the text is full of these little Easter eggs and allusions, just as it is rife with puns. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get them. It’s gently clever, rather than oppressively so.
The thing is though that this witty Goscinny was writing all his puns and allusions in French. How do you bring them over in an English translation.
Enter Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. I know these names without having to look them up. They helped me understand fully the difference between a good translation and a creative and brilliant translation. Puns do not cross language barriers. Using a medusa sounding word in the example above cannot happen in English. Anthea and Derek translated all the Asterix books, and as they did it they made big creative choices to change the text, sometimes quite radically, in order to keep the spirit of the French. New puns, new phonemes, new rhythms and cultural references. It’s a masterclass, and the pair of them should be awarded for bravery and humour. Goscinny was witty. They match his wit and make it work in translation. That’s extremely hard to do without jarring. For the example above the Captain says “We’ve been framed, by Jericho.” It works in the context. It makes the smile for the person who has recognised the painting , and it even has the artist’s name embedded there – Jericho/Géricault. Elsewhere they change character names that don’t work – the dog Idefix becomes Dogmatix, and sometimes they completely shift the sense of minor frames in order to find an apposite gag. They take what could be thought of as liberties, but make the translated books deep and timeless in so doing.
Goscinny wrote another very large series that was never on the shelves in English. Lucky Luke. In airports in France and Germany and Switzerland we would see these tempting Lucky Luke books, but never in English. Once, in desperation, we got “Le Pied-Tendre” in hardback for a long flight. The Tenderfoot. Max and I painstakingly translated it ourselves, frame by frame. We even started sticking in speech bubbles in English before we realised that we knew what it said anyway. That experience probably contributed to my good grasp of French. But as a child it always perplexed me… “Why have they never translated Lucky Luke?” There were rumours in my friendship group that some existed in translation somewhere, but I never got hold of one until I was maybe 16 and 20 year old Max showed up with two. Glowworm had tried with a limited run. But it never took off. Something to do with the fact that he has a gun and a cigarette in his mouth in every single frame. He was considered, even back then, to be a dangerous role model for British children. There were a few notably untranslated Tintin books back then as well – the ones that were identified as backward even that long ago.
A few days ago, waiting for Lou at the dentist, I found myself thinking about Lucky Luke for reasons I absolutely cannot recall. I searched the internet to see if any were available. Turns out they ALL are now. Cinebook have taken them on. I ordered a big run of the early ones at a fiver each and they arrived today. I was curious, and childhood me was triumphant.
I’m three books in and I miss Anthea and Derek. In these versions, the medusa panel would have just been translated as “I’m dumbfounded”.
It’s interesting reading them as a connection with the child me, but it makes me want to go over the originals in French and think about them and rework the gags to echo the genius that Anthea and Derek brought to Asterix.
Without a translator able to channel Goscinny’s wit they become just slightly dated Wild West comic book stories for children. Sure he was young with these – they started a decade before Asterix in 1947. But I can’t help thinking something is missing. For anyone who has ever loved a book in translation, let’s take a moment to honour the mostly unsung scribe who kept the spirit and meaning well enough to make you love it.
I’ll leave this huge geekfest with a panel from book 3 – Dalton City, illustrating my point. I have no idea what the exchange was in the original French but I bet it was a chaos of puns and wordplay. I suspect its been literally translated by the workaday scribe they pulled in for it. If so, missed opportunity. I’ll probably read one or two more before bed – see if they improve. Maybe I’ll dig up our old copy of The Tenderfoot and compare…