Asterix and the falling sky

During my recent trip to Brussels, the latest Asterix book was published, so I was able to buy the thirty-third adventure in both French (Le ciel lui tombe sur la tête) and English (Asterix and the Falling Sky). For those of you not familiar with Asterix, it is packed with puns, play on words, jokes and cultural references, all of which mean that adapting it for an English-speaking audience is no mean feat. Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, the people in charge of the English translation, always do an amazing job, and reading Asterix in English, for a French translator, is a real treat (I believe the term "translation porn" was heard over the weekend as I giggled and nodded enthusiastically at particularly creative phrases.)
The British Council website on literary translation has a really interesting article written by Anthea Bell in which she explains how she solves all the difficulties associated with Asterix translations. She says: "translation of the text, if it is to be faithful to the spirit of the original, has to be very free, indeed unusually free, where the letter is concerned. (…) Often the task is one of adaptation rather than ordinary translation."
One might say that this is true of any type of translation; I certainly try and "forget" the wording of the original text to produce a "real-sounding" French document, and within the context of subtitling, adaptation is crucial. Here is one example of the kind of freedoms she and her collaborator take, one which shows what kind of symbiosis exists between them and their material.
Looking at the superclone (a superman-type character) fly, Obelix says:
Obelix: Moi, un peu de potion magique et j’en fais autant. (I could do that too if I had a drop of magic potion)
Clone: *&()&&)&)*&
Obelix: Qu’est-ce qu’il dit? (What’s he saying?)
ET: Il dit que vous ressemblez à un gros clone. (He says you look like a fat clone)
Obelix: QUOI ? (What?)
Check out the translation:
Obelix: I could do that too if I had a drop of magic potion.
Clone: *&()&&)&)*&
Obelix: What’s he saying?
ET: He only said "FAT chance!".
They actually add a play on words where there wasn’t one in the original, and it works fantastically, underlining Obelix’s well-known insecurities about his size in a much more subtle and revealing manner.
Anthea Bell has translated lots of other books, and won three Schlegel-Tieck Prizes (for translation from German into English), plus Germany’s Wolff Prize and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

By |2005-10-25T11:34:45+00:00October 25th, 2005|Culture|6 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Xavier Kreiss October 26, 2005 at 11:10 am

    Super !
    But… am I the only one to regret the absence of a British Asterix? “Smith of the Iceni”, for instance? Or “Mac Intosh, the waterproof Caledonian?”. Or even “Jones the Silure” ?. “O’Deere the Hibernian?” – although this one may be a rather dangerous proposition: any reference to resistance to a foreign occupation etc would run the risk of touching a very raw nerve, one that has very little (if any) comic potential.

  2. N.Raghavan October 26, 2005 at 1:36 pm

    In one of Asterix books – I think the title is “La guerre des chefs” – there was this sentence in English, that too in the French original. There was this chief, rival to Abraracourcix, and is loyal to the Romans. There is a placard behind his throne, which proclaims: “Rome sweet Rome”.
    I feel that the names Vitalstatistix, Dogmatix, Getafix, Cacafonix are more dynamic than the corresponding French names, or am I being ignorant?
    Dondu N. Raghavan

  3. céline October 26, 2005 at 2:19 pm

    Dondu, what do you mean by “dynamic”? The one English name that I much prefer to its French equivalent is Cacofonix (Assurancetourix), just because it’s more relevant to the nature of the character.
    And yes, “Rome, sweet Rome” was a brilliant touch.

  4. Xavier Kreiss November 10, 2005 at 1:38 pm

    Perhaps Dondu meant…er … “dynamix”?

  5. Elizabeth November 15, 2005 at 1:43 pm

    The English translation may be referring to certain shamanistic practices of the ancient Celts, using ethnobotanicals/psychoactives (that antique German fella they found under the ice had a pouch of cannabis with him for medicinal purposes).
    But I might be reading too much into it.

  6. Dan November 20, 2005 at 8:17 pm

    The most important while translating funny stories is to make it sound funny in another culture and language.

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