© 2013 Les Editions Albert Rene
Asterix and the Picts, the diminutive Gallic hero’s 35th published adventure and his first in eight years, has been published in English, in a translation produced by Somerville alumna Anthea Bell (1954, English).
Bell, whose past translations include all of Stefan Zweig’s fiction, has enjoyed working on a wide range of translation projects over the course of a distinguished career, which saw her awarded an OBE in 2010.
Asterix’s enormous success comes as no surprise to Bell – even in the UK.
“It’s successful because we actually share a lot of things with the French – such as a liking for making fun of our ancient history,” said Bell. “Every French child’s history begins by praising the Gaullish ancestors, a little as happens with 1066 in England.
“Also, there’s the humour of anachronism – 1066 and all that works well and we enjoy spoof history. For ten years it was thought it wouldn’t be possible to translate Asterix but the humour of anachronism really works in the UK. Asterix has never sold as well in the US .”
Astérix le Gaulois, the first album-version of the cartoon, appeared in 1961, and has enjoyed enormous success ever since, especially in Europe. (It had first appeared in Pilote magazine in 1959.) The English translation, Asterix the Gaul, would appear only a decade later.
Asterix comics have been translated into more than 100 languages and sold more than 325 million copies worldwide, making Goscinny and Uderzo France’s best-selling authors abroad.
The latest volume, Asterix and the Picts, is set in Scotland and some Scottish nationalists had hoped that, by playing up the ‘Auld Alliance’ (between Scotland and France), the publication might help to boost the nationalist cause in Scotland, ahead of the 2014 referendum. Unfortunately for Scottish nationalists, however, the plot takes Asterix and his menhir-lobbing companion, Obelix, on a royal mission to bring a prince to the throne that is rightfully his.
Moreover, Bell argues that Asterix has always been hard to co-opt to nationalist purposes.
“Goscinny always said there was absolutely no reference to French nationalism and the first German translation was turned down by Goscinny and Uderzo because it was seen as too nationalistic,” she said. “After that first failed effort they got a very good German translator and she did nearly all the subsequent books – and they became immensely popular in Germany.”