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R. Goscinny and A. Uderzo, Asterix In Britain (1966)

1966?  That’s about a quarter to eight, isn’t it?  Gosh, I so sorry…

Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I’ve been re-reading a load of Asterix books, including this one, wherein Asterix and Obelix travel to Britain and (marvellously) encounter boiled food, rugby, and warm beer. I first read these, erm, sometime in the latter stages of the previous century when I was still at school, and they’ve long been the source of two of my favourite ever punning jokes. (The first is part of one of my favourite running gags in the series: Asterix and Obelix destroying the ships of assorted pirates, Romans etc. on their way to wherever the current book might be set. This particular iteration involved a furious Roman ordering his men to get their ships out of the way and not stop to “contemplate any navals!” The second was a play on Wellington’s famous quote about the playing fields of Eton, and involved a character saying “We’ll meet you on the playing fields, after we’ve eaten.”1)

The main delight in the British editions of these books, of course, is the superb example of the translator’s art carried out by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. It was therefore rather alarming, on arriving home with a pile of library copies of these books, to discover on the copyright page the dread words “Revised edition and English translation (c) 2004…” Happily, from what I can find on the interwebs, it seems as if the translations are the same, although the books have been re-lettered. 2

I do take gentle gentle issue with the words “leaving the original joke incomplete” on wikipedia’s page on the translations of Asterix linked to above, though. In the section on that page headed “Lost in Translation” the following appears in relation to Asterix in Britain:

In Asterix in Britain, there is a scene in Londinium where a greengrocer argues with a buyer — in the next panel, Obelix says (in French) “Why is that man wearing a melon?” This relies on the fact that the French word for melon is also the name for the iconic British bowler hat; with no way to convey this in English translation, in the British edition Obelix says, “I say Asterix, I think this bridge is falling down” referring to the children’s rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down”, leaving the original joke incomplete. In the panel shown, the reply of the reply of the British man on the right was, “Rather, old fruit!”, in some publications of the book; a good pun and typical of the way the British address each other in Asterix in Britain.

Well, yes, but the argument with the greengrocer in the English translation in that panel goes thusly:

GREENGROCER: “Oh, so this melon’s bad, is it?”
CUSTOMER: “Rather, old fruit!”

The melon’s bad because it’s a rather old fruit, do you see? In other words it’s not a case of the original joke being left incomplete, but the translators substituting one that makes sense in English (and is a good pun itself, as wiki says!), and changing Obelix’s next words from something that calls back to the previous panel to another reference that will stand alone for British readers.

Anyway, I was pleased to find the Asterix books still rock like a menhir, so there’s still no need for me to ever see the films…

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1 To be honest, I haven’t found this one again yet, and am not entirely certain that I actually got this from Asterix, but it certainly sounds as if I ought to have done…

2 Certainly I don’t remember from my first readings the irritating tic of the letter “I” always appearing as “i” rather than “I”, when all the other letters are rendered in upper case. That’s not to say my memory isn’t faulty, of course; this may always have been the case in the Asterix books, but still: why would anyone do this?