Asterix the Briton:
Anglicising the Gallic Warrior
Asterix and Obelix come to our British shores in the fourth of their live-action movies, opening in France on October 17th 2012. Originally called Astérix & Obélix Au Service De Sa Majesté (or ‘On Her Majesty’s Service), it arrives in English under the title Asterix & Obelix: God Save Britannia on November 8th, in 3D and with Catherine Duneuve playing the British monarch. You can watch the French trailer below. This release is a good occasion to revisit how René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s best-selling double-act in France made the jump to Britain in comics form.
After a few assorted promotional sneak peaks in the R.T.L. Almanach 1960 from Radio Luxembourg in August/September 1959 (below) and in the sampler ‘Zero’ edition of Pilote shortly after, Asterix made his premiere on the front cover and in the first issue of the history-making French weekly Pilote in October 29th 1959.
But our feisty little Gallic hero did not enjoy the fastest or smoothest of Channel-crossings from France to Britain, nor from the French to the English language. It took just over four years for him to arrive, initially serialised one page each week in anthology comics, debuting on November 16th 1963 in issue 59 of the boys’ title Valiant. Because the publishers IPC were concerned that young readers would not understand all the French characters and setting, they adapted Asterix into Little Fred, The Ancient Brit with Bags of Grit (ie loads of courage). Obelix became ‘Big Ed’ and Panoramix became ‘Hokus Pokus’, but despite transferring the whole first adventure, Asterix the Gaul, to Roman-occupied Britain, much was poorly written and it was an awkward compromise. No further albums were translated and the series was dropped by the summer of 1964.
It would be another year or so before Asterix made his second crossing, this time featuring in the first issue of Ranger, a new, high-quality weekly printed in full-colour photogravure, on September 18th 1965. Once again, Gaul became Ancient Britain and the title was changed to Britain, Never, Never, Never Shall Be Slaves!, a line taken from the patriotic anthem Rule Britannia.
In Ranger, Asterix once again became an Ancient Briton by the name of ‘Beric the Bold’, probably referring back to the hero of the 19th century historical novel Beric the Briton by G.A. Henty (below, cover illustrated by John Hassall). Meanwhile, Obelix became ‘Doric’, after the Doric column, and was described as the ‘Son of Boadicea’, appropriately the real warrior Queen of the Iceni tribe who had led an uprising against the invaders between AD 61 and AD 63.
Ranger started with the seventh in the series, Asterix and the Big Fight, which had begun in Pilote in 1964. When Ranger ended after forty issues and merged in 1966 with the educational weekly Look and Learn, Beric and Doric continued in these pages in the previous sixth album Asterix and Cleopatra, re-titled ‘In the Days of Good Queen Cleo’. Certain other names used in these early versions, such as Tunabrix (‘ton of bricks’) for the village chief Abaracourcix, were used in the early English-language versions of the Asterix animated films.
It was ‘Third Time Lucky’ for Asterix, when he finally debuted in Britain under his own name and nationality and in a complete hardback album of Asterix the Gaul in 1969, a decade after his debut. By this time, Asterix had grown into a best-selling phenomenon in France and elsewhere, and naturally several major British children’s book publishers had considered making a deal for it, among them Methuen, who had been enjoying strong sales for their Tintin books since 1959, and another important company, Usborne. But it seems they all turned down the Gallic charmer because they felt it was just ‘too French’ and ‘untranslatable’. How wrong they would be! Luckily, the smaller company Brockhampton Press took on the challenge and quickly achieved startling success.
Much of this is due to the exceptionally clever and amusing translations, initially by Derek Hockridge and Anthea Bell, and subsequently by Bell alone. Reading the Asterix albums in English affords numerous delightful puns, plays on words and cultural references every bit as funny as Goscinny’s originals. Anthea Bell attributes her knack for translation in large part to her lateral thinking, a gift from her father who was the first compiler of crossword puzzles for The Times newspaper and would test his clues on her as a child over the breakfast table. Inevitably, some of the native witticisms and unique French humour may have been lost in translation, but much has also been ‘found in translation’, which has made Asterix perennially popular in Britain to this day. And they will soon be back on a cinema screen near you.
Posted: October 7, 2012