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Portrayal of the British in Asterix Books

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In the well-known Asterix comic books by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, the plucky little Gaul, Asterix, and his best friend Obelix visit a variety of different countries during their travels.

In Roman times, most of the countries in question would not have had the same geographical boundaries and cultural differences as they do today, but for the purposes of humour the authors used Asterix's journeys to give us a caricaturised Frenchman's view of the modern world.

One of the countries they visit is Britain. (Asterix in Britain/Astérix chez les Bretons)

In a guide to the entire Asterix series1 the section on Britain contains a comment by Uderzo about the feedback he received for this book. It was to the effect that he and Goscinny had had many letters from people in the countries portrayed in the books, but the most consistently positive feedback had come from England.

This is interesting as the English and French versions of this book are quite different. Goscinny, having spent a while in the United States and knowing the English language, used this comic as an opportunity to point out some of its peculiarities (such as the placing of adjectives before nouns), the possessive 'apostrophe-S', some of our idioms as well as many cultural references (such as the mass consumption of tea with milk). The Brits are well aware of the stereotypes attached to them, so the latter posed no problems for the translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. The language difference was very hard to translate though, so they had to resort to an entirely new tactic to make the Brits' way of speaking appear to be amusing for their British audience.

They gave the British characters the same sort of speech patterns as air force pilots from World War One, or from any character in a Jeeves and Wooster novel - both of which used antiquated words and phrases. They were also able to put in a few stereotypes that were lost on the original authors, respectively giving the Caledonian and Hibernian characters some Scottish and Irish mannerisms.

Goscinny and Uderzo may therefore have got the feedback they did on the strength of the English translation, although the kind of readers who took the trouble to write to the authors were also quite probably the kind to compare the English and French versions.

The Brits are also quite distinctive visually. Note the bristling handlebar moustaches (in seeing these, perhaps the translators were inspired to give the characters the manner of speech that they did), breeches tied below the knees, and the predominant red hair.

There are some lovely little references, too. The weather (of course), the time it took to complete the channel tunnel, pub food (or British food in general) are all in there. Particularly good was the scene in the rugby stands, the only time in the entire book where the Brits go wild. Compare their faces from one frame to the next and you'll see the transition quite clearly.

It must be pointed out that the title is a slight misnomer in both versions. The book is more a humorous look at English culture than it is of British culture; Asterix barely leaves London the whole time he's there.

A Few Translation Tactics

For this section, you will need to get your hands on both versions (French/English) of the Asterix in Britain books.

  • In the French version, Obelix's habit of mimicking foreign cultures is a lot more apparent. He swaps nouns and adjectives around from much earlier on than in the English version. For example, he says 'As-tu vu mon chien petit?' ('have you seen my little dog?') uses the English structure. Correctly, it should read 'As-tu vu mon petit chien?'.

  • Jolitorax (Anticlimax) uses vous with Asterix throughout the entire book, whereas Asterix uses tu with him right from the start. Clearly this was impossible to translate. In French, vous, in this case, is used to address someone formally (mocking the British over-politeness) and tu is used to address someone informally.

  • 'Mon tailleur est riche' is a stock phrase in France coming from a popular film. It is used by people who know nothing in French and it is used similarly to how the English use 'je ne sais quoi'.

  • 'Ce londonien est coiffé d'un melon' (This Londoner is done up like a melon', a reference to bowler hats, wasn't translatable. However, the two replacement gags are a tribute to translation, mocking the use of 'old fruit' to refer to people, and alluding to London Bridge in the next frame.

  • Idéfix/Dogmatix- this is current throughout all the books, but it's such a well-translated name. The French name, (Idée fixe) meaning a one-track mind or obstinately held view, and 'dogmatic' having a similar meaning but also containing the word 'dog'.

  • 'Relax' is not a formal French, and one might have expected this tiny tribute to the English language to have been kept. Perhaps the translators couldn't resist having a landlord called Dipsomaniax.

Other Episodes Featuring the Brits:

  • Asterix and the Goths - The druid Valueaddedtax is a Brit in the English version of this book, but Belgian in the French one (which makes more sense as they're between Gaul and Germania).

  • Asterix the Legionary - Among the other non-nationals recruiting to be soldiers is a Briton named Surtax.

  • Asterix in Corsica - Anticlimax and his fellow villagers join in the party in Gaul.

  • Asterix and Obelix All At Sea Anticlimax's nephew is on the crew of the slave galley.

1Published in the late 1990s in France.

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