Asterix out of retirement after five years

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The Independent Online
By toutatis!! Asterix, the tenacious warrior Gaul, and his dim- witted companion Obelisk have returned in a comeback even John Travolta would find hard to top.

The new Asterix book, due out on 10 October, is the first in five years since Albert Uderzo - the original illustrator - retired. The story goes that on visiting an Asterix Convention in Britain last year, Uderzo was so impressed by the dedication of British fans that he decided he had to write one more book. And no one is more excited than the English translators, Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge.

"The best Asterix book for me is always the one I'm working on at the time," says Ms Bell, "and this one is very, very good."

So what is it about?

"Oh, I can't tell you that. I'm sworn to secrecy. We're not even allowed to reveal the title." Annoyingly, it's the best-kept secret in the world of children's books. Even the publisher is being cagey.

"The only thing I can say is that it brings back a lot of the old characters, like a swansong," says Anthea Reece, managing director of the children's division of Hodder & Stoughton. "It's almost like one last bow."

It is a bow well-deserved. This book is the 35th in a series which has hit a worldwide print run of three million since its humble beginnings in a French magazine, Pilote, in 1959. A survey in 1992 revealed Asterix as the most popular cartoon in Europe, way ahead of Mickey Mouse; and like his rodent rival, he even has his own theme park; Parc Asterix, near Paris.

So what makes it so popular? "It appeals on all different levels" says Ms Reece. "The slapstick, the puns, the elaborate wordplay; and the cartoons are drawn very well. A child can follow the story just by looking at the pictures and adults enjoy it because the jokes are very sophisticated. And of, course, it has one of the great plots of all time: the little guys getting their own back on the big guys. Cartoon is a very good medium for anarchic and subversive humour like Asterix because you can pack so much into each frame."

Asterix, whose style derives from early versions of MAD magazine, proved a particularly potent formula in France as its creators related the ancient struggle of the Gauls against the Romans to that of fighting off the American cultural invasion in the Sixties. European cartoons have not generally gone down well, in Britain, however, with a British public unable to comprehend the cultural context.

The success of Asterix in Britain is mainly due to the fact that it has not been translated literally. Where a sword fight in the French version emulates the dialogue from the famous sword fight in Cyrano de Bergerac, the same scene in the English version copies the dialogue from the sword fight in Hamlet; and where the French versions refer to famous French politicians, the English are peppered with Shakespearean references.

Mr Hockridge admits it has not been easy: "We take as long as is necessary for every book and sometimes the jokes can take ages. Usually, though, one of us comes up with something and the most fruitful time is when we are working together."

A literal translation has also been difficult because of the many puns in the French version. Says Ms Bell: "The names all had to change because much of the humour relates specifically to French phrases. For example, the name of one of the village chieftains translated into "With shortened arms", which in French was very funny because it meant that this person was willing to have a fight. But its not funny in English because we don't have this phrase. So we called him Vitalstatistix."

These bizarre and ridiculous names are a feature of Asterix; there are Roman centurions called Sendervictorius and Appeandglorius; French characters such as Fullyautomatix, Dogmatix, Cacophanix and Tunafix; and an English character named Anticlimax.

Would the translators like there to be more books? "Of course." says Ms Bell, "but there are not likely to be any more. When Albert Uderzo stops, that will be it."

Uderzo, 69, is the self-described "keeper of the image"; reluctant to let anyone corrupt or change Asterix in any way. "He's very jealous of Asterix," says Mr Hockridge. "He went on writing the cartoons alone when the author, Rene Goscinny, died, because he was afraid that someone else would inject the cartoon, consciously or otherwise, with their own ideas. He even defended Asterix from the Spitting Image team who wanted to use him as a cartoon."

So from 10 October, avid Asterix fans will have to go back to their old books to Getafix.