Asterix, Anthea Bell and being better than you need to be

There should be a special place in heaven reserved for people who are better at their jobs than they need to be. And if there’s no heaven, then at least in our hearts.

I’m thinking about the air-stewardess who listens to your sour-faced bellyaching about why the flight is late and still manages to smile and make a joke with you. I’m also thinking about the clerk in Home Affairs who understands what the problem is and doesn’t just send you off to queue at a different window but wheels across in her chair and stamps your piece of paper and saves you an hour because it’s just common sense, even though it’s not precisely her job. I’m thinking about Ricardo at the Foreshore Europcar who conducts his pre-hire check with such precision and thoroughness, really leaning in and bending down and using the side of the car as a visual plane and examining it under different light conditions, even using his own little mini-torch that he bought himself with his own money to check for irregular shadow patterns that might suggest pre-denting, that it’s a little bit annoying until he discovers that chip or dent that you might have been charged for if he hadn’t marked it down on that little yellow slip.

But mostly right now I’m thinking about Anthea Bell.

Anthea Bell died last week at the age of 81, and a piece of my early childhood went with her. At least twice a week after school, usually without even changing out of my short-trousered school uniform, I would dump my haversack in my bedroom and scoop up my armful of library books and huff my way up Beacon Road, the steepest hill on the Bluff and, I have subsequently confirmed, in the world, to the Brighton Beach municipal public library to return what I’d borrowed and hunt around for replacements. I didn’t just hunt randomly: I had fixed stations of the cross: the section where the Willard Price books were; the corner containing Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators (and Dog) series; the Just William and Jennings sections, and the special extra-tall shelves that held the Tintins and the Asterixes.

Two of the great astonishments in my young reading life were discovering that Richmal Crompton, who wrote the William books and who seemed to vibrate with the all the inner complicated joys, frustrations and frequencies of being a boy, which would have been impressive enough in a grown man, was in fact a woman, and the bafflement of learning that Asterix and Tintin had been written first in French.

Reading Asterix may have been my first inkling that language could be playful and dexterous, that it could express joy through the simple exuberance of movement for its own sake. It was the first time I understood what wordplay is, and then felt the thrill of recognizing it for myself, and then, more embarrassingly, enjoyed the dorky compulsion to endlessly bang on about it and explain each joke to the frequently hostile and more illustration-oriented classmates around me. Oh, what a little twerp I must have been.

Of course, the creative genius behind Asterix was René Goscinny – when he died and the illustrator Albert Uderzo took over the writing, even a seven-year-old South African boy could tell something had gone very wrong – but so much of the pleasure in English was added by Anthea Bell.

The humour in the original Asterix is so specifically and idiomatically French that for a long time it was considered untranslatable, but Anthea Bell didn’t just translate it, she enhanced it. Obelix’s little dog in the original is called Idéfix, a sort of word play of the French expression idée fixe, which is fine but is that a proper pun? No, that’s just a name that sounds like an expression. There’s no layering of meaning and therefore of wit. It only becomes a proper pun when Anthea Bell calls him Dogmatix. Dogmatix! It means the same thing as it does in French, plus it has the word dog! This is alchemy. This is genius.

The druid in the original French is named Panoramix. Why would a druid be called Panoramix? Getafix – that’s what a druid should be named.

One of the great pleasures in reading Asterix – and one of the great secret weapons of writing for children – was the sense you had there were jokes you couldn’t yet understand but one day you would. I remember sitting in my first year of university, in Latin Intensive, declining the pronoun “This”, and suddenly thrilled to realize that that was why the undercover Roman spy in Asterix and the Chieftain’s Shield gave himself away by hiccupping “Hic, haec, hoc” when he was drunk. (That is all thanks to Anthea Bell – in the French original, the spy just hiccuped the French way: “hip”.)

There are things she invented that I am still discovering and adoring for the first time, re-reading Asterix books in the homes of friends with children: In Asterix the Legionary, the one where Obelix falls in love with Panacea and nobly joins the Roman army to try to rescue her true love, Tragicomix, Asterix and Obelix encounter the regular pirates and as usual sink their ship. In Uderzo’s illustration the adult eye suddenly recognises that the wreck of the ship is a parody of the painting The Raft of the Medusa, by the artist Géricault. In the original, the pirate captain forlornly says “Je suis médusé”, which literally says, “I am Medusa”, but idiomatically means “I am bewildered”, or “I find it appalling.”

It’s a good joke in French, and surely untranslatable in English, but Anthea Bell renders it: “We’ve been framed, by Jericho!” I don’t mean to be that little nerd on the playground again, pointing to the page and banging on about the jokes again, but honestly, “We’ve been framed by Gericault!” How brilliant is that? That isn’t translation, that’s collaboration. That’s creation. That’s art.

And this is the thing – she didn’t have to be that good. Her job was to entertain seven-year-olds, not grown men forty years later. She respected the work and the challenge, and she respected the stories and the language, and she respected us, the children encountering the world through her. She gave us more than we could apprehend, more than we knew we wanted; she turned a job into something glorious, something beautiful and profoundly generous. She was noble. So is that air stewardess, and that lady behind the desk at Home Affairs, and Ricardo at the Foreshore Europcar.

The Times, 25 October 2018