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Asterix and Obelix – playing with languages

By Giulia Raus

Who doesn’t know Asterix and Obelix, the magic duo that stops the Romans from conquering France – at the time known as Gaul. Through adventures and fights the two help their small village to survive the greedy but silly Romans. The existence of this comic book marked many generations and entertained with its witty jokes and naughty stereotypes of many populations and became an international success.
As a linguist, a translator, and a teacher myself I find this fascinating and I would love to share with you a little insight into the nature of the names used in these books, and how we can play with languages and make them enjoyable to everyone.

My dad used to collect the comic books when I was younger, and we used to read them together. Of course, the comic book used to be in Italian, and each name was translated to make sense in my language. What I found out during my bachelor’s period, studying French culture, is that Albert Uderzo (illustrator) and Robert Goscinny (writer) didn’t name the characters randomly but mixed Latin Greek and French to create a perfect one-word description for each character.

Starting from Asterix, the main character, his name could have a double meaning, from the asterisk (*) used in writing or from the Greek word “aster” meaning “star”. The same for Obelix, which name refers to the “obélisque” punctuation sign that can be associated to the asterisk but also a massive rock that he used to carry on his back. The fascinating world of names doesn’t end here. The first thing that catches our eye is definitely the famous termination in -rix (roi) used to indicate the names of kings such as Vercingétorix, other names terminate in -af always referring to kings or people with power in relation to Olaf the Norwegian king. Each population represented in the comic and then in films has a linguistic trait that represents them and stereotypes them a little. The Egyptians are represented with names often ending in -is such as Numérobis and the Goths (Germans) ending in -ic like Périféric.

These examples come from the French version of the books, but how did translators adapt these clever names into other languages? We must consider that the perception of a foreign language is different from population to population, accents and letters perceived might slightly change and the hidden meaning in each name loses its impact as it hidden meaning may not be picked up by someone from a different culture. Let’s take Italian and English (the other two languages I work with) into account and let’s see how the translators adapted the names.

The desinence of each category didn’t change in Italian or English as the sound works in both languages and it is kind of representative of this particular comic book. We have the Romans represented with names in -us, the Greeks with the ending in -os and British with the ending in -ax. The actual names of each character didn’t change much between the two languages, the fun arrives when English makes his entrance, and the translators have to work on a way to make the jokes understandable and relatable in English.

For instance, the name Agecanonix in Italian changes to Matusalemix and in English it changes to Geriatrix. In each way the name indicates a very old person which is easy to understand thanks to witty wordplay (geriatric – from the Greek geras – old person) or matusalemix (from the cultural knowledge that mathusalem was a very old man from the Bible’s Old Testament). Ordralfabetix in Italian is Ordinalfabetix and in English becomes Unhygienix – here the meaning changed completely but it still clearly represents the type of character that we are going to see, this one is a fishmonger and the way he sells the fish might not be the healthiest ever seen (unhygienic) in French and Italian his name literally means alphabetical order, which could indicate the way he sells his food or how he selects people that will buy his food.

As you had the chance to see, each name represents the essence of these characters and also the intention of the writer. The main goal of this comic book was in fact to make the romans look ridiculous and dull compared to the mighty villagers of Gaul. Gluteus maximus for instance, shows clearly how the name not only is roman, due to his ending in us, but also that the character is literally named after a butt.

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