The year is 50 BC. The haill o Gaul is occupied by the Romans… The haill o Gaul? Nae wey! Yin wee clachan o undingable Gauls aye hauds oot agin the invaders. And life is nae pairty for the Roman legionaries that gairrison the fortified camps at Benedettium, Capaldium, Vettesium and Paolozzium…

Asterix is a man of many tongues. He’s been translated into over 100 languages and dialects, according to Wikipedia. There are, of course, the ones you’d expect — English, German, Italian and so on. And then there are what I’d call the “novelty” translations — i.e. translations into languages that only a small number of people speak natively, such as Breton, Frisian and Limburgish. Dead languages, too, are represented: you can buy Asterix in Latin and ancient Greek, as well as Esperanto (or at least once upon a time you could). He’s been available in Gaelic for a number of years, and there are also Welsh and Irish translations of a select number of books. It wasn’t until 2013, however, that he arrived in Scots, courtesy of author and translator Matthew Fitt and publishing house Itchy Coo.

It's Asterix, Jim, but not as we know it

Appropriately enough, the first book to be translated was the most recent adventure, ASTERIX AND THE PECHTS, appearing on the same day as its English counterpart, ASTERIX AND THE PICTS. I picked the Scots version up more out of curiosity than anything. I was somewhat disappointed by the English version, which I thought lacked the nuanced wordplay of earlier adventures, and was pleased to discover that the Scots version improved on it in a number of instances, and included a handful of references to the then impending referendum, thereby giving it a bit of political bite sorely lacking in the English text. In one scene, a Pict standing for the position of new clan chief, blurts out a stream of slogans related to Scottish independence: “Vote aye! Vote naw! Better thegither! Pechtland free by 43 (BC). It’s Pechtland’s peat!” (“Scotland free by ‘93” and “It’s Scotland’s oil” being old SNP slogans from the 80s and 70s respectively.) The English version simply has “And you know me too, friends! I don’t just talk off the top of my head. With me as your leader, we’ll have a head start!” (The next panel has him being walloped on the head with a caber.)

It's Asterix, Jim, but not as we know it

ASTERIX AND THE PECHTS has now been followed up with translations of the first two books in the series, ASTERIX THE GALLUS (Asterix the Gaul) and ASTERIX AND THE GOWDEN HEUK (Asterix and the Golden Sickle). I saw them going cheap on Amazon and decided to pick both up — in part because I was curious to see whether the Scots translation would match up to (or even exceed) the excellent English translation by Anthea Bell and the late Derek Hockridge. In general, I’d say the Scots versions are equally good as opposed to actually superior. Rather than using the English translation as a basis, Fitt has gone back to the original French, and as a result his solutions to wordplay that wouldn’t work in translation (such as Goscinny’s dreaded puns) are different to those of Bell and Hockridge.

The Scots vernacular lends itself rather brilliantly to punning and other forms of wordplay, perhaps even more so than English. The various puns about hair on pages 41 and 42 of ASTERIX THE GALLUS are hysterical, even outdoing those of Bell and Hockridge’s original translation. (“Ah havenae got a baldie whit ye’re on aboot” and “he doesnae hae the hairt tae tell ye” being my favourites.) Even the title itself, ASTERIX THE GALLUS, is a pun that’s only possible in Scots (“Gallus” as in the Latin for “Gaul”, “gallus” as in Scots for “bold”, “daring”). It takes a little getting used to Gauls and Romans alike all speaking in broad Scots… which perhaps says something about cultural perceptions of the language, given that we don’t bat an eyelid when we see these ancient French and Italians speaking the Queen’s English. After a few pages, however, it ceases to be an issue. As an added touch, Fitt has the Gauls speak in broad Glaswegian while the Romans use Dundonian vernacular — a distinction I’m not sure I’d have picked up on if it hadn’t been pointed out in this interview in the Daily Rectum, but it adds another dimension to the text that’s absent in its English (and original French) counterparts. Even better, the Goths who briefly appear in the first two volumes speak Scots with a German accent: “Gut! Ve shoot ze craw!” “But we’re no ava tae bleiben ava!”

It's Asterix, Jim, but not as we know it

Where I think Fitt’s text can be a bit shakier is with regard to the names. “Caius Bawheid” may be a hilarious name for the centurion in ASTERIX THE GALLUS, but it contravenes the golden rule, adhered to in every single Asterix book, that all Roman names end in “-us”, and lacks the elegance of the English version’s “Crismus Bonus”. Whereas the English translators aimed to base their character names on complete words and phrases ending in “-ous” or “-ic”, in many instances here, Fitt simply takes a word or collection of words and sticks “-us” or “-ix” at the end of them. On the other hand, “Sleekitrix” (sleekit tricks) in ASTERIX AND THE GOWDEN HEUK is very good, and, like the best Asterix names, also reflects the character’s personality. (In the English version, he’s “Navishtrix” — knavish tricks.)

On the whole, these translations serve more interesting curios than an essential addition to your Asterix collection… though I suppose it might be different for someone who has a strong desire to experience their literature in bona fide Scots. While I can, for the most part, understand it, I’m not used to seeing Scots in a written form, so I do have to mentally process it in a way that doesn’t apply to the English versions. Generally speaking, I would say that most Scottish people (at least the ones I know) speak English with a varying amount of Scots words and grammar sprinkled in as opposed to the “pure” Scots represented here, so I would be inclined to suspect that this is not going to be a “natural” way to read these stories for the majority of people. It remains to be seen whether Itchy Coo will publish the entire series of books or merely a selection (unlike their English and French counterparts, the spines aren’t numbered, which suggests they might be hedging their bets), but I’ve enjoyed experiencing this slightly different take on the adventures of the indomitable Gaul, and certainly wouldn’t be averse to reading more.


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