“All my professional life, I have felt that translators are in the business of spinning an illusion – the illusion is that the reader is reading not a translation but the real thing,” said French- and German-to-English translator Anthea Bell, known for her English translations of the Asterix comic series – in collaboration with Derek Hockridge – as well as of the works of legendary writers like Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka. It was the challenge of spinning this complex illusion that translators Puneet Gupta and Dipa Chaudhuri took on when they signed up to translate Asterix comics into Hindi.

The Adventures of Asterix is a French comic series, written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo. First published in 1959, it follows the adventures of the residents of the Gaul village, who are strong enough to resist Roman occupation in “50 BC”.

“The first and immediate constraint,” Gupta said, “was fitting the Hindi translation into each speech bubble, despite Hindi being syntactically different from French, and also because of the maatras on the top, bottom and the side (in French, the accents are only on the top and bottom). Before translating the nuances into Hindi, we had to go into the etymology of the words, the idioms, the phraseology of the region in which the Asterix and Obelix find themselves.”

“As we went along”, explained Chaudhuri, “it became clear that we were translating not only from French to Hindi, but depending on the provenance of the protagonist, we were translating from Latin, and on occasion, German too...Negotiating between different registers of each language to establish the social hierarchy that binds the characters, was part of the task at hand.”

Of Aushadhix, Golmatolix and Besurtalix

The Hindi translation of the first four albums delightfully employs humour, wordplay, inventive puns and caricatures across the narrative. The translators are thoughtful about their choices – every character preserves their own regional suffix in Hindi. Gaul residents Getafix, Vitalstatistix and Cacophonix (to use the English versions of their names) turn into Aushadhix, Golmatolix and Besurtalix – and a shifty dealer, Lentix, is cleverly called Dal-me-Kalix.

Latin phrases turn into smatterings of Sanskrit, Germanic tribes speak in guttural sounds, drunken slurs borrow suitable accents or dialects from other Indian languages, and Gaulish songs turn into versions of popular Bollywood songs that Indian audiences can relate to. For instance, the evergreen hit Jeena Yahan, Marna Yahan appears as Jeena Yahan, Gaana Yahan. And Besurtalix sings O re Maajhi, mere saajan hain us paar, aur main manjh daar to convey his plight.

Sound systems too have cultural disparities –– “splotch” in French turns into “splash” in English and chhapaakin Hindi. Gupta spoke of the difficulty of finding Indian equivalents of at least 150 onomatopoeic expressions across the four albums they translated.

A globalised challenge

It has always been a challenge to preserve the genius of this comic series in other languages and cultural contexts. The 37 albums have, over the years, been translated into 111 languages, including Estonian, Icelandic, Esperanto, ancient Greek, and Afrikaans, to name a few. Italian translations had the added complexity of differentiating the accent of the French and the Romans, which they resolved by using different Roman dialects.

Anthea Bell’s English version retains the wordplay by translating Asterix’s dog’s name Idéfix, which is a “fixed idea” in French, into Dogmatix in English, taking the pun even further than original. Gupta and Chaudhuri’s Hindi version calls the dog Adiyalix – someone who is “doggedly obstinate” – while the village druid Panoramix is called Ojha Aushadhix – with connotations of a witch doctor who brews magical potions or jaadui kaadha. (The Bengali translation calls this character Etashetamix – a mix of this and that – another wonderful play on the meaning of the word.) While the possibilities in translation are endless, translating a text that is so deeply loved and entrenched in our collective memory brings with it its own set of benchmarks.

Re-entering Hindi

This is not the first time that 370-million-copies-strong bestselling series has entered the Hindi world. Gowarsons Publishers released six Hindi editions between 1982 and 1984, translated by Harish M Sudan, but the translator believed Indian audiences were not ready for this brand of humour at the time.

Gupta and Chaudhuri’s translations are unique in that they have translated directly from the French original, without going through the inevitable bridge of English. Gupta’s experience with translating the Tintin comic series into Hindi, and Chaudhuri’s impressive bilingual scholarship in French and Hindi, make a potent combination.

While the use of Sanskrit phrases to replace the Latin text works seamlessly, the introduction of contemporary slang and Hinglish phrases into the text could have made it even more appealing to young readers. And not everything always needs to be in chaste Hindi: “Strawberries”, for example, could just be “strawberries” instead of the less familiar jharberiyaan.

This does not, however, take away from the superiority of Gupta and Chaudhuri’s Hindi translation (my only objection is that the names of the translators are not prominent enough!). The two translators have put in every effort to find the right word, the right name, and the right joke at the right time, retaining the magic of the text.

Gaulwasi Astérix; Sone ki Darati; Astérix aur Gawthwasi; Astérix Talwarbaz, Goscinny and Uderzo, translated by Dipa Chaudhuri and Puneet Gupta, Om Books International.