Asterix, from Waterloo to Waterzooi (Part Two)


posted by Catriona Seth

(Continued from last week’s post.)

The best known poem in English about Waterloo is certainly Lord Byron’s ‘Eve of Waterloo’ from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Three allusions that I have noticed in the translation of Astérix chez les Belges refer to this poem (there may be others I have missed.) Let me point just one of them out[1]. It is the caption the English translators give to a full page illustration of festivities which is a visual pun on a painting by Breughel: ‘There was a sound of revelry by night’. This is the first line of ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ so they are bringing in a famous poetic allusion to the battle which English-speaking readers might recognise, in the same way as the francophones will hopefully have picked up the reference to Victor Hugo.

The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat
The Asterix version of the Belgian feast, complete with boar meat and Dogmatix/Idéfix licking a plate under Obelix’s seat


The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder
The original painting of a village wedding feast by Breughel the Elder


One of the great strengths of the Asterix series is that there is something for everyone, from the highbrow Waterloo poetry puns to the franglais names of the self-explanatory Zebigbos or of a village maiden called Iélosubmarine in honour of the Beatles song. You do not need to get them all to enjoy a good read, but everything you pick up draws you a little further in. The more you read them, in a sense, the funnier they are. So… if you want something instructive and fun to read, go for the French version of any one of the 36 albums which recount ‘les aventures d’Astérix le Gaulois’ or compare the original and the English translation: you will be in for a fun, stimulating and thought-provoking treat.

[1] The others, for curious minds, are ‘Nearer, clearer, deadlier than before…’ and ‘On with the dance. Let joy be unconfined.’

Asterix, from Waterloo to Waterzooi (Part One)


posted by Catriona Seth

If we were playing a word association game and I said ‘Eiffel Tower’, chances are you would answer ‘Paris’. If I mentioned a village in Gaul which is heroically resisting Roman rule, I surely would need to go no further: menhirs and magic potion would instantly come to your mind and you would answer ‘Asterix’. You would be right. The diminutive Gaul’s adventures have been enchanting French children  since 1959. He was the brainchild of René Goscinny (1926-77) and Albert Uderzo (born in 1927). There have been 36 albums up to and including Le Papyrus de César in 2015, and every time a new one comes out, there is great rejoicing amongst readers of French, young and old.
The Asterix books have been translated into more than a hundred languages. You may well have read them in English. If you have, I am sure you will join me in celebrating the great art of Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge who translated them. As bilingual children, my sister and I read Asterix both in English and in French with the same pleasure, and thinking about what made the books funny was one of the ways I got interested in languages. Take the names of the main characters which play on words. It is easy to go from ‘un astérisque’ (the typographical star sign: *) to ‘an asterisk’ and the name of Astérix/Asterix, or to see that ‘un obélisque’ or ‘an obelisk’ gives us Obélix/Obelix, but such obvious translations do not always work. ‘Dogmatix’ is a brilliant name for the little dog, but if you look at the French version, you will find he is called ‘Idéfix’. His English name is, if anything, better than the original, since it keeps the idea that because of his instinct he is rather single-minded which someone who has an ‘idée fixe’ would be (someone ‘dogmatique’ or ‘dogmatic’—the word is the same in French and in English—is unwavering in the conviction that he or she is right or is very set on following a dogma). There is also the added play on words with ‘dog’.
If you read the names of the characters or the places out loud in the original, you will see they are often typical French phrases. The poor old bard who always gets tied up is ‘Assurancetourix’ (an ‘assurance tous risques’ is a comprehensive insurance) and the village elder is ‘Agecanonix’ (to attain ‘un âge canonique’ is to reach a great age). One of the Roman camps is called ‘Babaorum’ (‘un baba au rhum’ is a rhum baba). There are dozens of other fun examples.
Because the Asterix books rely so much on wordplay, it is often difficult to get the same joke in two different languages. Sometimes the translators slip in a pun which is not in the original. I seem to remember an exchange at a banquet in which one character says to the other ‘Pass me the celt’ (for ‘the salt’) and another observes ‘It must be his gall bladder’ with the gall/Gaul homophone providing the joke. This is to make up for the fact that some French puns quite simply cannot be translated.
Beyond the linguistic transfer, there is cultural transfer at work in the English versions of the albums. Preparing a paper for a conference to mark the bicentenary of the battle of Waterloo last year, I remembered that in Astérix chez les Belges, before the battle, a warrior, who lives in hope, asks his wife whether he will get potatoes in oil (i.e. chips, the famous Belgian ‘frites’) for his meal. She serves up another justly famous Belgian speciality, a sort of enriched chicken and vegetable stew, called waterzooi (there is usually no final ‘e’). The feisty Belgian looks at the dish and sighs ‘Waterzooie! Waterzooie! Waterzooie! morne plat !’


For the record, it is absolutely delicious and anything but dreary as the photograph shows.

Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)
Homemade waterzooi (© Spx)

The Belgian warrior’s crestfallen rejoinder is a cue for many a cultured Francophone reader to burst out laughing. Why? Because amongst the most celebrated literary evocations of Waterloo—probably the most famous battle ever fought on Belgian soil—is Victor Hugo’s poem ‘L’Expiation’ which contains the line ‘Waterloo! Waterloo! Waterloo! morne plaine !’ The dish set in front of the hungry Belgian and which was not what he hoped for is described in such a way as to echo the dreary plain on which the armies clashed. The reference works at several levels and means you need to recognise the poem on the one hand, Belgium’s national dish on the other. Where does this leave the translators? High and dry, you might think. Clearly there is no way of producing a similar effect here.

Their solution, which I shall tell you next week, is as elegant as it is clever.

Oxford Types

What’s Oxford like? And, more particularly, what’s an Oxford student like?

Wonder no more. Here, in one minute five seconds, is the answer:

Someone a bit like you, perhaps? Take a look at our ‘student life’ and ‘applying to study modern languages’ categories on the left if you’d like to find out more.

Great French Lives: Jean Nicot


posted by Simon Kemp

Jean Nicot has left his mark on both the French and English languages. He is, as you’ve already guessed, the man who gave his name to nicotine, the highly addictive, mood-altering substance that’s the essential chemical ingredient in cigarettes, cigars, snuff,  and those stick-on patches you use when you’re trying to give up the other ones.

‘How did Nicot come to give his name to this most dangerous of parasympathomimetic alkaloids?’ I hear you ask.

Because he was the man who introduced tobacco to the French court in the sixteenth century.

‘Was he then a swashbuckling adventurer, bringing exotic herbs and spices from far-off lands new-discovered across the Atlantic Ocean?’

Not exactly.

‘Where did he bring it back from, then?’


‘But the tobacco itself came from somewhere more exciting?’

From his back garden, actually.

‘Grown from seeds he got from…?’

A seed salesman.

‘Who got them from…?’




Jean Nicot (1530-1604) was a courtier at the court of King François II, who was sent as an ambassador to Portugal in 1559 to negotiate a marriage between the six-year-old king of Portugal and a five-year-old French princess. It didn’t go too well, and he was eventually forced to flee the country two years later.

Before he ran away, though, he had time to plant a crop of tobacco from some seeds bought from a Flemish merchant, and in 1660 he sent some dried, powdered tobacco leaves to the French king’s mother. He told her to get the king to snort the powder because it would cure his migraines. History does not record whether or not it worked.

Tobacco did, though, quickly become highly fashionable among well-to-do French people keen to imitate royal habits. After a while, they even discovered you could smoke it. It was often known as l’herbe de Nicot, and Nicot’s name became permanently associated with it. (This was possibly helped by the fact that Nicot was keen on renaming tobacco as ‘Nicotiane’, and later in life compiled one of the first ever French dictionaries.) When the plant came to get a Latin name, it was called Nicotiana tabacum in his memory, and from there its chief psychoactive chemical took the name nicotine.

Right to the end of his life, Jean Nicot was convinced that tobacco was a medicine and that he was doing everyone a favour by starting the trend for it.

French culture would never be the same again.