Andrew Girardin’s Asterix: Latin Jokes Explained provides a genuine public service:

In the English versions of Asterix, the Latin jokes are not translated or explained. Very few Asterix fans know Latin. Some may know Veni Vidi Vici, or even Alea Iacta Est, but that’s about it. These links will take you to my blog, where I not only translate the Latin, but also try to tell you why it’s funny.

To get you started, here‘s the first book, Asterix the Gaul; I like his style: “Personally, I’d have volunteered. As a kid in Glasgae it was normal for complete strangers to give you a friendly uppercut. Just for laughs.”


  1. Tom Vinson says

    Obviously I need to look up the English versions. They look to be very clever. It’s not that easy to reproduce this kind of humor in another language. (I’ve tried. And failed.)
    I’ve got about 15 or so of the Asterix books in French. The Latin doesn’t give me much trouble, but I miss a lot of the word plays in the French–“manque de pot”, for instance. Is there anyone out there who has compiled an explanation of these?

  2. marie-lucie says

    Is there anyone out there who has compiled an explanation of these?
    Perhaps, but try to locate a dictionary of French slang or colloquialisms since the word plays are all based on colloquial expressions familiar to all French people. The English versions are not literal translations, which would fall flat or be meaningless, but adaptations using English colloquialisms. Except for the Latin words, of course.
    Literally, “manque de pot” would mean ‘(for) lack of a pot’, but in colloquial speech it means ‘no luck’ or ‘tough luck’ (“le pot” is one of the slangy or colloquial terms for “la chance”).

  3. A fun and worthy site – thanks, LH.
    I wonder how much of the common mispronunciation of asterisk we can attribute to the comics character.

  4. I love Àsterix. In the Spanish versions there’s always translations of the latin jokes, as footnotes in the same cartoon (I mean cuadrito de historieta). I thought the French original also had this… I’ll check.

  5. Oh, no I’m sorry, I was wrong!
    No latin translations either in Spanish versions, or just a few…

  6. Thanks to this blog I just found a famous latin quote very dear to me (bacause I studied it an wrote about it and because I tend to practice what it says, I’m afraid).
    I never understood it or even noticed it when I was a child -or younger- and read Asterix.

  7. Treesong says

    Tom Vinson: The English versions are indeed good; they were vetted by Goscinny. There’s an anecdote I like and just Googled:
    ‘Asterix and Obelix are great. I have a few albums in English, one in French and two in Esperanto (yes, really!) I’ve read a book — I can’t remember its name now — that talked about the history of Asterix, and also about the English translators, including the nice detail that Goscinny once wished he’d thought of their joke rather than his original.
    (The joke was a background one in Asterix in Britain. The original was based on the fact that melon in French means both “bowler hat” and “melon”. A shopkeeper shouts something like “My melon is too dear, is it?” at someone (who responds “Il est”). The English translation had the shopkeeper shouting “So this melon’s bad, is it?” and getting the response “Rather, old fruit.” Goscinny said he wished he’d put “vieux fruit” into the original.) ‘

  8. marie-lucie says

    Yes, Asterix in Britain is very funny if you know both languages, because the British speak French as word-to-word translations of English (both the Gauls and the British spoke Celtic languages at the time, and that is the justification for the difference in their speech).
    The French for “bowler hat” is actually chapeau melon, because of its rounded shape, and just melon is a shortening of that phrase, as well as the name of the fruit.

  9. Julia: The exact quote is VIDEO MELIORA PROBOQUE, DETERIORA SEQUOR. I actually once inflicted –err, I mean, made my French students read the relevant page where that Latin quote is found.
    This is because in the original version it represents very nicely a case where a native French speaker is trying to interpret a string of syllables excitedly produced by another: French is a language where there are no phonologically clear word-boundaries, and as a result even we native speakers can have trouble parsing some French sentences.
    In the story, two Roman soldiers have just discovered two bound and gagged men –fellow Roman soldiers, but they don’t know that– and one shouts out “C’est les Goths!” (which in “proper” French should be “Ce sont les Goths”, but anyway…) , with the other one repeating “Sélégo?”, which, being spelled phonetically, shows that the other soldier simply does not understand what this string of syllables means. It’s only when we finally see him saying “C’EST LES GOTHS!”, spelled properly (and with a nice torch indicating that he has seen the light) that we know that he now understands what his fellow soldier was saying.
    How did the English, Spanish and other translators deal with this, I wonder? I once saw a West Frisian translation where (quoting from memory, so I doubt the grammar and spelling are spotless, but anyway…) the first soldier says “‘T bin de Goaten!” (It’s the Goths!) which the second soldier misinterprets as “de binde Goaten?” (The bound Goths).
    Treesong: I actually heard a similar anecdote about the author of the French comic strip ACHILLE TALON (A comic strip which is so verbally rich and challenging that at least one doctoral dissertation in linguistics was written about it, but I digress), who was (so goes the story) so impressed by his Spanish translator’s creativity in replacing an untranslatable joke with what he thought was a better joke that, with said translator’s permission, he then later used this same joke in one of his later works.

  10. Treesong says

    Etienne, the English version used ‘Visigoths!’, implying the perfect of viso ‘look at carefully, contemplate’. This was pointed out in the comments on the page Julia linked, though visi was confused with vici.
    And, tying in to a discussion above, Achille Talon wears a chapeau melon, which may be why in English he’s called Walter Melon.

  11. C’est le Goths is interesting in its clash of number, in light of English It’s the Goths, not *They’re the Goths, which would only be possible in connection with some specific Goths already mentioned.

  12. Stan:
    “I wonder how much of the common mispronunciation of asterisk we can attribute to the comics character.”
    I would have said 100%, but in fact there’s a good number of hits for “an asterix” in Google Books from pre-Asterix times. It has taken off considerably since around 1970:
    Some of those are spurious cases (where ngrams has turned up “an Asterix” instead of the lower-case version). But if you skim through the 1970-1994 band for “an asterix”, it looks like the majority really are cases of “asterix” for “asterisk”. So I’d say it was a naturally-occurring mispronunciation given a huge boost by the comic.

  13. I myself would have said “not that much,” because Asterix has never been even close to a mass phenomenon in the U.S. and metathesis of /sk/ and /ks/ is very common (you can ax anyone!).

  14. If you confine the search for “an asterix” to the American English corpus, the major increase still starts around 1970, but at a quick skim those hits might be mainly references to the comics.
    I take your point about Asterix in the US, but surely ‘ax’ is a retention of a formerly common (indeed standard) variant? And are there other examples of sk/ks metathesis?
    I can imagine that a -sk cluster in the coda of an unstressed syllable might be prone to metathesis. But it’s difficult to check. The only other familiar polysyllabic words ending in -isk that I can find are basilisk and obelisk. (Something I didn’t know: in addition to the monolith sense, ‘obelisk’ is a term for the dagger character used as an alternative to the asterisk. So Obelix is a two-level word-play. I wonder if they came up with the typographical joke first, then decided to make him a menhir delivery man?)

  15. marie-lucie says

    JC: C’est le Goths is interesting in its clash of number
    You mean C’est les Goths. C’est is pretty much universal in colloquial French, regardless of the number of what follows. The more “logical” Ce sont belongs to a much higher register.

  16. marie-lucie says

    Breffni: Obélix/obélisque
    I am not familiar with the typographical use of “obelisk”, and French un obélisque does not seem to be used with that meaning, so the pun possible in English is not possible in French. Parisians are very familiar with l’Obélisque de la Place de la Concorde, an obelisk brought from Luxor, which adorns the famous plaza. An obelisk can be considered a more sophisticated version of a menhir, as the Gauls discover when they go to Egypt.
    In French, “basilisk” is le basilic and does not lend itself as obviously to becoming an -ix name.

  17. Hi Marie-Lucie,

    French un obélisque does not seem to be used with that meaning

    A search on [astérisque obélisque] turns up a good number of relevant hits – mostly old (back to the Encyclopédie), but here’s one from 1981. The typographical use may be a bit obscure, but wouldn’t it be quite a coincidence if Goscinny came up with that particular pair of words by chance? The Wikipedia article on Obelix also notes the double meaning, for whatever that’s worth.

  18. marie-lucie says

    Merci, Breffni, obviously typography is not my strong point. But you are right: French Wikipedia says that Goscinny’s family had a printing business and that’s why he was familiar with printers’ jargon, which includes the word obèle, also called obélisque. I did not know either word with that meaning. According to the article, the link with the Egyptian monument is a later interpretation by the public unfamiliar with the typographical terms.
    The article also says that Obélix‘s father is called Obélodalix, which seems to be from a mix of obèle and odalisque, the latter a harem woman according to Turkish etymology.

  19. Having, after many years’ searching, finally succeeded in acquiring a copy of one of the Japanese versions of Asterix, I found my suspicions to be correct: it had been translated by a team of three (undoubtedly erudite) university professors, and most jokes had been _explained_. Latin words were transliterated into Katakana with footnotes explaining the dictionary meanings. Just as when I watched The Life of Brian in Japanese, when reading アステリックス I found myself smiling only a few times, and those primarily when I recalled the original jokes in English/French. If only the Japanese publishers had managed to find a genius like Anthea Bell, they might have sold enough to justify producing more than three volumes.

  20. Oh man, that’s sad.

  21. I’ll always remember a Latin phrase that I read in “Asterix the Legionary” when I was 13 years old because it made me laugh due to the fact that it has an absurd use there. A few years ago I learnt that “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes” is from “Aeneid” and has been used as an example of use of “et” meaning “even”. Wiki.en has a good explanation of it.

  22. We discussed that quotation a couple of years ago.

  23. Oh! I’m sorry. I forgot that I’d written that again.

  24. Oh, I hadn’t realized you were in that thread! By “we” I didn’t mean “you and I” (with the implication that you shouldn’t have forgotten), I meant “we here at the Hattery” (thinking you’d find the prior discussion interesting). Don’t worry, I’ve more than once posted the same damn thing after an interval of a year or two.

  25. marie-lucie says

    There is no harm at all in repetition after some interval. Interesting topics always bear revisiting. There are also people who were not around the first time, or did not pay close attention then, and who will enjoy the new information and the opportunity to add their two cents’ worth.

  26. I’ve always adored “Getafix”: is this also possibly an improvement on the original?
    (Also, Dogmatix…)

  27. marie-lucie says

    yonray, since most if not all of the supposedly Gaulish names are bsed on French words, they would not have the same effect in English if left untranslated. But the “improved” ones in English would rarely be suitable in the French text if they would not be understandable by French-only speakers. “Getafix” is indeed very good, but it could not have been thought up outside of English.

  28. >Languagehat, Marie-lucie
    Thanks! At least you haven’t said: “Delirat iste Hispanus!” (“He is crazy, that Spaniard!”)

  29. m-l: I think what yonray was asking was “Is it possible that Getafix is a cleverer name [in the context of English] than whatever the original was [in the context of French]?” I’m pretty sure yonray is aware that French funny names don’t work in English and vice versa.

  30. Yes, Mr. Hat, that was what I was wondering – I don’t know the French names for Getafix and Dogmatix

  31. marie-lucie says

    LH: Fair enough! I misunderstood the comment.
    yonray: I don’t know the French names for Getafix and Dogmatix
    The druid is Panoramix and the dog Idéfix.

  32. Getafix is Panoramix in the original, and most translations, but Miraculix in German. As for Dogmatix, he is Idéfix. Clearly the English names are better from every conceivable point of view, and Dogmatix would sort of work even in French, though he is not a dogue.

  33. Thanks, m-l and JC.
    Idéfix isn’t bad, I suppose, and my preference for Dogmatix is biased at least in part.
    Panoramix does seem disappointing, though!

  34. Trond Engen says

    I’m pretty sure Idéfix owes his name to the way he was introduced in the series. Maybe I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.
    Norwegian: Asterix, Obelix, Idefix, Miraculix, chief Majestix and his wife Godemine, Trubadurix the bard, Senilix the oldtimer, Hermetix the fishmonger, Armamix the smith.

  35. marie-lucie says

    yonray: I agree that Panoramix is rather bland for the druid, although it agrees with his personality which takes a larger view of things, without getting side-tracked by minor details.
    Wikipedia has several lists of Astérix characters, in several languages. The French and English lists both also give equivalents for the names of the major characters in yet many more languages, usually with their meanings or derivations.
    Trond, aside from the first three names you cite, the Norwegian names are all different from the French ones.
    Norwegian Godemine is at least inspired by French Bonemine (from “bonne mine”, literally ‘good/healthy facial appearance’). Your Trubadurix is rather praiseful for the bard, since “le troubadour” is a word with positive connotations, while the French bard is terrible. His name is Assurancetourix (from “assurance tous risques”, ‘all-risk insurance’, probably in relation with the disasters that his performances bring).

  36. I assume Idéfix is from idée fixe. I personally think it is a better name. I’m not at all familiar with this particular dog, but the idea of a dog having an idée fixe seems not only amusing but quite appropriate (given my experience with some dogs). ‘Dogmatix’ is creative and apt, but it’s a bit in your face. I think I prefer Idéfix.

  37. marie-lucie says

    Bathrobe, you are right about “Idéfix”. Apparently, in the first book or two the dog (a stray) kept following Astérix around, and Obélix became very fond of it. About “Dogmatix”, the “Dog” in it is a bit too obvious, and there is nothing in the dog’s personality to justify this name.

  38. Panoramix (english Getafix) is called Aspirinix in Serbian. Also nicely translated I thought.

  39. David Marjanović says

    Oh dear. Every single one of the Latin quotes is explained in a footnote in the German version. I knew nothing is explained in the French original, but that’s sad about the English version!

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