There is a specific bit of wordplay in Asterix that I love and want to share.
Asterix and those indomitable Gauls are my earliest memories of books. We had a bunch in our house. A family friend had them all. I read them all. I re-read them over and over (and still re-read them sometimes) and even as a kid I became aware that each time I read them I understood a little bit more of them.
You know the feeling, when you spot things in books that you didn’t spot last time.
An example I remember clearly is the day I realised the Spanish Chief, whose name I knew well as Huevos y Bacon, was called Eggs and Bacon. I had never got that before, but I got it this time, because in the intervening time I’d learned the Spanish for ‘eggs’ and, well, ‘and’. I’d always read him as having a middle initial, y, pronounced ‘why’. So my brain had to adjust to what I now knew.
Re-reading Asterix repeatedly over the years, hopefully with improving levels of reading comprehension each time, I remember beginning to see the funny guile and wordplay that characterises the books. And one such joke has stuck with me over the years, because it was and is the first pun I can ever remember understanding as a young reader.
Basically the joke is that a guy heckles another guy who’s acting up in a Roman forum by shouting ‘Get that pleb a seat’.
The first time I re-read Asterix and got that joke, presumably after I’d read a load of Roman stuff that I was into for a while as a kid (mostly because of Asterix), I was excited. This was new. I knew the scene and that line well, because I’d read that book hundreds of times. But just like with the Spanish Chief now I got that there was a joke there. Hey! Pleb a seat, sounds like plebiscite!
And what a great gag too.
A bit later, I would go on to realise what it means that books are written in all sorts of languages and then magically, mysteriously translated into English (much later, after I did a bit of translation work myself and realised how it works, the process became even more mysterious). But at the time a thought just went round and round: get that pleb a seat. Plebiscite. Pleb a seat. Plebiscite. Hang on. That’s already a linguistic joke between Latin and English. How the hell is that a translation from another language!?
That was about ten years ago. Only last week did it occur to me to Google the bastard, as “get that pleb a seat”. The result was not disappointing.
The best Asterix moments, for me, are the uncanny translations of puns.
A senator calls (in French) for a “seance” (session / sitting), and is told to sit down.
In English, he demands a “plebiscite”, and is shouted down: “somebody get that pleb a seat!”.
There are many, many more like this.
Here’s the source: JISCMail