Archive for June, 2009

Asterix In English

June 29, 2009

By Nirmaldasan

The series of Asterix adventures, written in French by Rene Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo, has been a reader’s delight for decades. Translated into English by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge, the series has captured every charm in the original titles and seems to have lost nothing in translation.

What is it that makes Asterix a classic? First, the theme itself: the Roman conquest of Gaul is complete but for ‘one small village of indomitable Gauls’. Second, the exaggerated illustrations of a host of peculiar personae: a druid who brews a magic potion that gives superhuman strength; a puny Asterix who can beat the hell out of the Romans; a fatso Obelix, whose dog Dogmatix is so very small; a bard Cacofonix, whose performance is as good as his name; the chief of the tribe, Vitalstatistix, whose only fear is that the sky may fall upon his head. And third, the readability of the text.

In this article, I will examine just one text Asterix And The Big Fight; and that too only the utterances of the two key personae, Asterix and Obelix. First, a look at the average sentence length; and then, the percentage of different polysyllabic words.

Asterix uses 1025 words in 170 sentences. The average sentence length is just 6.03. He also uses 27 different polysyllabic words, proper nouns excluded. The percentage of different polysyllabic words is just 2.63.

Obelix uses 574 words in 91 sentences. The average sentence length is just 6.30. He also uses 13 different polysyllabic words, proper nouns excluded. The percentage of different polysyllabic words is just 2.26.

Though the mean of their utterances is about equal at six, Asterix and Obelix limit most of their sentences to not more than four words. Thus, the mode of their utterances is just 4. The longest of Asterix’s sentences has 20 words; and Obelix comes a close second with 19 words. Even the longest sentences follow the guideline of Martin Cutts: “Over the whole document, make the average sentence length 15-20 words.”

Robert Gunning’s Fog Index = (ASL + P%) * 0.4; ASL is the average sentence length and P the number of polysyllabic words, proper nouns excluded. Applying this formula, we find that Asterix’s utterances are pegged to a grade level of 3.464; and Obelix’s utterances, to a grade level of 3.424. Asterix And The Big Fight thus makes wonderful reading material from grade 3 onwards. The same may be true of the other adventures of Asterix.

Here is how Asterix And The Big Fight ends:

Obelix: If I’m not careful I shall be putting on weight … I must go on a diet … I shall eat just biscuits, with perhaps a little something on them …

Asterix: A little something? What sort of little something?


Poor Cacofonix, dangling from a tree and his mouth gagged, cannot join in the laughter of the Gauls. But we can: “HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!”


Literature In Plain English

June 1, 2009

By Nirmaldasan

Literary classics are abridged, adapted and retold in plain English to appeal to a graded audience. But it is very difficult to capture the brilliant hues and harmonies of the original texts in a retelling. Right from William Shakespeare’s works of the 16th century to Rabindranath Tagore’s of the 20th are available in simplified form. While some of these retellings are fine, others are hopelessly bad.

The literary function relates more with the aesthetic function and less with the communicative. The literary writer may be dealing with complex themes and mixed feelings that require figurative language and complex turn of phrases. This is not to say that the litterateur can afford to ignore the reader and compose his classics in an ivory tower. But it would be nice if the reader took some extra effort in understanding literary works. Reading a classic in the original may not be easy, but the effort is sure to be a rewarding experience.

But when the themes are plain and the feelings clear and deep, the great writers resort to a style that shapes literature in plain English, a composition that is its own retelling. One such writer is Kahlil Gibran, author of classics including ‘The Prophet’, ‘Spirits Rebellious’ and ‘Broken Wings’. Here is a short example titled ‘The Fox’:

A fox looked at his shadow at sunrise and said, “I will have a camel for lunch today.” And all morning he went about looking for camels. But at noon he saw his shadow again — and said, “A mouse will do.”    

Here follows a slightly longer example titled ‘Said A Sheet Of Snow-white Paper…’:

Said a sheet of snow-white paper, “Pure was I created, and pure will I remain for ever. I would rather be burnt and turn to white ashes than suffer darkness to touch me or the unclean to come near me.”

The ink-bottle heard what the paper was saying, and it laughed in its dark heart; but it never dared to approach her. And the multicoloured pencils heard her also, and they too never came near her.

And the snow-white sheet of paper did remain pure and chaste for ever — pure and chaste — and empty.

In the first example, Kahlil Gibran did not write ‘Said a fox…’, but in the second he uses poetic inversion. Readers must come to terms with at least some of the literary conventions, if they wish to fully appreciate a literary text. And when they are reading poems, they should understand the rhythmic flow of the lines. I end this article with the popular mnemonic nursery rhyme:

Thirty days hath September,

April, June and November.

February has twenty-eight alone,

All the rest of thirty-one,

Excepting Leap Year — that’s the time

When February’s days are twenty-nine.