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Maria Antonia Rahartati: Adding color to lives of children with 'Astérix'

A. Kurniawan Ulung

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, October 1, 2018  /  08:49 am
Maria Antonia Rahartati: Adding color to lives of children with 'Astérix'

Astérix le Gaulois (The Adventures of Asterix) by French comic artist René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo (Astérix /File)

Translator and writer Maria Antonia Rahartati Bambang Haryo received one of the most prestigious awards from the French government for introducing Astérix and friends to Indonesian children.

Indonesia has tens of thousands of villages, but if children are asked about what village they are most familiar with, the village of Gauls might be among their answers, although it cannot be found on a map. 

The village of Gauls is home to Astérix, a diminutive but fearless Gaulish warrior in the era of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and his overweight pal, menhir stone-sculptor Obelix. They are the two main characters in French comic book series Astérix le Gaulois (The Adventures of Asterix) by French comic artist René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo. 

The series, which tells of the little Gallic village holding out against the Roman invaders in the year 50 BC, has stolen the limelight in Indonesia. 

The comic strip, which has been translated into 78 languages, is still a hit in the country, thanks to Surakarta-born translator Maria Antonia Rahartati Bambang Haryo for having translated 19 of the 34 Astérix volumes since 1984. 

After 34 years, the French government awarded her with the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of the Arts and Letters) for her contribution to the arts and literature through her Indonesian translation of the tale of France’s most popular cultural hero.

“I am touched beyond words,” the 76-year-old Maria, better known as Bu Tati, said. 

French Ambassador to Indonesia Jean-Charles Berthonnet gave her the medal in front of fans of Astérix on Sept. 23 during the Pop Con Asia at the Indonesia Convention Exhibition (ICE) in South Tangerang, Banten. 

“When the medal was pinned [to the left side of my chest], [my skin was accidentally] pierced by the needle. Fortunately, I did not spontaneously scream [on the stage],” Maria said. 

Thank you: Translator and writer Maria Antonia Rahartati Bambang Haryo (left) receives the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of the Arts and Letters) from French Ambassador to Indonesia Jean-Charles Berthonnet.Thank you: Translator and writer Maria Antonia Rahartati Bambang Haryo (left) receives the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of the Arts and Letters) from French Ambassador to Indonesia Jean-Charles Berthonnet. (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

For the grandmother of two, the award was a surprise. 

It turns out that without her knowledge, music teacher Gabriel Laufer proposed her name to the French ambassador to get the prestigious prize. Before her, other big names to receive the award were Indonesian-born French singer Anggun C. Sasmi in 2005 and award-winning director Garin Nugroho in 2016.

Maria is respected for making it easy for Indonesian readers to understand the jokes, parodies, social criticism and political satire that Goscinny and Uderzo convey in the Astérix series.

She understands that French conversation is hard to directly translate into foreign languages. That is why she avoids literal translations and conscientiously does adaptations to local context as a way to deal with the issue.

“When it comes to translating, what matters is how to get the message [of the text],” she said. “If you do word-for-word translations, the result will be bad.” 

The medal quickly reminds her of Trim Sutidja, the editorial staff member of children’s magazine Si Kuncung, who introduced her in 1984 to Pustaka Sinar Harapan, the publisher of the translated Astérix series.

Trim proposed her name to the publisher because she was known as the translator of French books at the Gramedia publishing company. The University of Indonesia graduate was challenged to translate the 17th volume of the series, Le Domaine Des Dieux (The Mansions of the Gods). 

What she did was not just translate the text, but also adapted it, something previous translators of Astérix failed to do. 

Maria’s works fascinated the creator of the series and when she met Uderzo in 1995, she received a lot of praise from him directly.

“He asked me, ‘how did you translate Astérix so that they deem it funny when they read it?’ I answered that I did an adaptation,” she recalled. 

She was then asked to continue translating other volumes of Astérix and was subsequently nicknamed “Madame Astérix”. 

Maria Antonia Rahartati Bambang HaryoMaria Antonia Rahartati Bambang Haryo (JP/A. Kurniawan Ulung)

For Maria, this year is special, not only because she has received the medal but also because she released her first anthology, Jeruk Kristal (Crystal Orange), in April.

What makes the anthology more special is that she teamed up with her grandson, illustrator Antonio Reinhard, who made the drawings for the book. It comprises 10 short stories that she wrote when she was young. 

“This book is about love because my life is full of love,” she said. 

She says the short stories are based on true events throughout her life. Jeruk Kristal itself is actually the name of cough medicine made from lime juice mixed with soy sauce. Her late husband liked to make it to relieve the bad cough she had suffered from for years. 

Maria recalled that every time her husband romantically fed the medicine to her, she got well. However, when she drank medicine from doctors, nothing happened.

“He wondered how this jeruk kristal healed me. It was probably because there were crystals of love in every spoon of jeruk kristal he fed me,” she said. 

Maria is still busy and has no plans to put her pen down.

While currently translating bestselling non-fiction book Kitchen Confidentialby American chef Anthony Bourdain, she is writing her second anthology and an autobiography about her father, RC Hardjasoebrata, a composer of Javanese songs who wrote a number of popular Javanese children songs, such as “Gundul Pacul”. 

“In this autobiography, I do not see him as a composer, but as my father,” she said. 

For her, translating and writing are two different worlds she will never be able to leave. Writing, she says, enables her to pour out her feelings, thoughts and ideas. She expects her stories to be her legacy.

Translating, meanwhile, encourages her to keep learning because the languages of the books she translates are not her mother tongue. 

“Translators must be humble because what we translate is not our language. Being humble means having the willingness to open a dictionary or consult with native speakers. Don’t be shy to ask,” she said. 

In the meantime, Bu Tati is just an ordinary grandmother who likes to garden and regularly posts photos of her plants on her Facebook account as well as reads her favorite comic books, including Iznogoud, another French comic series by Goscinny.

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