Iznogoud questions for the French

Iznogoud, for those of you who haven’t yet had the pleasure, is a comic by Asterix author René Goscinny.

It’s about a short and not altogher pleasant Grand Vizier to the Caliph of Bagdad. Yes, that Bagdad. When the characters in have to take a boat somewhere, they invariably go to Basra…

The Caliph is a saintly and innocent man who never notices that Iznogoud is constantly plotting against his life, using a variety of magical devices from the pages of the Arabian Nights, such as bottled genies, flying carpets and other weird and wonderful things. The end result of every plot is the same: the Vizier inevitably falls victim to his own devilishly clever plan, without the Caliph ever realizing anything is amiss.

Recently, in an attempt to improve my French, I’ve been reading through all the books in the series (the ones by Goscinny, not the ones Tabary wrote after his death).

The thing about the language in Iznogoud is that it’s chock full of word puns, what the French call calembours . Every character in the stories has a name that is a pun of some kind. For instance, Iznogoud’s own name (“he’s no good”) is a reference to how some French people pronounce English, dropping aitches and adding z:s.

Now to the question. Two of the principal characters of the series are the Caliph, Haroun el Poussah, and the Viziers right hand man, Dilath Larat. Both these names are clearly puns of some kind, but what do they mean? The dictionary hasn’t been much help.

Thanks a lot in advance!

“La rate” is some internal organ or other (spleen ?) - there’s a fairly common expression - “s’ éclater la rate” = die laughing. I guess “dilater la rate” is some kind of variation on this.

As for Haroun el Poussah - I don’t know, nothing springs to mind.

Also, you probably already know this, the drawings of some of the characters in Asterix are based on various celebs and media figures.

I can often tell when a character is supposed to be a caricature of a real person, because Uderzo will draw the face more realistically. However, I’m seldom able to identify the people - usually, they seem to be French actors and comedians. You can look them up in the Asterix annotations. I did manage to recognise Kirk Douglas in Spartacus gear in “Asterix and Obelix all at sea”.

I love Asterix, by the way, and I’d like to read it in the original too. I like everything by Goscinny, in fact. I’ve even read all the Petit Nicholas books except one. You could actually say that Iznogoud makes his debut in Le vacances du Petit Nicholas , because there’s a passage where somebody tells a story about the chouette Caliph of Bagdad and his scheming vizier.

The Nicholas books are great too, by the way, especially if you’re learning French. You can totally recognize the characters from your own childhood. Me, I’m mostly Agnan, whith a large part of Alceste and a touch of Clotaire!

Indeed, “se dilater la rate”, for some reason, means laughing, “ça me dilate la rate” = cela me fait rire. But it’s quite uncommon (perhaps it used to be more so when Goscinny was writing)

I don’t think there’s a pun with Harun el Poussah. A “poussah” is a fat man. Not much used, either. Harun el Poussah is simply Harun the Fat.

Thanks for the answers, that clears things up a bit!

I’m much relieved that the pun in Dilat Larath isn’t anything to do with dilating rats, which was own my guess.

So “poussah” is a real word for “a fat man”? I need a better dictionary. In English, he’s called Haroun el Plassid, I think. In Swedish, it’s Harun al Sindar, which I don’t get, and I’m Swedish. If one of the other Swedes here get it, feel free to explain it to me.

By the way, I happened to catch the animated series version of Iznogoud this summer in Provence. Very much inferior to the comic - Haroun has big ears (he actually has pretty small ears, as you can see in the episode about the magic hat that makes people crazy), and in one episode they had, I think, replaced Haroun’s epithet “Commandeur des croyants” (“commander of the faithful”, the only reference to religion in Iznogoud) with “Commandeur du monde” (“commander of the world”). Which is just wrong. Especially since the caliphate is pretty small (in the Fools’ Day episode, Iznogoud makes it to neighboring Pullmankar in two hours).

I think Goscinny was working at a movie script for Iznogoud when he died, but unfortunately it never got done.

I too liked Goscinny work a lot.
I somewhat suspect that a lot of things are lost in the translations. Not only the puns, but of course also a lot of references to french society. I checked some of the “Asterix annotations”, and for instance, I noticed that they replaced the french NEA/ENA by the name of a british school. On the other hand, I can’t see how a non-french would understand in “Asterix and the chieftain shield”, for instance, why all people are selling wine and coal, or who is the busy businessman. Actually, a lot of younger french probably wouldn’t get it, either.
I know that these comics are being sold in many countries, and for the reasons mentionned above, I don’t understand why. There’s a very active comics industry in France, and a large number of great scenarists, but for some reason, the most known one in foreign countries is the one who rely massively on his readers being french, or at least understanding the language and being familiar with the local peculiarities.

The answer is that the translators just go wild and replace the French jokes with jokes that the locals can understand. The Swedish Asterix and Iznogoud translators have done a brilliant job, but I don’t think many of the puns have stayed the same. In countries where they do a literal translation, the end result is probably much less enjoyable.

I imagine it must kind of a dream job for a comic book translator.