"Those French people are crazy," Obelix would say, using a pet phrase of his, if someone had told him about the odd choice made by the organizers of a book fair in Paris this March. The organizers asked two translators, Dorith Daliot Rubinovitz of Israel and Jamal Shehayeb of Syria, to translate one of the famous Asterix comic books into Hebrew and Arabic, respectively - no doubt a fine idea, geared to fostering closer ties to the Middle East. The translators were even invited to participate in a panel discussion at the fair. But the choice of "Asterix and the Magic Carpet," with a plot set in India, raised a few eyebrows.
"The decision to translate that particular book wasn't mine," says the man who wrote it, Albert Uderzo, in a telephone interview. "If it were up to me, I would have chosen 'L'Odyssee d'Asterix' , which is set in Jerusalem. To me, that seems more in line with the idea of the project, and I think it could have been nice. But they chose the one about India, and that's fine with me, too."
Maybe those who decided which book to translate were afraid that people in Israel wouldn't respond favorably to a book where Asterix and Obelix have a great time slamming Roman soldiers against the Western Wall. Maybe they thought the Syrians would be insulted that these two brave Gauls didn't take the trouble to visit Damascus. Or maybe they just wanted to stay clear of anything having to do with Jerusalem, knowing this city has a knack for sabotaging any Middle East peace initiative that comes its way. Whatever the reason, the positive side of this translation project is that after a lull of 13 years, another Asterix comic book is finally coming out in Hebrew.
The hero of this successful French comic book series is a little Gaul with a yellow mustache who lives in the year 50 B.C.E. Thanks to a magic potion, he and his fellow villagers are endowed with superhuman strength that enables them to defeat the soldiers of the Roman Empire and retain their independence. Obelix, Asterix's oversized friend ("I'm not fat; my chest just slipped a little," he protests when people comment on his girth), joins him for adventures and travels to faraway lands. Wherever they go, a whole gallery of familiar characters traipses along with them.
Asterix first appeared in a comic strip published in a French comics magazine in 1959. Rene Goscinny wrote the text, and Uderzo illustrated it. The first Asterix book, "Asterix the Gaul," appeared two years later. Since then, 32 books have been released and 10 movies made starring Asterix and Obelix. Millions of products carry their image, and an Asterix theme park has been built near Paris. Asterix books have been translated into over 100 languages and dialects, and it seems fair to say that Asterix and Obelix are the most popular French cartoon characters in the world.
"I never imagined Asterix would be such a hit," says Uderzo. "We came up with a whole series of cartoon characters at the time, and none of them were anywhere near as successful. If anyone was surprised, it was us. People are always asking me how I explain this kind of success, but of course if I knew, I'd do it again. It's a fascinating phenomenon that has no explanation."
Many attribute the success of the series to its cross-generational appeal. The visual humor, fistfights and slapstick, for example, speak to the younger readers, while the numerous puns and extra-textual allusions elicit smiles even from adults. The names of the characters are based on word play, for example: Getafix, Cacofonix, Dogmatix, Unhygienix, Epidemix. These word games make translating Asterix books a major feat.
Sometimes, the plots weave contemporary characters into events that take place in antiquity, such as a spy named Dubbelosix, modeled after Sean Connery's James Bond, who travels with Asterix and Obelix through the Kingdom of Judah. In another book, where the duo visits Britain, they bump into four British poets who look amazingly like the Beatles. Uderzo and Goscinny do not shy away from milking stereotypes for all they're worth (the Indian fakir can only fall asleep on a bed of nails, the British are exceedingly polite and drink warm beer, the Jews eat gefilte fish). Running jokes are an added bonus, reserved for those who have read the whole series.
On the cover of "Asterix and the Magic Carpet" (first published in France in 1987) appear the names of both Uderzo and Goscinny, though it is the work of Uderzo alone. After Goscinny's death in 1977, Uderzo, who for many years only drew the cartoons, found himself writing the texts as well. Since then, he has written nine volumes (giving credit to Goscinny in all of them), but says the work is growing harder as time goes by.
Every country in the world
"In two years, Asterix will be 50 years old, but every time I sit down to write a new book I still ask myself over and over if the readers are going to like it. After all, they like Asterix because of the plot, not because of the color of my eyes. And the truth is, it's getting harder all the time. Years ago, I said to Goscinny: 'Albert, I think we've said it all; we'll never come up with something new.' That was when we were doing it together, but even now, when I'm on my own, I've managed to put out another couple of dozen. Goscinny also used to say that Asterix had been everywhere, to every country in the world, but 50 years ago, when we started, the map of the world looked completely different."
Uderzo, who celebrated his 80th birthday last month, says that he and Goscinny had received an official invitation to visit Israel, but Goscinny turned it down. "He was Jewish, but he was afraid they would ask us to do a book on 'Asterix in Israel,' and he didn't want to. He didn't want people accusing him of being pro-Israel just because he was Jewish. His father lost his whole family in the Holocaust but he kind of hid the fact that he was Jewish," explains Uderzo. In the end, it was Uderzo who wrote "L'Odyssee d'Asterix," set in the Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem. In the 1980s, he visited Israel with his wife and daughter.
Even after 30 years of writing and illustrating Asterix comics on his own, Uderzo misses Goscinny and their joint endeavors. "For me, he'll always be here," he says. "He is part of me, and he will always be by my side. I still sign the books for both of us. I'm sure he would do the same thing if I died first."
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