For Words and Pictures' series on children's book translation, Julie Sullivan discusses the elephant in the room: Harry Potter.

Harry Potter has sold more than 450 million copies and has been translated into at least 88 different languages – not all authorised – including various Braille versions, Latin, and ancient Greek (it is the longest work published in ancient Greek since the 3rd century AD). 

Unsung heroes of the worldwide Harry Potter phenomenon are the translators of the many versions. Have you ever thought how difficult it would be to translate J.K. Rowling's quirky words and names into another language while keeping the meanings? 

Harry Potter brought children's literature into focus in the literary world. The New York Times bestseller list had to be adjusted because adult authors were offended to be vanquished week after week by J.K. Rowling; to spare their feelings, there is now a separate list for children's books. Boys, who were thought to read less than girls, loved the books, and many children who didn't think they liked to read discovered that they did. The fanfic also became a whole genre in itself. 

Challenges of Translating Harry Potter

The biggest challenge is the names. Pensieve, Voldemort, Slytherin, Hagrid. Did you know that Literary Onomastics, research on names used in literature, is an academic subject and has been studied in universities since the 1970s? The research often concentrates on translation of names. Dietlind Krüger, a language researcher at the University of Leipzig, says, 'Translators are not just an intermediary. They are a kind of second author, with great power over names.' The Brazilian Portuguese translator had to coin more than 400 words for the Harry Potter universe. Spanish translator Nieves Martin says it sometimes took her a month to come up with a translation of a J.K. Rowling name. 'Skrewts' was finally translated as escregutos, 'which sounds a bit frightening and suggests excrement and sputum'.

J.K. Rowling collected odd names and words in English and was careful in her language. For example, the names Dumbledore, Hagrid and Minerva all appear in the first two pages of chapter 20 of The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy. It is extremely difficult for a translator to match the level of language acuteness in a different language while keeping the humour and meaning. For example, J.K. complained that the Italian translator had translated Dumbledore's name as Silente. Dumbledore is actually an old word for bumblebee. The Czech translator picked up on this and translated the wizard's name as Brumbál, an old Czech word for bumblebee (the modern word is čmelák). Torstein Bugge Hoverstad, the Norwegian translator, explained that the Norwegian word for bumblebee is humle but that was too short for Dumbledore. 'The buzz is surr. Could we call him Humlesurr? He's not the most straightforward person... so what about getting a little twist into the name as well? Snurr in Norwegian sounds nearly the same as the bumblebee's surr but actually means something like turning rapidly, so we end up with Humlesnurr, conveying the original idea and the sound of the bumblebee, while adding a touch of nimbleness.' 

Most of the spells in the Harry Potter books have a Latin base. How do you convey this in a language that has no connection to Europe? The Hindi translator solved this by using Sanskrit for the spells.

Cultural differences are another problem. The Arabic version of Harry Potter changed 'bacon' to 'eggs'. The Chinese version had to have a footnote to explain 'cornflakes'. English, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese exist in more than one major version, and translations reflect the variety of each language. In the U.S.A., Philosopher's Stone became Sorcerer's Stone and 'Mum' turned into 'Mom', much to the annoyance of many American fans.

How do you translate accents? This is an issue in many literary translations across cultures. Hagrid, J.K. Rowling has said, has an accent from the Forest of Dean. How can the translator convey this? In some of the foreign translations, he sounds just like everyone else. In the Japanese version, Hagrid has the accent of Tōhoku, a rural dialect so different from the standard Japanese that it is often subtitled in Japanese films. 

One of the biggest problems for translators, especially for the later, longer books as demand grew, was the urgency of the deadlines. Piracy became an enormous issue, and translators often did not receive the book to translate until after the English version was published, and then had to race through to translate it by a rapidly approaching deadline. In Italy, Harry Potter fans were so impatient for the last book that they started "Operation Feather" and sent thousands of feathers to the publisher, Salani, to demand that the translation be made as quickly as possible. In France, so many readers were eager to know what happened next that the English version of the fifth Harry Potter book became the first English book ever to top the French best-seller list (the eighth book, the play, also came top of the charts). Some children were so eager than they taught themselves English so they could read the books before the translations came out. The German translator had to translate the 766 pages of book five in only fourteen weeks. The French translator said he worked seven days a week from 6 am till midnight to finish the last books on time. 

Harry Potter marketers also pressured translators to use the same names for people and things so that they could call the toys by the same name in different countries.


Picture of Tom Riddle: Leochi on Flickr
One of the crucial problems for the Harry Potter translators into other languages is the anagram Tom Marvolo Riddle, which resolves into I am Voldemort. How to translate this into a language like Chinese, in which each character represents a word or a syllable? 'I' is not possible as part of a name in this language. The mainland Chinese translator decided to use a footnote: 
He took Harry's wand from his sleeve and tracing it in the air wrote three shimmering names: 汤姆・马沃罗・里德尔 Then he waved the wand and the letters automatically re-arranged themselves to form: 我是伏地魔 (1) Footnote (1): 'In English, 汤姆・马沃罗・里德尔 is "Tom Marvolo Riddle". The letters in this name are exactly the same as those in 我是伏地魔 "I am Lord Voldemort", arranged in a different order.'
Translators in different languages were forced to change Voldemort's name to keep the explanation.

Dutch: Marten Asmodom Vilijn = Mijn naam is Voldemort

Bulgarian: middle name is Mersvoluko to make 'and here I am, Lord Voldemort'
Arabic: Riddle writes out 'I am Lord Voldemort' in Arabic (أنا لورد فولدمورت).
French: Tom Elvis Jedusor = Je suis Voldemort
German: Tom Vorlost Riddle = Ich bin Lord Voldemort
Danish: Romeo G Detlev Jr = Jeg er Voldemort

Translators at work

The French translator, Jean-François Ménard, was Roald Dahl's favourite translator and has translated more than 250 books. His inventiveness in translating names makes the French version charming.

  Ravenclaw = Serdaigle  (claw of eagle, because 'I found corbeau [crow] too ugly.')
Umbridge = Ombrage
Hufflepuff = Poufsoufle
Slytherin = Serpentard
Mad-Eye Moody = Maugrey Fol Œil
Borgin and Burkes = Barjow (barjot, weirdo) and Beurk (yuk). 
Hogwarts = Poudlard
Sorting Hat = Choixpeau, a pun, choice choix + hat chapeau
Muggle = moldu (from mou du bulbe, weakminded or idiotic). 

Harry Potter money became gallions d'or, mornilles d'argent, noises de bronzeHowever, Ménard was forced to give up certain wordplay, like Diagon Alley and the Knight Bus.

Klaus Fritz, the German translator, was not the publishers' first pick; the 'usual suspects' were not available, and he was a technical translator. He kept most of the names, the hardest thing to translate, in English; Hermione is Hermine, Muggles are Muggel. His translation was much criticised for being 'much flatter than the original'; 'much of the irony and literary sharpness of the original is missing'; others praised his translation. Many readers noticed major differences between the English and German version of the third book and complained online that whole paragraphs were missing. Fritz was not at fault; the British publisher had not conveyed last-minute changes to him.

The Dutch translator, Wiebe Buddingh', on the other hand, decided to translate almost all the names into Dutch. Hogwarts became Zweinstein, and quidditch, zwerkbal. ‘At first I left all Rowling’s English names and concepts as they were. But a great deal of the humour was lost. We decided to Dutchify the important names & make them funnier.’

The GOAT exam in Swedish became the Grund Examen I Trollkunst (Basic Exam in Troll Art) and the entire Hogwarts school was transferred to Sweden. 

The Russian translator kept most of the names in English. After the translation of the first four books was criticised for 'lack of fantasy', inaccuracies, and extraneous moralising, the published asked Viktor Golyshev, 'the brilliant translator of Faulkner, Thornton Wilder and George Orwell', to translate the fifth book. To his dismay, he is now perhaps best known for Harry Potter, although he has said he is not interested in children's literature and did not appreciate the books.

The Polish translator, Andrzej Polkowski, was so frustrated by the impossibility of translating J.K. Rowling's names that he added a thesaurus with more than a thousand terms 'for the curious' to the end of each book, explaining the names and etymology, as well as the logic behind his translations of the names.

Two different versions of Harry Potter exist in Chinese: the mainland version in simplified characters, which has been called scholarly and accurate but 'largely lacking in magic or charm', and the Taiwan version in traditional characters, which a review said was 'more successful in capturing the spirit' and in translating the names. 

The Japanese Harry Potter dealt with some of the puns by printing the syllabary above the characters to add the English pronunciation, so that readers could see, for example, that the Knight Bus both meant 'knight' and was pronounced 'night', two words that do not sound alike in Japanese. 

As you can see from these examples, translators must become collaborators of the original author of a book. Probably no one reads a book as closely as the translator. These translations open up worlds to children and link readers across the globe.

Listen to the first paragraph of Harry Potter in many different languages:

* Header image: Bird speaking cow: Jess Stockham


Julie Sullivan is a SCBWI volunteer and professional translator who read the Harry Potter books as an adult and admired J.K. Rowling's use of the irregular past tense span.

Twitter: @webwight

1 comment:

  1. As a children´s book writer and a translator, I really appreciate this. It was a fun and interesting read.


We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.