Translating the Harry Potter book series
8th November 2018
To tie in with the second instalment of the Harry Potter spin-off film series “Fantastic Beasts”, our Project Manager Luke thought it the perfect time to look into the processes and techniques employed in translating one of the most internationally-acclaimed series of all time.
With only a handful of literary works existing in more languages, examples of which include The Little Prince, Pinocchio, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Harry Potter is one of the most translated books of all time. There currently exist 80 official translations of the first book in the series, The Philosopher’s Stone, ranging from copies in French and German, to languages such as Khmer, Luxembourgish, and Tibetan. This list of 80 even includes dead languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek, which makes Harry Potter the longest published work in Ancient Greek since the 3rd century AD. Regional localisations, such as American English and Valencian Catalan, also exist for some of the seven books in the series.
Given the high demand for the later novels in the series to be released in languages other than English, and since professional translators were not able to begin work until after the English publication date for reasons of secrecy, unofficial fan-created translations have often found their way into the public domain. However, given the complex problem of cultural references, riddles, plays on words, and creative names for objects in the magical world, even the best professional literary translators had their work cut out for them when undertaking the task of translating the book series.
Let’s have a look at a few challenges the translators faced while working on Harry Potter and some examples of creative solutions that they came up with.
Many aspects in the cultural environment of the books are very British. We follow Harry as he gets the train to his boarding school in Scotland, Hogwarts, has classes inside the castle, makes friends with characters presented with regional variants in their speech, such as Hagrid and his West country accent, sees his colleagues appointed prefects, as well as head boy and girl, and eats food such as custard tarts and shepherd’s pie. The setting would pose countless problems for readers unfamiliar with this culture, and translators were obliged to keep the setting chiefly British while also rendering it understandable in the target languages.
Many of the words and phrases in the books – spells, incantations, magical objects, place names etc – were created by J.K. Rowling. Several spells were drawn directly from Latin, which resonates with an English-speaking audience, but which may not for languages that did not develop from Latin. Many place names are also plays on words. For example, Pensieve (a magical bowl where memories can be stored) is a combination of the words pensive (=thoughtful, reflective) and sieve (=a kitchen utensil with a wire mesh).
One such example is in the second book, where the name “Tom Marvolo Riddle” is rearranged to spell “I am Lord Voldemort”, the main antagonist in the novels. This required the translators to either change Tom Riddle’s name and keep it consistent throughout the whole series, or alter the rearranged sentence while keeping the meaning. Examples of solutions to this include changing the middle name, Marvolo, to, for example, Servolo in Brazilian Portuguese, Vandrolo in Hebrew, Marvoldo in Turkish, Vorlost in German, Narvolo in Russian, Rojvol in Czech, Mavoloso in Slovak, Orvoloson in Italian, and Sorvolo in Spanish. The surname Riddle was also changed to Ryddle in Spanish to make “Soy Lord Voldemort” (I am Lord Voldemort).
This is further complicated when combined with a line of dialogue later in the series which states that Tom Riddle shares his first name with the bartender of the Leaky Cauldron pub, which becomes a plot point in the books. Some translators, who could not have forseen this development, had given different names to the two Tom characters, resulting in this reference having to be removed.
Other creative translation solutions to challenges thrown up by the inventive source text include the following:
A creature that changes shape depending on the thing you fear the most
French: Épouvantard (from “épouvante” meaning terror, and “épouvantail” meaning scarecrow)
Brazilian Portuguese: Bicho-papão (papão is the name for the Bogeyman)
A half-eagle, half-horse creature
Latvian: Zirgērglis (from zirgs “horse” and ērglis “eagle”)
An aggressive tree that attacks you if you get too close
Bulgarian: Плашещата върба (plasheshtata v”rba, “The willow that scares”)
Catalan: Pi Cabaralla (“pi” means pine tree and “Picabaralla” means fight)
Hungarian: Fúriafűz (“Fury Willow”, ‘fury’ as in the Furies from Greek mythology)
The Mirror of Erised
A mirror which shows you your heart’s deepest desire. Erised is Desire spelled backwards
Japanese: みぞの鏡 (mizo no kagami, literally Mirror of the Ditch. However, “mizono” is “nozomi” backwards, which means “desire”.)
Swedish: Mörd-spegeln (“mörd” is “dröm” (dream) backwards, “mörda” means “kill”)
The Sorting Hat
A hat which tells you which school house you belong in. Incidentally, explaining the concept of school houses was also a tricky task for many translators
French: le choixpeau magique (choix means choice and chapeau means hat)
Japanese: 組み分け帽子 (Kumi-wake bōshi, literally means the “group-dividing hat”)
The Daily Prophet
The wizarding world’s newspaper
Danish: Profettidende (“tidende” is a Danish titular term for a newspaper, e.g. the popular Danish paper “Berlingske Tidende”)
Romanian: Profetul Zilei (“Today’s Prophet”, which is a pun on a Romanian newspaper “Evenimentul Zilei”)
Disappearing from one place and appearing somewhere else
Finnish: Ilmiintyminen (derived from ilmaantua meaning “to show up” and ilmestyä meaning “to appear”)
Powder which enables you to step into the fireplace and arrive in someone else’s
Dutch: Brandstof (fire dust, the word “brandstof” is also the Dutch word for fuel)
French: Poudre de cheminette (a mix of cheminée meaning fireplace and the phrase “prendre la poudre d’escampette” meaning “to disappear”)
The Knight Bus
A somewhat chaotic bus for those travelling at night
Hungarian: Kóbor Grimbusz (“Stray Grimbusz”, this is a play on the word bus, with grimbusz an archaic word for “fuss”)
A non-magical person
Croatian: Bezjak (a regional insult meaning a primitive person)
Romanian: Încuiat (an archaic form meaning ignorant)
A person of magical descent but with no magical powers
European Portuguese: Cepatorta (cepa means “the stalk of a grapevine” and torta means “cricked”. “Cepatorta” is a reference to the Portuguese idiom “não passar da cepa torta” which literally means not getting past a cricked grapevine i.e. to do nothing to improve your situation, as a cricked grapevine grows little and will not produce good grapes)
Supporters of Voldemort
Bulgarian: Смъртножадни (smrtnozhadni meaning “thirsty for death”)
Dutch: Dooddoeners (literally meaning “death do-ers” with the word also meaning a worthless argument to end a discussion, i.e. a parting shot)
Hindi: प्राणभखशी (prāṇabhakśī, prāṇa means “life force” and bhakśī means “eater”)
Spanish: Mortífagos (from the Latin “morti”, dead, and “phagus”, eat)
“Ordinary Wizarding Levels”, G.C.S.E equivalents at Hogwarts
Catalan: G.N.O.M. (gnome) = Graduat de Nivell Ordinari en Màgia (“Ordinary Magic Level’s Graduate”)
French: BUSE (buzzard) = Brevet Universel de Sorcellerie Élémentaire (“Universal Degree of Elementary Sorcery”)
Norwegian: UGLE (owl) = Undre Galdrelaugseksamen (“Lower Exam of the Guild of Witchcraft”)
Still in translation
Even more than 20 years following the initial publication of the book, the series remains highly popular across the world, with new translations emerging even today. Last year the first book was released in the Scots language, bringing the story home to where it was first written in a small café called The Elephant House in Edinburgh.