The Harry Potter series of fantasy novels by J. K. Rowling have become some of the most widely read works of children’s literature in history. There are official translations from the original English into at least 67 languages, including “localised” versions for the US market from the original British English, for both the Portuguese and Brazilian markets, and into both ancient and modern Greek (unofficial versions number many more).
This means that, of the 325 million Harry Potter books sold around the world at the time of writing (2007), some 100 million copies don’t contain a single line of JK Rowling’s prose according to The Guardian. Instead, it is the job of a translator to set the tone, create suspense and humour, and give the characters their distinctive voices and accents.
In celebration of translators’ mind-boggling contribution to this global literary phenomenon, here’s my little round up of interesting facts on Harry Potter in translation:
- JK Rowling is notoriously tight-lipped about plot developments and went to great lengths to ensure that “spoilers” were not released prior to the book’s English language publication date. She wouldn’t even make information about future plot twists available in advance to her translators, which resulted in some interesting quirks in the various language versions given the clues that are sprinkled throughout the series. See this article for a discussion of some of these.
- In some countries such as Italy, the first book was revised by the publishers and re-issued in an updated edition in response to feedback from readers.
- Translations sometimes became an interactive affair – a German fan site was set up to start work on collaboratively translating the books as soon as they were released in English, and the Polish translator ran an online competition to find a snappy translation for Ripper, the name of Aunt Marge’s vicious hound.
- Food played a key role throughout the series, and Rowling herself cited this to be a strong element of her scene setting. Translators employed a range of techniques to reflect this. For example, cornflakes earned a footnote in the Chinese translation to indicate that they are eaten immersed in milk for breakfast. A former classmate of mine thought there was enough material like this to write her masters thesis on the translation of food in the Russian language Harry Potter. (Although she didn’t write it in the end – shame 🙂 )
- Spanish readers will find most names and invented words unchanged, whereas those in Brazil will find themselves closer to the Harry Potter spirit if not the name, as the translator Lia Wyler set herself the task of coining over 400 new words (I guess she was paid by the hour 🙂 )
- The spells and incantations also posed a particular challenge. Many of these were invented by Rowling and are based on Latin, so they have a certain resonance with English speakers. To create a similar effect in the Hindu version, Sanskrit was used, but translators were often forced to invent words or use transliteration.
- The environment of an English boarding school also proved difficult to translate across cultures. In the Ukrainian version, for example, the translator chose to evoke the atmosphere of an orphanage for poor children instead. The Hebrew translator however decided an Israeli audience would accept the English boarding school setting as it was, part and parcel of Harry’s fantasy world.
- Anagrams also played a key role in the novels but were not always successfully captured in other languages. Here’s an extract from Wikipedia explaining how translators dealt with the name of one of the main characters, who cropped up in several books under different guises:
Anagrams such as that of Tom Riddle’s name that appears in the second book also do not make the transition easily into other languages. Translators have sometimes altered the names in the book in order to make the anagram work in that language. Sometimes translators manage to alter only one part of the name: Tom Riddle’s middle name of Marvolo was changed to “Vandrolo” in the Hebrew edition, to “Marvoldo” in Turkish, to “Sorvolo” in Spanish, to “Marvoloso” in Slovak and to “Orvoloson” in Italian. In other languages, translators replaced the name entirely for the sake of preserving the anagram: in French, Riddle’s full name becomes “Tom Elvis Jedusor” an anagram of “Je suis Voldemort”; Dutch his name becomes “Marten Asmodom Vilijn”, an anagram of “Mijn naam is Voldemort” (My name is Voldemort); in Czech, his name is “Tom Rojvol Raddle”, an anagram of “Já, Lord Voldemort” (I, Lord Voldemort); in Icelandic his name becomes Trevor Delgome; in Swedish the name becomes “Tom Gus Mervolo Dolder”, an anagram of “Ego sum Lord Voldemort”, where “ego sum” is Latin, not Swedish, for “I am”. In Finnish his name is Tom Lomen Valedro (Ma olen Voldemort), in Hungarian the name is “Tom Rowle Denem”, which is the anagram of “Nevem Voldemort” – the ‘w’ in the name becomes two ‘v’s. These changes to the name created problems in later books: Tom Riddle should share his first name with Tom the Bartender, but this is not the case in all translations. (Accessed: 2010)
And finally, here’s where to start if you’re looking for more detailed information:
- Wikipedia has a great entry on Harry Potter in translation, including a good discussion of many of the translation issues across a range of languages. This is a good starting point on the subject.
- An excellent piece originally appeared in the journal of the Northern California Translators Association, and dealt with linguistic and cultural issues, choices faced by translators, procedural and marketing aspects, special challenges surrounding the translations, and so on. Read it here: Part 1 and Part 2.
- This site provides what appears to be a detailed comparison of Harry Potter in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese translation, looking at the way chapter titles, fictitious book titles, and proper names have been translated, passages of verse and prose, and of course, the “inevitable” translation bloopers.
- Here’s an FT article where the Ukrainian, Hebrew and Danish translators speak about the impact of Pottermania on their lives.
- Interesting little Guardian article by Daniel Hahn, a noted translator himself, on some of the translation challenges posed by the Harry Potter series. I’d love to see more articles like this out there – he does a fantastic job of putting the work of the translator firmly into perspective for the layman.
- ITI’s Bulletin reproduced a particularly difficult passage from the fourth book in 13 different languages in its March – April 2003 issue, if you’re interested in carrying out a comparison yourself.