FINANCIAL TIMES MAGAZINE (May 17, 2003)
To the ends of the earth
Harry can be read in Albanian, Urdu, Vietnamese. Here, some of the books' translators describe their experiences
Victor Morozov has translated all four Harry Potter titles into Ukrainian; now he embarks on the huge task of translating the fifth. This time, he has a two-month deadline: "I'll be working day and night," he says.
Morozov, a popular singer and songwriter and a dissident in Soviet times, heard about Harry Potter first in Toronto, where he now partly lives. "I became aware of how big it was going to be. But it took a long time to convince people in Ukraine. Finally, the children's publisher A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA agreed to publish it. The first three books sold about 80,000 - a very big number for Ukraine, where 5,000 is a bestseller."
It has been "a fabulous experience. This is interesting, dynamic literature, and great fun to translate". The fantasy genre is not unfamiliar to Ukrainian readers, who already know J.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis, he says. "There is a tradition of fantasy literature in Ukrainian too," he adds. "I think I would trace it back tj the 19th century, to the works of Gogol. He came from the Ukraine and his Ukrainian stories were at the root of our tradition of magic surrealism.
"There are two ways of doing translations: literal and not so precise. With Harry Potter I did the latter. It was difficult to get the slang right: and I had a problem with the world of the English public school. Finally I decided to solve it by evoking the environment of an Internat - which are the orphanages for poor children."
Gili Bar-Hillel,who has translated the first four Potter volumes into Hebrew, says that the books "get longer and longer all the time, and I get less and less time to work on them - the publishers have asked me to do the new one in just 50 days!"
"I have enjoyed the experience immensely, but there have been some surprises, not all of them pleasant.
I had no idea what I was getting into. There was so much attention, some of it negative.
"Translation is an art of compromise, but every tiny mistake in the Potter series will follow me for the rest of my life. The readers are very young and very unforgiving: sometimes they come up to me on the street and point out some tiny slip.
"Books like C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl are great favourites in Israel, and there's a huge fan base for Tolkien here. But I think that there's an illusion that Harry Potter is something entirely new, not something that's part of a genre. For the same reason, it wasn't hard for Israelis to accept the English cultural references: it's just Harry Potter's world.
"One positive effect is that other books have been translated into Hebrew as a result of Pottermania. Parents and librarians often tell me that the Potter books have encouraged their children to be keen readers - I hope so."
Hanna Lutzen translates both J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman into Danish. The Potter series brings her a good deal of attention, and "I get many e-mails from children asking very precise questions about why I translated such and such a phrase in a certain way. Translating is a matter of opinion. For instance, I renamed some of the characters, and chose a Danish name that contained the same built-in joke: Lockhart, for instance.
"It has often been tricky to convey the English context to Danish readers. The school system here is completely different. The class structure is non-existent in Denmark - at least, since the 1970s it has not been politically correct to talk about social class. But Danish readers do understand it - although it is difficult to put across all the implications.
"There's no tradition of fantasy writing here. Danish writing is much more realistic, especially since the social realism of the 1970s. But English fantasy literature is extremely popular - The Lord of the Rings, for instance. We have the ancient sagas, of course, and fables, but those are compulsory reading in school and not very often read for pleasure. It's strange - our modern writers can't grasp the fantasy genre, but modern readers can't get enough of it.
"It will take me about 10 weeks to translate the new book. It has to be ready for our autumn holiday. It just has to be."