A kind of magic

With its multilayered names, spells and riddles, the Harry Potter series has required translators to pull some real rabbits out of the hat. By Charis Ainslie

A 51-page translation guide stipulated, among other things, that the names of the main characters were to be retained – or at the very most transliterated into the target language. And those restrictions were even more rigorously enforced following the release of the films and Warner Brothers’ purchase of the rights to the Harry Potter franchise.

Høverstad was not keen on this approach. He explains: ‘The translator should translate whatever is meaningful in the original. It seems to me obvious that these names and

Charis Ainslie is a freelance translator (French and Italian to English) and copywriter, as well as a Harry Potter fan. Contact her at charis@ dovetaillanguageservices. com.

As Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone celebrated its 20th birthday, November

saw the publication of the book in its 80th language: Scots. Not your average language pair – and yet the finished product illustrates perfectly what makes a great translation.

Turn to any page of Matthew Fitt’s Scots version, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to start reading aloud. You might not speak Scots – you might not even be a Harry Potter fan – but just let the words bloom in your mind’s ear and you’ll understand enough to be exhilarated by its playfulness and energy.

Take the description of Harry’s soon-to-be best friend, Ron: ‘He wis a lang-leggit skinnymalink wi fernitickles, muckle hauns and feet, and a lang neb’, or the description of the boat crossing as the Dursleys try to prevent Harry discovering he’s a wizard: ‘Icy spindrift and rain creepit doon their craigies and a cranreuch wund whuppit their faces.’

Fitt’s translation took four months from first draft to final proof. While this may not sound excessive, it’s considerably longer than the first translators had back in the late 1990s. Then, those selected for the job had just six to eight weeks to complete the 200-page task: a task described by the author of one article as ‘a translation minefield’ due to its wide array of neologisms, puns, riddles, alliteration and cultural references.

Over the years, more books in the series were published, generally getting longer. But while the length of the books increased, the deadlines didn’t. Each book was a closely guarded secret, and the translators

were given no preview of what was in store. Their copy would arrive on the day of publication of the English- language version, and then it would be a frenzy of work to complete the translation by the deadline. French translator Jean-François Ménard, who translated the whole series, is reported to have worked ten hours a day on the fourth book, the 700-page Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, producing his version in just 63 days.

For Victor Morozov, creator of Harry Potter in Ukrainian, the race to produce a version in his own language was fuelled by a more political desire: to have children in Ukraine read the book in Ukrainian rather than in Russian. For the first books, it wasn’t to be. ‘The publishing company was in its early stages and it took some time for us to convince the literary agent that we were a suitable partner,’ he explains, before adding, triumphantly: ‘But by the fourth book we’d overtaken the Russians! And by the seventh book, the Ukrainian was actually the first translation to come out in the world.’

Fascinating insight

Morozov took to the stage with Norwegian translator Torstein Bugge Høverstad at the British Library recently for a discussion entitled ‘Translating Harry Potter’, part of a series of events to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first book. Hosted by writer and translator Daniel Hahn, the discussion provided a fascinating insight into the different approaches taken by the translators of the books.

Not all the approaches were the result of choice, however: many translators were constrained by the tight rules imposed by the publisher.

terms carry meaning, laboriously selected or constructed by the author and enjoyed by English-speaking readers, so that any translation neglecting that aspect would result in a lesser work.’

He gives the example of Dumbledore – the name of the headmaster of Hogwarts, the school for wizards that Harry attends.

A 51-page translation

guide stipulated,

among other things, that the names of the main characters were to be retained

‘Rowling, in her creation of proper names, continually seems to give us little messages: is this person to be trusted? Is he one of the good guys or bad guys? It’s a sort of signposting. “Dumbledore” is a dialect word for “bumblebee”, besides being an impressive collection of sounds fitting for a headmaster. Humle

(the Norwegian for “bumblebee”) on its own lacks the required gravitas. It needed another syllable. A natural addition might be the word for “buzz”, which is surr; however, since he is an odd and secretive character, why not give that word a twist, substituting the word snurr – keeping the associations, but adding the meaning “turn, twist”. Voilà – meet the three-syllable headmaster Humlesnurr.’

Neologisms and wordplay

Matt Fitt also changed Dumbledore’s name. His version, ‘Dumbiedykes’, is

6ITI bulletin January-February 2018


6-7 Potter V1.indd 6



08/12/2017 16:13





The Ukrainian


a fine example of localisation. ‘Some


version of Harry


terms went easily into Scots,’ he says.

Potter and the


‘Dumbiedykes is a famous part of

Prisoner of


Edinburgh, and snipe [the name Fitt



gives the strict and equivocal

translated by


character of Snape] can mean to

Victor Morozov


reprimand. Others didn’t fit as



neatly, and I felt keeping words like



Hogwarts and Hagrid would leave



some signposts to help readers not



used to Scots to navigate by.’



Even without finding new names



for the main characters, translators



still have plenty of room for



creativity, as Rowling’s texts are full



of neologisms and wordplay. Take



the ‘pensieve’, for example, a magical



basin that allows memories to be



shared and examined. The word is a



portmanteau of ‘pensive’ and ‘sieve’.



Putting together the component parts



in another language creates an alloy,



certainly, but doesn’t necessarily



achieve the alchemy of the original.



In Turkish, düşünmek, ‘to think’ or ‘to



imagine’, is added to sel (a flood of



water) to give düşünseli; the German



arrives at Denkarium (denken, ‘to think’,



plus the word for ‘aquarium’); and in



Chinese the result is míng xiǎng pén, a



‘meditation basin’.



The name ‘Diagon Alley’ (semi-



homophonous with “diagonally”,



leading to a comedy moment in the



first book), was one of the hardest




things to translate into Scots, says Matthew Fitt – along with ‘Quidditch’, the ferocious wizard ballgame played on broomsticks. ‘I struggled with both,’ he says, ‘finally borrowing from the nickname “Squinty Bridge” bestowed by Glaswegians on the modern Clyde Arc bridge to come up with “The Squinty Gate” for the famous Harry Potter shopping experience. Quidditch I solved by looking at Slovak metlobal, which means “broom ball”. From there, it was a short lowp to the Scots bizzum for broom, and soon after Quidditch was rechristened Bizzumbaw. ’

A major part of the books’ universal appeal is their Britishness, and cultural references abound. Translators have the choice of retaining these references or localising to their culture. Take mistletoe, for example, which has a particular significance to British readers, but one that is not shared by readers in, say, China or Ukraine. Victor Morozov handles the problem with the deft addition of a few words, saying that Harry ‘jumped out from under it, remembering the tradition of having to kiss anyone who finds you under the mistletoe’. When it comes to the Christmas carol sung by Sirius Black in The Order of the Phoenix, however, Morozov takes a different approach, localising ‘God Rest Ye Merry Hippogriffs’ (a ‘hippogriff’ is a mythical creature, half horse, half eagle) by substituting a popular Ukrainian carol, ‘God is Born’, and changing the well-known line ‘an ox stands trembling’ to ‘a hippogriff stands trembling’.

Regional dialect

Just as names provide signposts, so does the way people speak. The regional dialect of the kindly giant Hagrid has been dealt with in various ways: in Japanese, he speaks a dialect called Tōhoku; in the Scots version, he’s Dundonian. In Ukrainian, Morozov went a step further: ‘In the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine, there are a number of dialects. I invented a new language where I actually blended a few of those dialects. I sometimes get letters telling me that I’ve got it wrong; that’s not the way you say it in this or that dialect!’

But ask any translator what the hardest part of translating Harry Potter is, and they’ll undoubtedly tell you it’s the riddles. One particular conundrum is the fact that the name of one of the characters, Tom Marvolo Riddle, is an anagram of ‘I am Lord Voldemort’, heralding the return of the Dark Lord. This dark secret has tested the resourcefulness of translators – with results ranging from the erudite to the comic. In Ukrainian, ‘Я Лорд Волдеморт’ (‘I am Lord Voldemort’) is derived from ‘Том Ярволод Редл’ (‘Tom Yarvolod Redl’); the Swedish translation looks to Latin for the answer, with ‘Tom Gus Mervolo Dolder’ becoming ‘Ego Sum Lord Voldemort’; while in French, to arrive at ‘Je suis Voldemort’, the name becomes ‘Tom Elvis Jesudor’.

Translators across the world have faced the same challenges and produced a host of different

Ask any translator

what the hardest part of translating Harry Potter is, and they’ll undoubtedly tell you it’s the riddles

approaches to dealing with them. Not all have been satisfied with the results, and some have made changes in later editions.

But when a translation is right, it has the ring of crystal. Like Rumpeldunk, Norwegian for ‘Quidditch’; Le Choixpeau, the French Sorting Hat; or Rokfort, the name of Hogwarts in the Slovakian version. The 80th translation seems to be full of what have been referred to as ‘serendipitous finds’. These are the terms that sound as vivid and authentic as the original, like You- Ken-Wha for ‘He Who Shall Not be Named’, or the Bletherin Bunnet for the Sorting Hat. With each new translation, the Harry Potter stories are reborn, phoenix-like.

With thanks to Matthew Fitt, Torstein Bugge Høverstad and Victor Morozov for their contributions; and to Rui Liu, MA Interpreting (Chinese Pathway) at the University of Surrey, for her insights into the Chinese translation.

ITI bulletin January-February 2018 7

6-7 Potter V1.indd 7



08/12/2017 16:13