Harry Potter is done, finally, and has left an indelible Z-shaped scar on the minds of a generation coming of age. Last time, we looked at how author J. K. Rowling took forgotten English words and familiar sounds and forged them into a unique language that fired the imagination around the world. So this time, since this blog is supposed to be about translation, I thought I’d write about the translation of Harry Potter, now in 67 languages, that has been a Quidditch-like challenge to a generation of translators.
I should know this from personal experience, since we translated the Harry Potter movie site for Time Warner for a year or two, way back when, before our client lost the account to another agency, which from a business perspective is the same kind of thing as when a muggle tries to push his baggage cart through the brick wall between platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross to catch the Hogwarts Express. The only relief for that chipped-business-tooth feeling is a Sensodyne spell, Dental painium anapneo!, most effective when administered with a box of white wine (on the rocks, please).
Frankly, that painful episode is the only thing I remember about the challenge of translating Harry Potter, that and that the site had all these cute little bats fluttering around, which I wanted to put on the 1-800-translate.com site too. Whether this absentmindedness is due to a Confundus Charm or post-traumatic business stress disorder, I can’t recall, as you would expect. But it’s pretty obvious that it will be useless to interview myself. Thank goodness for Wikipedia.
A few years ago, translator Daniel Hahn wrote a great piece in the Guardian on translating Harry Potter. First off, it’s a race against time. “In certain countries, where the quality of second-language English is very high, it’s a race to get the book published in (say) Norwegian, or Danish, before your entire market decides not to bother waiting for the translation, and you find that you’re trying to sell it to people who’ve already read the book in the original. In some cases it’s a race against unofficial translators, too; in China, where enforcement of international copyright law leaves something to be desired, IPR parasites churn out their quick and shoddy renegade versions more or less with impunity.”
Translators are also up against Rowling’s hyper-creative wordplay. Hundreds of made-up words that resonate meaning from familiar sounds and archaic meanings in English either have to be transliterated or retranslated in an attempt to produce the same resonance in other languages. At least in many European languages, translators can fall back on Latin roots (Rowling studied Latin at Exeter University), but the challenge in languages of low concordance, such as Chinese and Japanese, must be daunting.
“And then there’s the wordplay, the prophecies and rhymes (like those of the sorting hat—the sombrero seleccionador). There are also the spells and the anagrams. (Tom Marvolo Riddle may be an anagram of ‘I am Lord Voldemort’; but it’s not an anagram of ‘Je suis Voldemort’, so in France he’s Tom Elvis Jedusor.)”
But these are the daily trials of a translator in the sentence-by-sentence struggle between fidelity and transparency made doubly challenging by Rowling’s imagination. But the imagination of readers is a big factor also. This isn’t like translating instructions for use. Readers care deeply about the choices translators make. There are few things more exasperating to a professional translator than a know-it-all translator busting on a translation. Other fans have found that when they scour their translations, they turn up valuable plot clues, exasperating in an entirely different way to translators desperately seeking fidelity.
The firestorm of publicity is unfamiliar territory to most translators. Hahn says, “The job of any translator requires that they be simultaneously present and absent; altogether sympathetically embedded in the work and yet totally invisible.”
So I was pleased to come across Andrew Wilson’s account of translating Harry Potter into Ancient Greek. Lucian was his inspiration for the appropriate playful style, but Euripides, Aristophanes, and Herodotus also provided terminology, though anonymous papyri proved best for magical spells. The problems Wilson had in translating Rowling’s rich pallet into suitable Hellenic hues is particularly interesting and something I’ll be posting on in the future.
And now, let us praise those translators who launched a thousand bedtime stories for all the children of the world.