The Many Challenges of Translating Harry Potter

Last Updated October 25, 2017

Learn about the process of translating the Harry Potter series, books filled with neologisms, wordplay and magic.

How many of you have read Harry Potter? And how many of you have ever read it in a language other than your native tongue?

The Harry Potter series has become a cultural phenomenon. With each release, millions of fans dressed up like the book’s characters and lined up outside bookstores. They were the first to lay their hands on the freshly printed adventures of the young wizard. And if you had to wait for a translation, you hoped you could somehow avoid spoilers.

English Harry Potter Readers: The Chosen Ones

Here’s the main challenge. Publishers did not make the books available for translation prior to the release dates. That’s why Harry Potter’s enthusiasts around the world had to wait so long for their native language versions.

This brutal strategy had one more consequence – the translators had to work under extreme time pressure.

Even though the volumes were huge and the deadlines short, most translators chose to work alone.

The Experience of the Translators

Lia Wyler, the Brazilian translator, says that if she had wanted to hire an assistant, it would have had to be her clone. She said she’d need someone with the exact same background and accent. She even preferred someone from the same neighborhood to maintain the high level of accuracy and consistency. Language is collective, she says, but vocabulary is extremely individual.

Viktor Golyshev is an award-winning English to Russian translator of William Faulkner, George Orwell and Thorton Wilder. He wasn’t really pleased with this job, though. He had no interest in children’s literature and was widely criticized for moralizing, lack of fantasy and inaccuracies.

When the fifth book came out, a whole team of translators was assigned to him. But it’s still mostly Golyshev who’s associated with the Russian translation of Harry Potter. You can read more about the translators’ insights here.

“There’s no need to call me Sir, professor”

Everyone who has ever read the original language version of Harry Potter has to admit that the book is excessively British.

Professors calling their students by their surnames or “sirs” and students drinking butter beer are only two things out of many others that would make foreign readers wonder about J.K. Rowling’s literary choices.

Those elements of the British culture were so unfamiliar to foreign readers that the translators had to somehow change or replace them.

That’s why in the Israeli version you won’t find Ron eating lemon sherbet (instead, he’s a chocolate sweets’ lover). In the French version you will read about professor Rouge instead of professor Snape (“Rogue” sounds more French but the meaning and overtone stay the same).

Some of the Harry Potter translators chose to mix British elements with their native cultures. Some left the original content and only translated it adding footnotes with explanations of cultural nuances.

In cases of untranslatable content, Klaus Fritz – the German translator – actually came up with and added his own jokes and gigs just to retain Rowling’s humor and subtlety, adapted, however, to his native culture.

“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, the inexhaustible source of magic”

With so many neologisms, so much meaning hidden behind almost every name, translating Harry Potter was an extraordinary challenge for any translator.

Translators had to become creators when working with so many new words like muggles, pensieve or portkey. They had to keep the humor, sensitivity and subtlety of Rowling’s wordplay, adapted, however, to a new language and culture. How did they do that?

Some translators change the names to reflect more local characters. In other cases, translators decided to just transliterate the name or leave it in the original form.

Andrzej Polkowski, the Polish translator, created a thesaurus with more than 1,000 terms and their explanations. What is more, he added a “glossary for the curious ones” at the end of every Harry Potter book. He used it to show the readers the original names along with their meanings and etymology, as well as his translation of those names and the logic behind it.

Translating Harry Potter: Challenging Examples

If you’re curious about how the authors of different Harry Potter language versions managed to capture the wordplay and cultural references, take a peek into some of the examples:

Who’s the headmaster?

Most of you know the headmaster of Hogwarts as Albus Dumbledore. But, for example, Italian and Czech readers know him by other names: Silente and Brumbál respectively.

Naming He Who Must Not Be Named

Voldemort’s real name also differs from one language version to another. It’s because of a single scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when the illusion of Tom Marvolo Riddle reveals his true self to Harry. Lord Voldemort is an anagram created by rearranging the letters in his full name. Some translators left it in the original, adding a footnote to explain it to their readers, while others changed it so that it fits into the translation. And that’s how we get Tom Elvis Judesor in French, Anton Marvolo Hurt in Greek (this surname fits him perfectly, doesn’t it?) and Tom Orvolson Riddle in Italian.

Mirror of Erised

The name come from reading “desire” backwards. It’s not always a direct translation, though. The Korean translators just chose a different word meaning “aspiration” and left it in its right form, naming the artifact “The Mirror of Aspiration”.

What’s in a name?

Rowling’s creativity and her engagement in the writing process is found in almost every name in the Harry Potter universe. Each character’s name is well thought-out and quite hard to be translated accurately.

The character’s name often mirrors his or her personality. Here are some of the character’s names and their meanings, as well as the etymology of some charms and spells:

Harry Potter names translation etymology summa linguae

Characters’ names explained

harry potter spells and charms translation summa linguae

Spells and charms

We Can Help With All Translation Challenges

Is it still hard to imagine how difficult literature translation can be? Try to translate the Sphynx riddle (from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) into your own language:

First think of the person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies.
Next, tell me what’s always the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?
And finally give me the sound often heard
During the search for a hard-to-find word.
Now string them together and answer me this, which creature are you unwilling to kiss?

Translation of literature is an art and requires an extremely skilled translator.

Harry Potter and other fantasy books may look like a translator’s nightmare but given the fact that millions of people around the world can enjoy reading about the adventures of the young wizard in so many languages, I guess we can say that all was well.

Contact us today for help with your next translation project.

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