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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Translating Harry Potter

My father turned me on to an enjoyable way to improve at a foreign language: read Harry Potter in translation. I've read Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal and Harry Potter et le Prisonier D'Azkaban, and I got a lot of somewhat painless French and Spanish out of them. The plots and scenarios are familiar enough that I can pick up the gist of what is going on even if the grammar and vocabulary escape me; but after a few times reading about the impatient lechuza in Harry's room, I can't help but gather that it is not lettuce but an owl.

The most difficult part of reading these books, though, is figuring out which of the many unfamiliar words are made up (this usually means consulting several dictionaries before I realize my error), though the Spanish translators tend to stick closer to the spellings of the original.

Is that a better approach than the refashioning of J. K. Rowling's world of invented vocabulary? Daniel Hahn, writing in The Guardian on translating Harry Potter, doesn't think so:

Spanish readers will find most names and invented words unchanged ("¿Hagrid, qué es el quidditch?"), or translated literally. So the Spanish is faithful in one obvious sense - but while the names may be unchanged, does the name Quirrell really sound as nervous, stammery, querulous in Spanish? Does Hufflepuff sound as ineffectual, dumb and huggable as it does to English ears?


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.)

The article also mentions the extraordinary pressure imposed by the secrecy that keeps each new book under wraps until the moment sales begin, compounded by the presence of bootleg versions:
It's a race against publishers' deadlines, of course; 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. These range from fan-produced translations published online, to brand-new books in the HP series sold on street corners, like the rather peculiar attempt at a book five that appeared while Rowling was in fact still hard at work in Edinburgh writing it (Rowling shares this distinction with Cervantes, who was understandably taken aback to find the second part of Don Quixote published unofficially before he'd had the chance to get round to writing it).
There's also a mention of a product of translation I have never considered: that each translation offers a glimpse from a new angle into the forces behind its choices:
Other fans have found that when they scour their translations they turn up valuable plot clues. Book six has a note mysteriously signed with the initials "RAB", which many readers have speculated may refer to someone in the Black family, a relative of Sirius Black (most likely his younger brother Regulus); the Dutch translation gives the initials on the note as RAZ - and if you know that in Dutch Harry's godfather is called Sirius Zwarts, this change suggests some interesting intelligence.
(Let me take this moment, by the way, to announce my faith in Severus Snape. He did what he did to earn standing and save Draco from committing a horrible crime himself. He will be vindicated!)

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Blogger Meg Lyman on Mon Feb 12, 10:17:00 AM:
Haha, you are to be sorely dissapointed, my friend. Severus Snape is EVIL (though I think he will end up butting heads with Voldemort in the end). You have given me another excuse to read Harry Potter. Practicing my Spanish!
Blogger Ben on Tue Feb 13, 09:39:00 PM:
Mark my words... Snape is a Black! That's why Sirius hated him so much...
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Feb 15, 11:58:00 AM:
I love how the sorting hat is the "choixpeau" in the French translation. "Choix" means "choice" and a "chapeau" is a hat. The hat that chooses. This wordplay doesn't exist in the original.
Blogger PR on Thu Feb 15, 12:45:00 PM:
Laughed when I read this. The first book I read in Japanese was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and also found it a very encouraging experience. The title was directly translated, but I was disturbed to discover "Half-Blood Prince" had been changed to the "Mysterious Prince".

My other tip for budding readers in a foreign language: erotic fiction. You'd think I'm joking, but sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to make it to the end of a story.
Blogger Philip on Thu Feb 15, 03:36:00 PM:
mr icon wrote about learning a foreign language using Harry Potter a couple of years ago. His article is on kuro5hin. He's learnt French and Chinese that way.
Anonymous Anonymous on Thu Feb 15, 07:16:00 PM:
I agree 100%! For me, part of the charm of the books themselves is the way Rowling plays with language to bring the Hogwarts world to life. Reading Harry Potter in French not only improved my language skills but also provided unexpected linguistic entertainment! (Like choixpeau.) Some of my favorites are Poufsouffle (for Hufflepuff), or that Voldemort, Malfoy and Lupin's names have added meaning in French. And reading the word "baguette" when someone uses his/her wand makes me smile every time.
Blogger H on Fri Feb 16, 04:11:00 AM:
I agree fully that losses in translation are huge. This almost discourages me from reading anything translated.

But I do think that reading a familiar text is a good way to practice a language in which one is not proficient. I have practiced German by reading The Little Prince in that language.
Blogger Kate on Fri Feb 16, 08:17:00 AM:
I have noticed that native French speakers sound bizarrely fluent in difficult English words, even when their mastery of English is only so-so. I am realizing that this is because "everyday" French words sound more like our fancier vocabulary words. I feel like French people are so much more like to translate their thoughts with words like 'manifestation', not result, or 'selection' instead of choice, maybe because those words are the cognates to the normal French words. I don't know, I don't speak French. Conversely, when I'm trying to speak Spanish, I feel that the language can sound stiff compared to English: a room is 'un habitacion,' to be wrong is 'equivocarse' (our equivocate), to belong is 'pertenecer' (our pertain). Maybe Spanish feels stiff because in English, we use Latin-derived words for more technical words, or at least for fancier vocabulary. We stick to German derivations for plain, everyday English. I wonder if part of what gets lost when you translate Harry Potter into a Romance language is what happens when raw Germanic English words give way to their Romantic counter-parts, which to our ear sound stuffy and antiseptic, even though to the Spanish or French ear, they do not.

On a side note, my grandmother used to correct people for using stuffy vocabulary words by saying with a note of scorn, "Oh don't resort to a Latin word when a good German one will do." My grandparents were also members of the Jane Austen society, and one lecture they attended spent the forty five minutes demonstrating that Austen uses German words to describe good guys, and Latin words to describe more questionable characters. I'm not expert, though, and I always forget to pay attention to that when I read another of her books. Anyway, the readership of this blog + Alice is as good a place as any to look for someone to confirm or dispel that observation.... Anyone?
Anonymous Anonymous on Sun Feb 18, 10:41:00 PM:
This post has inspired me to pick up a French translation of HP to improve my French reading skills. It also makes me think of Joseph Jacotot, a late 18th/early 19th c. French professor who taught French to his Flemish-speaking Belgian students by having them compare Fénelon's Télémaque with its Flemish translation. Jacotot apparently knew no Flemish at the time. He used this experience as the basis for his later ideas on "emancipatory" education.
Anonymous Anonymous on Fri Mar 09, 05:54:00 PM:
Fascinating article! Reminds me of what I've read about translating the Astérix comics. I've read "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" in German and French. While the losses in translation are undoubtedly there, the educational value is overwhelming (not to mention the entertainment value)!

Really interesting, too, what Kate has to say on Jane I want to go reread Pride and Prejudice!
Blogger Herodotus on Fri Aug 17, 03:47:00 PM:
I'm glad to find other people sharing my hobby of reading Harry Potter as a way to learn languages! I read the first two volumes in Italian, the third in Portuguese, the fourth in Greek, the fifth in Hebrew and the sixth in Korean. In each case it gave me the ability to read the language without a translation alongside. The plot just carries one along, and after five or six hundred pages ... voila!