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Translating Harry Potter – Challenges in Translating Fantasy Literature

Lithuanian Haris Poteris and his Dutch best friends Hermelien Griffel and Ron Wemel attend a French school for magic called Poudlard (“bacon lice”), get in trouble with the Dutch Severus Sneep, and receive medical attention from an Italian Madama Poppy Chips. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it? A rose by any other name might smell the same, but is Harry Potter by any other name as magical?

20 years ago, J.K. Rowling first got millions of children (and adults) rabidly interested in reading about the adventures of a young wizard. The unique and clever proper nouns she invented for her characters and their world have since become part of the English speaker’s household vocabulary (“Muggle” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003). The books have been translated into over 70 languages, including Ancient Greek. It takes a large amount of skill and research to undertake the task of translating fantasy literature while retaining the author’s original intent, a process known as transcreation. Translators face distinct challenges, and in the case of the Harry Potter series, must solve them with a captive worldwide audience.

Challenge One: Character Names
Translation of proper names in literature does not have any set rules, although in the majority of cases names are usually left as they are in the original. The unique trouble with the Harry Potter series is that many of the place and character names are invested with meaning. Rowling’s liberal use of puns, connotation, acronyms, and other devices deliver information and laughs to the reader, but pose a huge problem for translators – leave the names as they are, so readers can participate in the global conversation about their favorite series (as of 2014, there are 680,000 pieces of Harry Potter fan fiction on or try to trans-create them into the target languages to convey as much of the nuance and color of the original as possible? If the names were translated, it would be easier for readers to relate to the characters. However, it can be argued that part of the charm and draw of the books is their “Britishness,” which would be lost in translation.

Most translators of the series followed a mix of the two approaches. A set of guidelines for this situation proposed by Lincoln Fernandes in “Translation of Names in Children’s Fantasy Literature” suggests that names with a “fundamental role in creating comic effect and portraying characters’ personality traits” should be localized, while those that don’t carry the same weight can remain as they are. Most importantly, the names have to be “readable” and easy to remember. If they are too foreign-sounding, his argument goes, they will pose too much of an obstacle for anyone to be interested in the book.

The Polish translator of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Andrzej Polkowski, followed these guidelines, not translating the names of the main characters Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley, Voldemort, Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, Neville Longbottom, Argus Filch, and Draco Malfoy. Most of these names do carry some information, which ends up lost in the Polish version. Severus does not invoke severity, Longbottom is not funny, etc. Polkowski offered a creative solution to this problem, and enclosed a glossary of complex names and other terms at the end of his translation. Dumbledore’s origin is noted (“Albus” is the Latin for white, while “Dumbledore” is an archaic word for bumblebee – Rowling imagined Albus Dumbledore as someone who hummed while he moved about). “Draco” is the Latin for “Dragon” or “Serpent.” Yet, not all the names made the glossary, so the Polish reader may never know the full implications of Voldemort’s or Snape’s names. Oddly, the glossary does include the semantic background for Potter, which is one name that seems incidental. It is unclear how Polkowski made the decision on which names made the cut, but the influence of his choices on the reader’s experience is obvious.

In other languages, translators elected to translate character names literally. In the French version, Oliver Wood is Olivier Dubois. It is true that such a replacement can make the book more accessible, but the translator is in effect replacing the character’s British background with a French one. If heading down this path, why not change the entire setting of the book to the target culture?

In some cases, attempts at preserving Rowling’s wordplay resulted in giving the characters entirely new traits. In the Italian, Albus Dumbledore is translated as “Albus Silente” – a misreading of the “dumb” in Dumbledore to mean “silent” – the opposite of the humming bee Rowling intended.

The French writer who translated Harry Potter is Jean-François Ménard, also Roald Dahl’s preferred translator. Rowling chose Ménard specifically for his interest in etymology, magic, and humor. Ménard’s translation is an example of transcreation at its best. To translate “Muggle,” Menard invented the word “Moldu,” which references the French expression “mou du bulbe” (“soft in the head”). Hufflepuff became “Poufsouffle,” Hogwarts “Poudlard” (“bacon lice”), magic wand was “baguette magique” (which makes me envision people waving large baguettes at one another), but my favorite by far is the ingenious pun of “Choixpeau” for the Sorting Hat (“choix” is French for “choice,” “chapeau” is French for “hat”). Another example of effective transcreation is the Dutch replacement of OWLs (Ordinary Wizarding Levels) and NEWTs (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests) as SLIJMBAL (“slimeball”) and PUIST (“pimple”).

Translation of proper names into languages that do not have Latin roots posed an even greater problem. The name of the dark Knockturn Alley is a play on the word nocturnally, and also evokes the knocking that a character does on the brick at the back of the Leaky Cauldron, as well as the twists and turns of the narrow road. In Japanese, it is translated as ‘Yoru no yami (Nokutān) Yokochō’, meaning ‘Darkness of the Night Alley.’ While it keeps the connotation of darkness, it doesn’t employ the words for knock or turn. ‘Nokutān’ is included in katakana to show that this is a more accurate reading of the term, and denoting its English origins. However, the meaning that a Japanese reader is likely to infer is that of a piece of music representing the evening or night.

In the Hindi translation of Harry Potter, spells were written in Sanskrit. An ancient language that is now dead, it was used to write the Hindu scriptures and classical Indian epic poetry. This recalls the spirit of the Latin-sounding spells in the English version of the book, but contextualizes it for the target audience.

Challenge Two: Anagrams

Another aspect of the complexity of the task is the fact that some of the character names became highly important only further down the line of the story. Keep in mind that the translators were not privy to any more information than what was contained in the books published thus far. The biggest example of this is Tom Riddle/Voldemort. When Tom Marvolo Riddle’s name was revealed as an anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort” in the second book, translators had to come up with some pretty interesting maneuvers to massage an anagram out of whatever name they’d given Voldemort in book one. The most popular method seems to be creative middle names, my favorite being the French “Tom Elvis Jedusor.”

Challenge Three: Rights to Translation and Deadlines

Translators faced further challenges based on their country. Translations could only begin after the book had been published in English, and the publisher had to negotiate and sign a contract with Rowling’s agents. Because a full year elapsed between publication and the awarding of rights to translate in Ukraine, a comprehensive style guide had been issued that clearly stated which names should stay as they are in the original by the time the Ukrainian translator got started. The Norwegian translator, on the other hand, did not have these guidelines, and so chose to make Norwegian equivalents for all of the names. When certain names turned out to be crucial to the plot, wholesale changes of names had to be pushed through.

Beyond the complexities of the actual translation work, translators of the series had to deal with time constraints and crazy deadlines. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 870 pages in the US edition, was published on June 21, 2003. The first official translation appeared on July 21, 2003, in Vietnamese. The Serbian edition was next, in September. The French traslator, Jean-François Ménard, stated that towards the end of the series he would work every day of the week from 6 AM to Midnight to be able to finish the translations on time for the strict deadlines (around 4 – 6 weeks).

The Harry Potter series provides a high-profile example of the many skills and talents essential to creating a successful translation. Beyond an excellent grasp of both the source and target languages, a nuanced understanding of both cultures is crucial. If a translator’s reading of a joke or pun and her choice of whether to try and convey it to the target audience influences the way an imaginary world is constructed in the minds of readers, is it the author’s world we are really enjoying, or the translator’s? Does it matter if Harry Potter attends Hogwarts or Poudlard?

The translator’s job of making the foreign accessible without erasing its cultural specificity can appear impossible when stylistic choices such as these present themselves. As we’ve seen in the more successful translation of Harry Potter, however, it can be done. ALTA Language Services works with translators who can provide transcreation services for marketing, advertising, and PR needs, as well as high quality literary translation if you happen to come across the next Harry Potter.

For more information on ALTA’s literary translation services, visit:


Maria Diment was born in Russia and currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she works in the Translations Department at ALTA Language Services.

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