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What’s so interesting about Harry Potter in translation?

A look at what makes the translation of Harry Potter such an interesting phenomenon. Using examples from Hufflepuffs to trolls to the translation of puns, we take a look at what Harry Potter can show us about 80+ language communities around the world!

In today’s post, I’m going to demonstrate what makes the translation of Harry Potter such an interesting phenomenon for so many of us. By way of example, I’ll focus particularly on the concept of a “Hufflepuff” in the original English Harry Potter and compare it to the Danish Harry Potter. Then I’ll narrow in on “troll” as a culture-specific element that requires replacement in languages like Turkish in order to be fully comprehensible to its readers. Finally, I’ll discuss the translation of humor across languages, highlighting Oliver Wood and his name as an example.

But first, let’s talk briefly about the nature of language.

Language reflects a lot about the world around us. It reveals something about its utterer, and the people being uttered to. Communication involves making choices, both conscious and unconscious, that rely on the social norms of a language community. And because people appeal to those social norms when they communicate, how people use language to convey thoughts and ideas tells us a lot about the people they’re speaking to or writing for.

“The Magic Mirror” by J.M. Wright, 1827. Sketch illustrating “My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror” by Sir Walter Scott.

The translation of a familiar tale offers a window into other worlds—not magical ones, but living, breathing communities across the world today. Children (and adults) of more than 80 language communities sit down and enjoy Harry Potter in their own tongue, in a way that speaks to them.

Many other novels and works have been translated into just as many languages, or even more. But what makes Harry Potter so interesting is its clever world-building. Not only does the series contain innumerable neologisms—new concepts and objects—but its wizarding world is built on a Muggle world familiar to the reader. Translators not only must convey the intended meaning of the author, but they must also connect the novel’s magic with the everyday world of their language community.

Creating a Wizarding World through Language: How do you fluff enough of Hufflepuff?

That’s not a simple task and it requires a lot of wit. You may have never considered how exactly J.K. Rowling created the image of a typical Hufflepuff in your head early on in the Harry Potter series. The word Hufflepuff itself calls to mind the phrase “huff and puff,” as in the Big Bad Wolf’s great labor to blow the Three Little Pigs’ house down. As soon as we’re introduced to the word “Hufflepuff,” this “huff and puff” reference is immediately but subtly reinforced by the Sorting Hat’s song: “True patient Hufflepuffs are true and unafraid of toil.”

The association of “Hufflepuff” with both “huff and puff” and “toil” is an important first step in the world-building process that creates the concept of a Hufflepuff. Translators cannot reproduce this English-specific reference and must replace it with a new process in order to start building the concept of “Hufflepuff” in a smooth and enjoyable manner.

Let’s look at how Danish translates the Hufflepuff portion of the Sorting Hat’s song:

I Hufflepuff du kan få plads,
hvis du er en stræber,
loyal og god, og venners ven
er nok, hvad huset kræver

You can fit in Hufflepuff,
if you exert yourself,
loyal and good, and a friend of friends
is probably what the house requires

Harry Potter og de Vises Sten (Hanna Lützen)

Students of Roman Jakobson will appreciate the heavy use of alliteration and the rhyming of stræber (“someone who exerts themselves”) with kræver (“requires”). Instead of relying, as in English, on the association of “Hufflepuff” with “huff and puff,” what stands out to the Danish reader (and what remains their initial impression of Hufflepuff) is that Hufflepuffs are venners ven (“a friend of friends”) and that stræber is an essential [kræver] quality of being a Hufflepuff.

Translation Trolls and Other Troublesome Travails

Let’s take another element from Harry Potter and explain why its translation is interesting.

English speakers often take for granted how very British the Harry Potter series is, entrenched in centuries of English-language literature (as well as the Celtic, Nordic, French, and Latin literatures that greatly enriched the English imagination). Translators across the world have grappled with how they should translate concepts as simple as a “troll”: children in their countries would have never heard of such a creature!

That’s presumably why Ülkü Tamer, the translator of the second Turkish translation of Philosopher’s Stone, opted to change the troll in the dungeon to an ifrit, a sort of mischievous genie which is well-known to any Middle Easterner but is quite different from a troll.

“Hasan of Bassorah” by Albert Letchford, 1897. Illustration of a scene from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights depicting some ten ifrits emerging from the earth.

Lost in Translation: Getting the punchline

And accompanying any witty world-building journey comes a whimsicality in the author’s style, simply in how a tale is turned. Take for instance that unforgettable introduction of Oliver Wood:

“Excuse me, Professor Flitwick, could I borrow Wood for a moment?”

Wood? thought Harry, bewildered; was Wood a cane she was going to use on him?

“Potter, this is Oliver Wood.”

This translated really well into French and Dutch, where “Wood” conveniently translated into a common surname as in English:

– Excusez-moi, dit-elle au professeur qui donnait son cours dans la salle . . . Puis-je vous emprunter du bois [some wood] quelques instants ?

Du bois [some wood] ? Avait-elle l’intention de lui donner des coups de bâton? se demanda Harry, déconcerté.

– Potter, je vous présente Olivier Dubois.

Harry Potter à l’école des sorciers (Jean-François Ménard, French)

‘Neemt u me niet kwalijk, professor Banning, maar mag ik Plank even?’

Plank? dacht Harry verbijsterd. Bedoelde ze een stuk hout, om hem mee af te ranselen?

‘Potter, dit is Olivier Plank.

Harry Potter en de Steen der Wijzen (Wiebe Buddingh’, Dutch)

Other languages were not so lucky. Some translations, like Bosnian, even use a footnote to explain to the reader that “Wood” is the English word for wood! (This in turn, by the way, reinforces for the Bosnian reader the notion that Harry is a foreigner who speaks a foreign language—already quite a different experience from the Harry we experience as English speakers!)

Footnote in Harry Potter i Kamen Mudrosti, the Bosnian translation of Philosopher’s Stone by Mirjana Evtov.

As you can see, Harry Potter has a lot to offer for anybody interested in language and translation. You just have to know where to look and what to look for.

So I invite you all to join me in my study of this magical tale in the many languages of the world, and together we’ll uncover all sorts of interesting tidbits about people and their communities around the globe!

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