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A tale of trolls and goblins: the Low German “Puk” in Harry Potter

Translation is a powerful tool, and even the smallest subtleties can create big differences in a story. Take a look at this case from the Low German translation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, where a connection is drawn between stupid trolls and the clever-faced goblins.

Today, we’re going to explore an example from Harry Potter un de Wunnersteen in Low German where the translators’ choices have significant implications for world-building. In this case, the translators, Hartmut Cyriacks and Peter Nissen, chose to use the same word (Puk) for both the goblins at Gringotts and the troll in the dungeon. While the descriptions of the two Puken make it clear that they cannot be the same type of creature, the reader assumes some sort of association between the two creatures, whether they be two races of the same type of creature or just belong to a broad category of creatures.

Regardless of what the connection between these two creatures is, we’ll see that the use of the same word for both creatures has clear implications—most notably, that some wizards and witches hold disparaging views of the Puken at Gringotts.

What’s a Puk? (And where to find them)

The Puk (in English, “puck”) is a mythological creature known throughout the northern European plains, Great Britain, and Ireland. Its description tends to be vague. It dwells among humans but goes undetected, so it’s thought to be small enough to scurry away unseen or to have the ability to take the unsuspicious form of domestic animals (cats, dogs, goats, rats…).

Puken like tidiness and they’re prone to cleaning up their living spaces, even if it’s your home and your mess. Sometimes they’ll do little favors for you, too—with your encouragement of course. They’ll expect you to leave them some nibbles or some old clothes as rewards.

They’re not above playing tricks on people. They mostly just pull harmless pranks, like tying your shoes together or pulling the blanket off you while you sleep. It gives them a good laugh and provides them with some entertainment. It can even be a sign that they feel comfort and companionship with you. But if you anger them, you’d better watch your step and leave a light on as you sleep, because they’re capable of far worse than those benign jests. Some Puken are also just bad apples who want to create havoc.

In Low German folklore, Puken have a more certain physical form than in other parts of northern Europe. They’re short, elf-like creatures with pointy hats and slippers not unlike, well, elves. They’re quite clever, and so it’s no wonder why Puk was chosen as the Low German substitute for the Gringotts goblins.

The troll in the Dungeon (or: the Puk in the Cellar)

More curious was the choice to translate “troll” as Puk as the description doesn’t fit the Low German conception of a Puk at all:

Dat sehg gräsig ut. Veer Meter hooch, mit ‘n Huut so bleek as gries Granit, dat Liev as ‘n groten Hinkelsteen, wo ‘n unheemlichen Glatzkopp op seet, de nich grötter as ‘n Kokosnutt weer. Mit dree korte Been, dicker as utwussen Eekbööm, un ünnen an platte Fööt mit dicke Hoornhuut. De Gestank weer nich to’n Utholen. In de Hand harr ‘t ‘n gewaltig grote hölten Küül, de vunwegen de langen Arms op de Eer slarr.

“It looked horrible. Four meters high, with skin as pale as gray granite, its body like a big cornerstone on which sits an unseemly bald head no bigger than a coconut. With three short legs, thicker than fully grown oak trees, and flat feet at the bottom with thick, horned skin. The stench was unbearable. In its hand it had a large wooden club, which dragged on the ground because of its long arms.”

Harry Potter un de Wunnersteen (Hartmut Cyriacks and Peter Nissen)

Quite the opposite of your traditional Puk, this one is gigantic. Not only does it stand four meters tall, but each of its three(?!) short legs is thicker than a tree trunk! There is no way this particular Puk could get away with anything sneaky around your house.

But perhaps that’s why this type of Puk is lesser-known: they’re too big to live inside your walls or beneath your floor panels. They’d be quite clunky for sneaking around your house while you’re asleep. You just simply wouldn’t encounter such a gigantic Puk as commonly as one of the smaller ones that reside inside your home.

The Gringotts Puken

Now let’s take a look at how the Puken at Gringotts are described:

De Puk weer bummelig een Kopp lütter as Harry. He harr düüster Huut, ‘n plietsch Gesicht, ‘n Spitzboort un – dat full Harry op – gewaltig lange Fingers un grote Fööt.

“The Puk was about a head shorter than Harry. He had dark skin, and clever face, and a pointed beard and – Harry observed – huge long fingers and big feet.”

Harry Potter un de Wunnersteen (Hartmut Cyriacks and Peter Nissen)

Not only are the Puken at Gringotts short, but they have dark skin. You’ll recall that the tall Puk in the Hogwarts cellar (Keller), as the dungeon is described in Low German, has pale, gray skin.

Are the Gringotts goblins dumb?

Clearly the Puk in the cellar and the Puken in Gringotts are not the same creature. As readers of Harry Potter un de Wunnersteen, we might suppose that both creatures are called by the same name because they’re different races of the same creature. Or we might consider Puk just to be a category of creature, not unlike how “troll” in English refers categorically to earth-dwelling creatures who may either be monstrous ogres or shy little dwarves.

But consider the consequences of lumping them into the same category:

When Harry asks what a Puk would be doing in Hogwarts a Ron responds: “De schüllt doch egentlich so dösig ween.” (“They’re supposed to be really stupid.”) In this scene, Ron doesn’t yet know whether the Puk in the cellar is the ogre-type or the dwarfish Gringotts-type. He doesn’t make any effort to distinguish between the two types, either. He just categorically dismisses Puken as dumb, necessarily implying an assumption on Ron’s part that there are no clever Puken.

As readers of this Low German-language wizarding world, we learn that at least some wizards consider the Puken in Gringotts to be dumb creatures. Whether or not they are dumb is a separate question: they’re described as having a clever face (“plietsch Gesicht“), but we also know that someone had outsmarted them by breaking into Gringotts. We might even assume that Ron calls them “stupid” out of frustration about the Gringotts break-in. But we can be quite clear that there’s disdain for the Gringotts goblins reflected in Ron’s statement.

By creating this association between the dungeon troll and the Gringotts goblins, the Low German translators demonstrate the power of translation to alter the world imagined by the reader. In this case, where the English reader is led to believe that the goblins at Gringotts are incredibly clever and admirable, the Low German reader is left with a less positive impression that they’re at least somewhat dumb and wreckless.

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