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Harry Potter in a made-up language? The Esperanto translation!

“Jes…” diris Zomburdo reve. “Strange la homaj mensoj funkcias, ĉu ne? Profesoro Snejp ne povis toleri tion, ke li ŝuldas al via patro… mi ja kredas, ke li tiom klopodis por protekti vin ĉijare, ĉar li sentis, ke tio kvitigus la aferon inter li kaj via patro. Tiam li povus denove malamadi la memoron de via patro senĝene…”
Hari klopodis kompreni, sed tio faris lian kapon bategi, do li ĉesis.
“Kaj sinjoro, restas sola demando…”
“Nur tiu sola?”
“Kiel mi ekhavis la Ŝtonon el la spegulo?”
“Ah, nun mi ĝojas, ke vi demandas tion. Tio estis unu el miaj pli geniaj ideoj, kaj inter ni mi konfesas, ke tiu signifas multon. La solvo estis tia: nur tiu, kiu deziras trovi la Ŝtonon — trovi ĝin, sed ne uzi ĝin — nur tiu povis ekhavi ĝin, alie oni vidus sin farante oron aŭ trinkante la Eliksiron de la Vivo.

Hari Potter kaj la Ŝtono de la Saĝuloj (George Baker and Don Harlow)

Those of us who collect Harry Potter translations often talk about how few people have gotten to read Harry Potter in languages like Gujarati or Nepali: so few copies even exist in those languages. But if there’s ever been a translation that’s widely available but has never been read, it’s most likely the Esperanto edition! At least cover-to-cover.

What even is Esperanto?

Esperanto is a constructed language, not unlike High Valyrian from Game of Thrones or Elvish from Lord of the Rings. That comparison is a little unfair, though. High Valyrian and Elvish were made up just for fun. Esperanto was created with a serious purpose.

Invented by L. L. Zamenhof (self-styled “Doktoro Esperanto,” which means “Dr. Hoping”), Esperanto is an international language easy enough for everyone to learn, whether their native language is English, Italian, German, or Polish. The grammar is very simple. No verb conjugations. No grammar. Its words are recognizable and easy to pronounce.

ِAnd the easy language caught on! There are thousands of people who actually speak this made-up language. You can learn it at Duolingo. William Shatner starred in Incubus, the most well-known of many Esperanto-language films. George Soros is rumored to be a native speaker. His father was a dedicated Esperantist; the family name Soros is Esperanto for “We Shall Soar.”

So much has been written in Esperanto that Google Translate has a module for the language. In a previous post, we mentioned that only several dozen languages (of the thousands spoken today) have enough literature for Google Translate to work.

The story behind Harry Potter in Esperanto

It’s ultimately no surprise that people would endeavor to translate Harry Potter into Esperanto. People use it, people believe in it, and it offers opportunity for language practice. And although I joked that probably nobody has read the translation cover-to-cover, I wouldn’t doubt that hundreds of people have read at least the first chapter or two.

The translators of the Esperanto edition were George Baker and Don Harlow, active participants in an organization known as Esperanto-USA, which is a 501(c)(3) organization that aims to promote education in Esperanto. The translation was reviewed and edited by other Esperantists, and a serious attempt was made to have the translation published. Rowling’s attorneys declined to authorize its publication, however, without working through a well-established publishing house.

So the Esperantists started a website that was intended to demonstrate interest in the publication. In 2007, its petition had more than 600 signatures, 460 of whom claimed either fluency or competence in Esperanto. If each one of those signatories were to buy the Esperanto edition, it would be roughly as successful as at least two other translations: Asturian and Greenlandic. Who knows how many more people would buy it just out of general interest in either Esperanto or Harry Potter book collection. (I’d definitely buy it!) One thing’s for certain, though: it would be a real challenge to market and to identify bookstores that could display and successfully sell the edition.

Translation style of Hari Potter kaj la Ŝtono de la Saĝuloj

Now let’s talk a little about the text itself. Like a handful of other foreign editions, the Esperanto translation relies on footnotes to mention cultural references. And because Esperanto is a constructed language, this translation also uses footnotes to explain certain neologisms and obscure words that other Esperantists may not have previously encountered.

One excellent use of footnotes is in the translation of Halloween as Halovino: “Halovino (angle: Hallowe’en) fest je la 31a de oktobro, ĉefe en Britio kaj Nord-Ameriko, kiam oni tradicie maskaradas kiel gesorĉistoj, fantomoj, aŭ similaj. Esperante: antaŭvespero de ĉiusanktula tago.

This fits with the translators’ express goal of preserving the British context of the novel. They explain Halovino in the footnote, particularly the special nature of Halloween in the Anglosphere. It then goes on to provide the native Esperanto phrase for “All Hallow’s Eve” (antaŭvespero de ĉiusanktula tago), even though the translators chose to borrow Halovino from English. That choice to borrow the English word “Halloween” and explain it with a footnote allowed the translation to retain the cultural context behind the word, which would have been obscured by using the native Esperanto phrase for “All Hallow’s Eve.”

But naturally translators who rely on footnotes are going to over-rely on them. An example of this occurs already in the fourth footnote of the translation. In the English edition, Uncle Vernon hums a song called “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” The song title is translated literally into Esperanto as “Paŝetu en Tulipoj.” The accompanying footnote explains that “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” is a well-known song in English by Tiny Tim. Again, this served the aim of preserving the British context. But in that case, they should have just kept the title in English—especially if they were going to explain the reference in a footnote!

I’d argue that the footnote reference to the Tiny Tim song was too specific to serve the reader anyway. Sure, the song is a bit silly and readers benefit from knowing how frolicsome the song actually sounds. But the real effect for the reader comes from the title, not the sound of the song. The footnote distracts the reader from the intended takeaway of a very passing moment: Vernon Dursley humming about gaily in the garden to a happy tune. It didn’t matter for the reader how dainty the real song sounds. It matters how dainty the alliterative title came off. (After all, how many of us were even aware of the Tiny Tim song when we read Harry Potter as kids?)

The choices for proper nouns, meanwhile, are either hit or miss. Ron Weasley becomes Ron Tordeli, a believable name that rolls off the tongue (although hardly British). But Neville Longbottom becomes an awkward Neville Longejo. The translators also missed many opportunities to take creative license, such as “Kvidiĉo” (Quidditch) and “Skabro” (Scabbers), where the English name was simply adapted for Esperanto morphophonology.

Some idiomatic phrases come off dry in the translation. When the goblins of Gringotts warn journalists to keep “their noses out” of Gringotts’ affairs, the quite literal interpretation of “do tiru viajn nazojn el la afero” just does not have the same effect. On the other hand, if that’s what lacks most in a translation of a novel into a constructed language, I would still count that translation a pretty impressive project!

Overall the rating of the Esperanto translation on the Spellman Spectrum is 45.5 (at the time of this post). That’s a fairly successful score for what the translators wanted to achieve: a translation that’s easy and straight-forward for an intermediate language learner. At the same time, the score reflects a moderate degree of creativity and innovation, offering the occasional Easter egg, if you will, for the Esperanto student to discover.

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