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The Big Reveal: the rare Uyghur translation of Harry Potter I just got my hands on…

For weeks, I’ve been teasing other collectors with what rare mystery book I was able to get ahold of. Initially, I intended to reveal the book as soon as I received it. But when I opened it and found how pleasantly surprised I was by it, I decided to wait.

The reason why? I wanted to make a case for why it’s worth looking for. Few collectors own this book. And few details are known about it, save for an investigation over at Potterglot. So I thought that owning a copy put some responsibility on me to augment Potterglot’s work with some additional info!

Below, I’ll begin with a note to collectors before I provide a brief background about the language community and the language itself. Finally, I’ll give you a little taste of the translation style and discuss some text examples while providing a little sampling of wizarding names and terms. There’s a lot more to say about this book than the little preview I offer here. So if you get the chance, leave some feedback on what you enjoy from the post and whether there’s more you’d like to see!

A note to collectors and an introduction to the book

Before I get to the reveal, let me start by addressing the reasons collectors hesitate to look for this book. The first is that the legal permissions for the translation are questionable. It’s possible that Rowling and her agents never authorized it, although no definitive answer to that question has been determined. Some collectors hesitate to own an unauthorized translation because of how easy it is for anyone to produce, and especially without any consideration toward quality or seriousness.

Whether this one has appropriate permissions, it is published by a reputable and established publisher and has gone through the proper legal channels for its locality. It also appears to be a formal attempt at translation and publication, and the translation itself reads really well. On the Spellman Spectrum, it rates 52.3, meaning it’s an enjoyable read on par with the German, Catalan, and Portuguese translations. Unauthorized translations tend to be of lower quality and rate much lower as well.

The other hesitation among collectors is the cover art. Or rather, the lack of it. That’s a big turn off for some collectors. But the book quality itself is otherwise amazing. When I held it in my hands, I was pleasantly surprised. The binding and the pages are decent quality, and it feels very nice to hold the book and flip through its pages. It’s probably more pleasant, in fact, than any other softcover Harry Potter book I own. It Exceeds Expectations in many regards.

If you’re the type of collector who collects some unauthorized translations, I’d highly recommend adding this one to your collection. Not only because it approaches professional quality, but also for purposes of language preservation. More on that below, but first the big reveal…

Harry Potter (Kharri Pottir) in the Uyghur language, translated by Alimjan Azat.

It’s Uyghur! Shout out to Jenny, who was the first to guess it.

The title of this book is simply Kharri Pottir and it was translated by Alimjan Azat. He seems to be a prolific translator, with The Da Vinci Code (or Davinchining Măkhpiyiti) among his other major sellers. The book was published in 2012 by a reputable publisher called Xinjiang Juvenile Publishing House, which has published more than 20,000 books in Uyghur, Chinese, and Kazakh.

It’s worth taking a moment to mention that there is a strong preference among Uyghurs to spell their ethnonym with a “y,” which more accurately reflects that the y in the OOY-ghur pronunciation is a consonant rather than a vowel. I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand why there seems to be an aversion to the “Uighur” spelling, at least among human rights activists, but these seemingly small matters become very important for communities that face existential threats to their communal identity.

Who are the Uyghurs? And why are Uyghur books becoming precious?

Map of China, showing the distribution of Uyghur speakers in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Province. Light red indicates desert region with few inhabitants.

The Uyghurs are frequently in the news these days, at least in English-language media. They live mainly in northwestern China in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province, which has become a focal point in the discussion of human rights in China.

Map of approximate extent of the Uyghur empire in the 9th century.

Although you may not have heard much about the Uyghurs before 2018, they’re one of the major ethnic groups in Central Asia, where they commanded an empire in the 8th century. It was led by a khagan, the military commander charged with conducting foreign affairs, alongside a domestic policymaker appointed from among a council of tribal leaders. The empire flourished after its conversion to Manichaeism attracted merchants, artisans, and specialists of the Manichaean faith to relocate from Persia and nearby regions. It was at that time that the Uyghurs adopted the Manichaean script and adapted it for their own language. That famously vertical script, or at least a version of it, remains in use today by speakers of Mongolian and Manchu.

Text example of Manchu language. The vertical Manchu and Mongolian alphabets are derived from the Old Uyghur alphabet.

The wealth attained by the Uyghurs during this period, by both material and cultural measures, ensured the elites’ survival after the fall of the empire from Kyrgyz invasions in the mid-9th century. Only years later, a Uyghur kingdom was re-established in modern Xinjiang. Xinjiang had previously been under the peripheral control of the Uyghur rulers, but was now at the center of their power. The kingdom continued to be a powerhouse for Uyghur cultural production until the 13th century, when it was overtaken by the Mongols.

It was during these two eras that the rich traditions of Uyghur culture were augmented by a melting pot of the world’s most influential literary heritages, including those of Persia, India, and even the distant Greeks. According to Rian Thum in his book The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, the Uyghurs have a national hero, Siyawushullah, whose tomb near Kashgar serves as a place of pilgrimage. The legendary figure is clearly derived from the Siyavash of the Shahnameh, the Persian national epic, but adapted in a way that represents centuries of the Uyghurs’ historical experience.

The Uyghurs slowly and gradually converted to Islam over a period of centuries, first from exposure to Muslim elites who migrated to their kingdom and later from socioeconomic and political pressure as the governing elites themselves became Muslim. With access to the Qur’an and to Islamic literature now a priority among the well-educated, the Uyghurs switched to the Arabic script for writing their language. Still, only around the 18th century or so did the rich folk and literary traditions of the Uyghurs start becoming Islamicized—relatively late for an Islamic people.

Unfortunately, Uyghurs today are losing access to their language and centuries of literature. One factor is a major spelling reform in the 20th century. The changes improved literacy overall. By matching the written language to pronunciation, it became much more simple for people to learn to read and write in Uyghur. But the differences to the old spelling conventions were so great that it became very difficult for literate Uyghurs to read old books and manuscripts.

More recently, policies by China’s government have begun suppressing the Uyghur language. Officially and historically, China has protected and promoted Uyghur literacy and education. But tensions between Beijing and the Uyghurs go back centuries and, geopolitically, Xinjiang is a very important region for the Chinese government to keep under its control. The relationship is not inherently hostile. But Uyghur and Chinese interests have often been at odds with one another.

China, especially under the initiatives of Xi Jinping, now views language policy and education as a big part of the problem (and thus also part of the solution). It has systematically transitioned education among the Uyghurs away from Uyghur language schools and toward schools where the language of instruction is Mandarin Chinese—all with the intention of integrating the Uyghurs into the socioeconomic fabric of China. Over the last 5 years or so, a lot of evidence has emerged indicating that China’s strong-handed education policies are both coercive and repressive.

In all of this, Uyghur literacy is being suppressed. Uyghur children are not being taught how to read the language and even the most harmless of Uyghur books are being banned. In the past couple years, some people have reported that the only Uyghur-language books they can now find in bookstores in Xinjiang are translations of Xi Jinping’s book. What that means for books like Kharri Pottir, which are translated directly from approved Chinese publications and whose content is well-known to Chinese officials, is unclear. But in an era of language repression, it’s always a good idea for collectors in safe countries to hold on to whatever books they have in that language.

Some comments on the Uyghur language

The Uyghur language is a Turkic language of at least 10 million native speakers, and as many as 150 million people can understand it to some extent. It’s a cousin of Turkish, and the two languages enjoy such a high degree of mutual intelligibility that speakers of either language can pick up most words in the other. It’s even more closely related to Uzbek, a language of 25 million speakers, and speakers of Uzbek and Uyghur can converse freely with one another without much difficulty. Uyghur also enjoys some mutual intelligibility with Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and a few other languages.

As mentioned above, Uyghur primarily uses an adapted Arabic alphabet. It underwent a major spelling reform in the 20th century which introduced a more regular system of phonetic vowels.

Uyghur translation

Let’s take a look at the opening lines of Kharri Pottir. I like to look at that first sentence in Harry Potter translations not only out of general interest, but because it’s linguistically fascinating and complex. That’s no less true for Uyghur, which takes a somewhat unique approach:

مەبۇدە كوچىسىدىكى تۆتىنچى نومۇر لۇق قورۇدا ئولتۇرىدىغان دېسلى ئەر – خوتۇنلار هەمىشە ئۆزلىرىنى توليمۈ قائىده-يوسۇنلۇق ئائىلە دەپ پەخىر لىنەتتى، ئەمەلىيەتتىمۇ ئۇلار قائىده-يوسۇنغا بەك ئېتىبار بېرەتتى

Măbudă kochisidiki tötinchi nomur luq qoruda olturidighan Desli ăr – khotunlar hămishă öz lirini tolimü qa’idă-yosunlüq a’ilă dăp păkhir linătti, ămăliyăttimu ular qa’idă-yosungha băk etibar berătti.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, who live at Number 4 Mabuda Street, were always proud of themselves as a very well-mannered family—in fact, they were very disciplined.

Kharri Potter (Alimjan Azat)

In the post linked above, I identified six common strategies translators have used to interpret this sentence. Azat uses the third strategy in his Uyghur translation: he replaces the phrase “thank you very much” with an emphatic repetition (“in fact, they were very disciplined”) to drive home the point of how well-mannered the family is.

Notice that Azat also takes a creative approach to interpret “perfectly normal.” I took some liberties in translating qa’idă-yosun and qa’idă-yosunluq as “well-mannered” and “disciplined.” But the compound phrase generally refers to someone with an upright upbringing and the ability to navigate proper etiquette in social occasions. It’s a good application of the so-called “skopos principle” in translation theory: translating not only the words but also the cultural implications. To be “perfectly normal” in Uyghur culture is to have that proper upbringing and etiquette.

An interesting feature about the translation, as Potterglot first pointed out, is that it is clearly translated from the Simplified Chinese version of Philosopher’s Stone as translated by Su Nong. In fact, the Mabuda Street mentioned above is the first thing to betray the Chinese background. The word măbudă in Uyghur means “female idol.” The Chinese word for privet, 女贞, literally means female idol.

But evidence of translation from Chinese really comes out in the translation of proper nouns and other wizarding terms that are transliterated rather than translated. Below are some examples of names, words, and phrases that directly reflect the Mandarin pronunciation of the names and words found in Su Nong’s Chinese translation of Philosopher’s Stone.

EnglishUyghurUyghur (transliterated)Simplified Chinese (pinyin)
Albus Dumbledoreئاربوس دىمبورىدوArbus DimboridoĀbùsī Dèngbùlìduō
Minerva McGonagallمىلۋا ماكMilva MakMǐlēiwá Màigé
HagridهېيگىرHeygirHǎigé
Draco Malfoyدېلاك مولفۇرDelak MolfurDélākē Mǎ’ěrfú
QuirrellچيرروChirroQíluò (q pronounced like ch)
knutناردnardnàtè
sickleشىكshik xīkě (x pronounced like sh)
wingardium leviosaيۇهادىم، لىۋىئوۋساyuhadim livi’ovsayǔjiādímǔ lēiwéi’àosà
Transliteration of names in the Uyghur (Alimjan Azat) and Chinese (Su Nong) translations of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

These examples show just how close the Uyghur names are to the Chinese names. Don’t be distracted by the r’s and l’s that are seemingly out of place—that’s all more or less just a fluke of accent. In fact, the “r” in nard (“knut”) actually strengthens the claim that nard comes from Mandarin nàtè. In northern accents of Mandarin, the syllable is pronounced nàr (a phenomenon sometimes called erhua). Direct translation from Mandarin is the best explanation for where that “r” came from in the Uyghur translation.

Some other tell-tale signs in these examples: the insertion of that second i in Dimborido (Dèngbùlìduō); the abbreviation of Mak (Màigé) from “McGonagall”; Heygir and Hǎigé are pronounced almost identically, despite the difference in spelling, and neither one is close to “Hagrid.”

In a few cases, direct translation from Chinese is betrayed by the use of an exact calque:

EnglishUyghurUyghur (transliterated)Uyghur translationSimplified ChineseSimplified Chinese translation
beaterتوپ ئۇرغۇچىtop urghuchiball batter击球手ball batter
chaserتوپ قوغلىغۇچىtop qoghlighuchiball chaser追球手ball chaser
golden snitchتوپ ئالتۇن رەڭ ئۇچقۇر قاراقچىtop altun răng uchqur qaraqchigolden flying-bandit ball金色飞贼gold flying-bandit ball
Remembrallخاتىرە شارىكىkhatiră sharikimemory ballmemory ball
You-Know-Whoسىرلىق ئادەمsirliq adămMystery ManMystery Man
Translations of Harry Potter wizarding terms in Uyghur (Alimjan Azat) and Chinese (Su Nong)

The clearest examples are the translations for “golden snitch” and “You-Know-Who,” which completely differ from the original English but whose Uyghur and Chinese translations match one another.

Although it’s clear that the translator used the Su Nong translation as his guide, he did not rely dryly on the Chinese text. He introduced some creativity of his own. Peeves’ name, for example, is translated as Shăytanchaq (“Demonic”). The word for Muggle (Máguā in Chinese) was translated as Hangvaqti (“Befuddled”). And even the opening sentence provided at the start of this section employs a different translation strategy from the Chinese. (While Azat’s Uyghur uses the third strategy of emphasizing “perfectly normal,” Su Nong’s Chinese translation uses the second strategy of reinterpreting the meaning of “thank you very much.”)

Conclusion

Whether or not Azat’s Uyghur translation acquired appropriate permissions is unclear, but it’s worth having in your collection. Not only is the publisher well-established and the translator professional and experienced, the translation itself is quite good and unique. The book is getting harder to find, perhaps because of a broader crackdown on Uyghur literature. But it’s a good addition to your collection, not only because it’s as close to an authorized edition as seems possible for the region and language, but also for the sake of literary preservation.

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