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The Sphinx’s Riddle: Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and Icelandic

A recent episode of Dialogue Alley brought up a scene from the Goblet of Fire where a sphinx offers Harry a riddle:

First think of a person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies.
Next, tell me what’s the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?
And finally give me the sound often heard
During the search for a hard-to-find word.
Now string them together, and answer me this,
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling)

The riddle is highly dependent on the English language and cannot be translated easily. Brock (who, by the way, has a phenomenal Harry Potter translation food series on his Instagram) explained in the episode how the riddle is treated in Basque. In this post, I want to highlight a couple other interesting examples of how the riddle has been adapted for a new language and a new language community.

But first, a quick housekeeping note to those of you who have been following Potter of Babble with regularity:

Because we’d like to deliver you content frequently—and quality content at that—we’ll aim to do a long post and three brief posts per month. The long posts will delve into those deep dives, like the post on the Uyghurs and their Harry Potter as well as the six most common translation strategies for the opening sentence of the series. Brief posts (as this one was at least intended to be) will get into the nitty gritty minutiae of translation, highlighting very specific translations. All posts, both long and brief, will help you appreciate the books you own and the books you’d like to add to your collection.

As usual, leave us feedback and let us know what you enjoy and what you’d like to see more of!

Now let’s take a look at the riddle in English, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, and Icelandic.

J.K. Rowling’s English riddle

First, let’s break down the English poem.

First think of a person who lives in disguise, who deals in secrets but tells naught but lies.

The answer Harry settles on: a SPY.

Next, tell me what’s the last thing to mend, the middle of middle and end of the end?

This part is my favorite, just because the answer is literally spelled out for you if you’re just looking for it. It’s the letter D.

And finally give me the sound often heard during the search for a hard-to-find word.

This one’s already a bit of a stretch for us Americans. Harry pronounces the answer for us, luckily. It’s “Er” (as in “Uh“).

Now string them together, and answer me this, which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?

String them together to get a creature? SPY + D + Er. SPYDer. Spider.

Spanish’s Spain riddle by Adolfo Muñoz García and Nieves Martín Azofra

Now let’s look at how the riddle is handled in Spanish!

The riddle in Spanish comes as part of the third leg of the Torneo de los Tres Magos—Tournament of the Three Wise Men. The Tres Magos (Three Wise Men) refers to the Magi who journeyed from Persia to Judea to visit the infant Jesus Christ and bestow gifts upon him. In Spain and throughout the Spanish-speaking world, the Tres Magos are a prominent part of the Yuletide as the ones who bring gifts to children (rather than Santa Claus).

Could it be said that the Three Wise Men, Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior, were also the progenitors of Hogwarts, Beauxbatons, and Durmstrang?

Statues of the Three Wise Men (Spanish: Tres Magos), Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior. In Harry Potter y el cáliz de fuego (the Spanish edition of Goblet of Fire translated by Adolfo Muñoz García and Nieves Martín Azofra), the Three Wise Men are the three wizards referenced in the name of the “Triwizard Tournament.”

But back to the riddle! Spanish takes an approach that relies on Spaniards’ knowledge of geography. Let’s take a look.

Si te lo hiciera, te desgarraría con mis zarpas,
pero eso sólo ocurrirá si no lo captas.
Y no es fácil la respuesta de esta adivinanza,
porque está lejana, en tierras de bonanza,
donde empieza la región de las montañas de arena
y acaba la de los toros, la sangre, el mar y la verbena.
Y ahora contesta, tú, que has venido a jugar:
¿a qué animal no te gustaría besar?

Harry Potter y el cáliz de fuego (Adolfo Muñoz García and Nieves Martín Azofra)

The crux of the clue lies in these lines:

Donde empieza la región de las montañas de arena y acaba la de los toros, la sangre, el mar y la verbena.

[The answer is found] where begins the region of the sandy mountains and where ends that of the bulls, the blood, the sea and the verbena festival.

Harry reasons: the land of the bulls, the blood, the sea and the verbena festivals is Spain (España). The end of España is ña. The region of the sandy mountains must be Morocco, or the Maghreb, or Arabia. The beginning of Arabia is ara.

Use ara for the beginning and ña for the end to get to the answer: araña (spider). How simple!

That’s pretty specific to Spain, however, and I’m curious whether the other regional Spanish translation variants use the same riddle. If your Spanish edition uses a different riddle, let us know in the comments!

Liz Wyler’s Very *Brazilian* Portuguese

The riddle in the Spanish edition keeps the answer the same, but changes the riddle substantially. Liz Wyler, the translator of Harry Potter into Brazilian Portuguese, changes the answer instead so that it mirrors the approach of the English riddle in piecing clues together throughout the poem.

Primeiro pense no lugar reservado aos sacrifícios,
Seja em que templo for.
Depois, me diga que é que se
desfolha no inverno e torna a brotar na primavera?
E finalmente, me diga qual é o objeto que tem som,
luz e ar e flutua na superfície do mar?
Agora junte tudo e me responda e seguinte,
Que tipo de criatura você não gostaria de beijar?

Harry Potter e o Cálice de Fogo (Liz Wyler)

Like in English, the instructions for solving the riddle are clear: Agora junte tudo… “Now put everything together…” So we can again look at the poem by each couplet:

Primeiro pense no lugar reservado aos sacrifícios, seja em que templo for.

First think of the place set aside for sacrifices, no matter the temple.

Harry makes a guess: it’s either um altar (an altar) or uma ara (an altar stone).

Depois, me diga que é que se desfolha no inverno e torna a brotar na primavera?

Then, tell me what is it that sheds leaves in the winter and resprouts in the spring?

This one is straightforward, but vague. Harry’s left with a list of possibilities: árvores (trees), galhos (twigs), rama (branch).

E finalmente, me diga qual é o objeto que tem som, luz e ar e flutua na superfície do mar?

And finally, tell me what’s the thing that has sound, light and air and floats on the surface of the sea?

With some thought, Harry figures it out: uma bóia (a buoy).

He thinks through his list and strings together the possibilities: Ara… Hum… Ara… Rama… Uma criatura que eu não gostaria de beijar… Uma ararambóia! “Ara… Hm.. Ara… Rama… A creature that I wouldn’t want to kiss… An ararambóia!”

The ararambóia is known in English as the Emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus), a snake species specific to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

Emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus, Brazilian Portuguese: ararambóia) coiled along a tree branch. The Emerald tree boa is highlighted in the Brazilian Portuguese translation of the Harry Potter series by Liz Wyler.

Apart from being a great candidate for this form of riddle, the ararambóia plays another role in the Brazilian Harry Potter canon. In Chamber of Secrets, its skin is mentioned as an ingredient in the Polyjuice Potion (in place of the skin of Boomslang, an African tree snake, in English).

Pretty cool intertextuality there!

Helga Haraldsdóttir’s Icelandic play on language

Harrison kindly lent me a look at the Icelandic riddle, which he’d asked about prior to me putting this post together. The translator employs some nice poetic devices.

Hvað kallarðu þann sem elskar hún Hera
og höfuðfatið þungt þarf að bera?
Hvað heitir svo það sem á hvolfi er enn,
og hvílir á vörum er hugsa menn?
Síðast vér spyrjum, hvað saman safnast,
undir sófa og engum gagnast,
Settu saman svörin þrjú
og svara oss
Hvaða skepnu myndir þú
aldrei gefa koss?

Harry Potter og eldbikarinn (Helga Haraldsdóttir)

Hvað kallarðu þann sem elskar hún Hera og höfuðfatið þungt þarf að bera?

What do you call the one whom Hera loves and who has to wear heavy headdress?

Harry surmises: Kóng? A king?

Perhaps. Hera’s husband, Zeus, is the king of the gods. As to why Hera’s husband was chosen as a clue for royalty, well, simply put, she was chosen because Hera rhymes with bera (“to wear”).

Hvað heitir svo það sem á hvolfi er enn, og hvílir á vörum er hugsa menn?

What do you call what is still upside down and rests on the lips of those who are thinking?

This couplet is a beautiful one, with an alliteration scheme that plays quite a bit on “hv” (with near-alliteration with the “h” in heitir and hugsa and with the “v” in vörum). The pairing of á hvolfi (“[hanging] upside down”) and hvílir á (“it rests upon”) offers a contrast that’s quite satisfying for a riddle as well. This contrast is accentuated all the more by the triple entendre of á hvolfi. In contrast to “rest,” á hvolfi denotes chaos and busyness: it’s used to mean things are messed up, out of place, or out of control. Indeed, the translator intends this double reading: “What do you call what is still confused and rests on the lips of those who are thinking?” This reading anticipates Harry’s response to the clue: Uh… hef ekki hugmynd…” “Uh… I haven’t a clue…”

The third thing á hvolfi could mean is “on the ceiling,” although this meaning would not be particularly idiomatic. The image that comes to mind is something hanging from the ceiling that can also come down and land on you. Admittedly, that might be a stretch and not be the intention of the translator. But perhaps it is a clue that the answer is a spider.

Síðast vér spyrjum, hvað saman safnast, undir sófa og engum gagnast

At last we ask, what gathers together, under a sofa and is of use to nobody

This couplet takes advantage of one of my favorite grammatical features in Icelandic: the middle voice (inflected with the suffix -st in safnast and gagnast). The middle voice is a somewhat vague concept that varies from language to language. But in each language that has a middle voice, it occupies some function between the active voice (“the students gather”) and the passive voice (“the students are gathered”). In the active voice, the subject is the one doing the action. In the passive voice, the subject is the one being acted upon. In the middle voice, the subject is both doing the action and being acted upon.

To illustrate: in the active voice example of “the students gather,” the students are the ones doing the gathering. In the passive voice example of “the students are gathered,” someone else is gathering the students. In the middle voice, “the students gathered themselves,” the students are both gathering and being gathered.

The answer to this couplet is —lint—which happens also to be a great image for the middle voice. Lint doesn’t simply gather. Lint gathers up other lint. And lint is gathered up by other lint. It sticks to itself and builds upon itself, forming into concentrated and self-reinforcing clumps and balls.

Settu saman svörin þrjú og svara oss
Hvaða skepnu myndir þú aldrei gefa koss?

Put together the three answers and tell us
Which creature would you never give kiss?

Harry does so: Kóng + Uh + Ló. Kónguló. A spider!

Anyway, so much for a brief post! Leave your thoughts and comments and share with your friends! We’d all love to hear more about how your language translates this poem.

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