Harry Potter in the Classics: How Latin and Ancient Greek Captured a 20th Century Setting

Today’s post will offer a brief sampling of Harry Potter in the classical languages of Latin and Ancient Greek. I’ll say a few words about the translations and then follow them up with examples of how the two languages deal with modern technology, the magical world of Harry Potter, and modern cultural phenomena like Christmas, birthdays, and even homework.

Harry Potter in Latin and Ancient Greek
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Latin (Peter Needham) and Ancient Greek (Andrew Wilson).

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Introduction: Translating Children’s Books into Latin and Ancient Greek

Even though I studied Wheelock’s Latin as a kid and first engaged with anything Ancient Greek only as a young adult, I’m more familiar with Ancient Greek texts than Latin ones. And I can say the Ancient Greek translation is a true delight. It reads exactly like an Ancient Greek treatise, from the styling of the chapter titles (“On the Boy Who Lived“) right down to the sentence structure.

You do have to keep in mind that these books are meant to be approachable and fun for casual learners of these classical languages. I remember one friend taking a negative view of the Ancient Greek translation because it had some modernisms here or there. Both Ancient Greek and Latin make use of modern punctuation, for example. But, quite frankly, what does it matter if the publishers decided to use commas and em-dashes to aid the novice learner? Isn’t it more important that they create an enjoyable experience? (But to be fair, the translator does make some odd judgments, such as deriving Quirrell’s name [Κίουρος] from squirrel [σκίουρος].)

The Latin translation was born out of a broader phenomenon of translating children’s books into Latin. There’s Winnie Ille Pu (Winnie the Pooh), Cattus Petasatus (Cat in the Hat), and, as of 2015, Ubi Fera Sunt (Where the Wild Things Are). As far as I’m aware, Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis broke the mold for being the first full-length novel to be translated into Latin (along with its sequel Harrius Potter et Camera Secretorum. The translations were done by Peter Needham, a retired classics instructor at Eton College.

The Ancient Greek translation was inspired by the Latin translation, and is one of the only children’s books translated into Attic Greek. (Peter Rabbit and Max and Moritz have been translated into Koine Greek, which is much later and easier than Attic Greek.) One of the really neat things about the Ancient Greek translation is that the translator, Andrew Wilson, has a website that explains some of his translation choices in the first 5 chapters. As he mentions, his translation is entrenched in Ancient Greek literature, from Aristophanes to Hippocrates to Lucian.

How do Ancient Greek and Latin deal with modern technologies?

Modern tech is the first and possibly the most evident place in which the translation approaches of Needham and Wilson differed.

Needham relied on existing terms that are already used by the Roman Catholic Church, which continues to keep Latin alive into the present as a lingua franca. The words below can all be found in the Lexicon recentis latinatis, the dictionary of the Roman Curia. By using these established terms, Needham clearly intended for his translation to be read by modern students of Latin to practice their Latin. He didn’t create a text that exemplified the Latin of a Roman, but rather a text that would reflect the practical use of Latin as it’s used today.

Interpretation of airplane in Harry Potter in Ancient Greek
A flying ship etched by Bartolomeu de Gusmão (1685–1724).

Wilson, on the other hand, did seek to recreate an ancient text in all its conventional forms. Instead of relying on modern Greek for modern technologies and objects, he coined new terms that he intended to be comprehensible to someone from ancient Greece with a time machine. His typical strategy was to translate terms descriptively—someone from ancient Greece should be able to read a phrase like “tele-operated air-ship” and imagine something similar to a “remote-control airplane” (albeit they’d probably imagine something with sails and oars). A modern speaker of Greek, however, would be confused by the use of aeroskafos (“air-ship”) in place of the word aeroplano (“airplane”).

LatinLatin translationAncient GreekAncient Greek transliterationAncient Greek translation
video cameracinematographicam machinulamfilm machineτέχνημα κινηματογραφικόνtechnema kinematografikonfilm device
remote-control airplaneaeroplanum ex longinquo directumairplane controlled from a distanceἀερόσκαφος τηλεχειριστέονaeroskafos telecheiristeontele-operated air-ship
video gamesludos computatorioscomputer gameπαίγνια ἠλεκτρονικάpaignia elektronikaelectronic games
VCRtelevisificum exceptaculumtele-vision receptacleμηχάνημα τηλεοπτικογραφικὸνmechanema teleoptikografikontele-vision machine
(flying) motorcyclebirotula automatariaautomatic bicycleδικύκλου αὐτοκινήτου (πέρι αἰωρουμένου)dikyklou autokinetou (peri aioroumenou)(hovering) auto-kinetic bicycle
Modern technologies in the Latin and Ancient Greek translations of Harry Potter.

But even though the Latin and Ancient Greek translations use different strategies for their translations—Needham using established terms and Wilson creating new ones—we see definite similarities. The terms used in the two translations for “video camera,” “VCR,” and “motorcycle” are actually pretty close in meaning to each other. “Motorcycle,” for instance, is “automatic bicycle” in Latin and “auto-kinetic bicycle” in Wilson’s Ancient Greek. So the difference in strategy actually lies not in the words that the translators chose, but in Needham using conventional Latin terms while Wilson diverged from conventional Greek terms.

How do Latin and Ancient Greek deal with magic?

Magic was translated in either language using a variety of strategies depending on the word.

LatinLatin translationAncient GreekAncient Greek transliterationAncient Greek translation
QuidditchLudus QuidditchQuidditch the SportἸκαροσφαιρικήIkarosfairikeIcarusball
poltergeistidolon clamosumclamorous spookδαιμόνιονdaimoniondemon
The magical wizarding world words used in the Latin and Ancient Greek translations of Harry Potter.

Many magical objects, like “wand” and “Remembrall,” were translated pretty literally in both languages. Proper nouns invented by Rowling, like Quidditch and Hufflepuff, remained as such in Latin. Some culture-specific words, like “vampires” and “poltergeist,” were treated descriptively in Latin as “bloodsucker” and “clamorous spook.”

Wilson’s Ancient Greek translation, on the other hand, tried to incorporate Greek mythology where it could. Quirrell encountered lamias, rather than vampires, in the forest. It’s a reference to Lamia, a female nightcrawler known for seducing young men in order to feed upon them. Peeves is called a demon rather than a poltergeist. Although “demon” came to denote an evil spirit in Greek Christianity, a demon earlier referred to any supernatural being with disruptive behavior. Some demons might rain on your parade, but others could actually brighten up your rainy day.

The Greek word for “Quidditch,” ikarosfairike, is a combination of “Icarus” and “ball.” Icarus is a figure of Greek mythology well-known for flying high to reach a certain golden ball—the Sun. It’s only fitting that ancient Greek wizards would relate the Icarus story to a game whose goal is to catch the elusive Golden Snitch on a flying broom!

How do Latin and Ancient Greek deal with other cultural phenomena?

Modern cultural phenomena in Harry Potter presented another challenge to the translators of these ancient languages. Things like Halloween and birthdays accompany important plot points and are not easily replaced. Let’s take a look at how they were dealt with:

LatinLatin translationAncient GreekAncient Greek transliterationAncient Greek translation
HalloweenVesper SanctusHoly NightΝεκύσιαNekysiaNekysia
Christmasfestum nativitatis ChristiFeast of Christ’s NativityΧριστούγενναChristmas
“Happy Birthday”Felix Sis Die NataliMay Your Birthday Be HappyΧρόνια πόλλαMany Years
“They piled so much homework on them that the Easter holidays weren’t nearly as much fun as the Christmas ones”tot pensa domestica eis ingesserunt ut feriae paschales haudquaquam tam iucundae essent quam brumalesSo much homework was given to them that the Easter holidays weren’t at all as pleasant as the winter holidaysπερὶ τὰ κατ’ οἷκον μαθητέα προστιθέντες πλείω ἐπὶ πλείοσιν, ὥστε οὐκ ἦν τοσοῦτο ἐν τῃ πασχαλινῃ ἀναπαύλῃ εὐφραίνεσθαι ὅσον ἐπὶ τῶν ΧριστουγέννωνMore and more was added to the homework, so that there wasn’t as much merriment during the Easter holidays as the Christmas holidays
Words for holidays in the Latin and Ancient Greek translations of Harry Potter.

The modern Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter are preserved in both languages. Halloween is translated simply “Vesper Sanctus,” or Holy Night, in Latin. It’s used to refer to a celebration on the night before any sacred festival. In this case, it’s Halloween (which, as “All Hallow’s Eve,” originated as the evening celebration before the very sacred day of All Saints in Catholicism).

In Wilson’s Ancient Greek, Halloween becomes Nekysia, an ancient Athenian festival for commemorating the dead. Like many of the All Saints’ Day (or Día de los Muertos) traditions of today, Nekysia was marked with an offering for the dead, a banquet, and even attempts to interact with the dead. It was very much Athens’ Halloween, in a way. The only problem is that the timing isn’t right for the timeline of Harry Potter: Nekysia took place in the springtime, not in the fall.

As a final note, I took a look at how Harry’s birthday is treated in these translations because, well, the tradition of celebrating birthdays is only a couple centuries old! In Latin, Hagrid simply wishes that Harry’s birthday be a happy one. In the Ancient Greek translation, Hagrid wishes him “Many years!”—the formal way in Ancient Greek to wish someone good health on any annual holiday.

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