Harry Potter plays on English at every turn, and often in the most subtle of ways. When Christmas rolls around in Philosopher’s Stone, Molly Weasley gifts Percy a knitted sweater with a big ol’ “P” for Percy. But Fred jokea that the “P” actually stands for “Prefect,” carrying on a year-long tease of Percy taking his prefecture too seriously. Of course, this tease requires Percy’s name and the word “prefect” to begin with the same letter as his name.
So what about translations that don’t translate prefect as prefect? After all, the position of Prefect is a very British thing to have in a school. Some translations even feel the need to explain or footnote what exactly Percy’s role is because the target culture has no equivalent concept.
One obvious solution is to change Percy’s name in the target language to match the translation of prefect. But so far I have not come across any translation that makes any significant changes to Percy’s name. (And I’m unlikely to find any: since the expansion of the Harry Potter franchise after 2000, proper nouns have largely remained unchanged across translations.)
So let’s take a look at three different ways this translation problem is resolved.
Ditching the “P”: German, Icelandic, Finnish, and Turkish
The most common strategy translators use (aside from just keeping the word prefect) is ditching the “P” on the sweater. This ends up bringing Molly into the tension in these translations, because she chooses to stitch the letter for prefect over the letter for Percy:
German (Klaus Fritz): “V für Vertrauensschüler! Zieh ihn an, Percy…”
Icelandic (Helga Haraldsdóttir): “U fyrir umsjónarmanninn! Klæddu þig í hana, Percy.”
In these translations, Percy is the only one gifted a sweater with a letter that is different from the first letter of his name. Molly gave a sweater knitted with “R” to Ron, “H” to Harry, “F” to Fred, and “G” to George.
This is a significant alteration by the translations because, in English, there is no reason to think Molly intended any sort of double entendre with her P-stitched sweater. In these translations, she is acknowledging that Percy’s identity is wrapped up in being a prefect, and accommodates his enthusiasm—while giving Fred and George great fodder for teasing.
Interestingly, Jaana Kapari-Jatta’s Finnish translation changes the letter but leaves the reader to infer what it stands for. “Sinun puserossassi on V! Pue se päällesi, Percy…” (The V stands for valvojaoppilas, the Finnish equivalent of a prefect.)
Mustafa Bayındır’s Turkish also changes the letter to fit Percy’s position as “class president” (sının başkanı): “Sınıf başkanının S‘si! Giysene, Percy…”
Preserving the P: Turkish (again), Danish, Maori, and Malay
The later Turkish translation by Ülkü Tamer uses a different strategy, choosing a phrase that allows Molly to keep the “P”: “P var! Herhalde Parlak Öğrenci anlamındadır! Hadi, Percy, giy şunu.” This is interesting because, to achieve this, Tamer actually removes the concept of a prefect from the tease altogether: “There’s an S! It probably means Star Student! Come on, Percy, put it on.” “Star Student” isn’t meant as a replacement for prefect here; Percy is still the class president (sının başkanı) in this translation.
Hanna Lützen’s Danish translation does something similar. While Percy holds the position of vejleder (mentor), Fred teases: “Vejlederen har fået et P for Perfekt! Tag den på, Percy, kom nu.” (“The mentor got a P for Perfect! Put it on, Percy, come on.”)
Maori—whose translator, Leon Blake, used every tool in his box—also preserved the “P.” But he replaced “prefect” with another word for leader (poutoko) that begins with “P.” “He P mō te poutoko! Kuhuna, Pēhi, kia tere…”
Malay also keeps the P by using the word pengawas (supervisor) for prefect: “P untuk pengawas! Pakailah, Percy.”
Foreign scripts: Hebrew, Uyghur, Japanese, and Hindi
Of course, the issue gets more complicated if your alphabet doesn’t even have “P.”
Gili Bar Hilel’s Hebrew translation offers a very clever solution:
“P for Percy — instead of M for Mentor!” (Mentor, or Madrich, is an equivalent position to Prefect in some Israeli schools.)
Alimjan Azat’s Uyghur translation uses the Latin letter “P” in combination with a footnote: “The letter ‘P’ stands for class president (bashliqi degăn).” The accompanying footnote clarifies that that English word for bashliqi (president) and Percy both begin with that Latin letter “P.”
The Japanese translation (Yuko Matsuoka) and the Hindi translation (Sudhir Dixit) likewise embrace the British context of the situation. Japanese, like Uyghur, uses the Latin letter “P”: 監督生のP, kantokusei no P. Kantokusei clearly does not begin with P, but the Latin letter P tips off the average Japanese reader that the English word does.
Hindi—whose readers are very typically educated in British-style schools that use English as the language of instruction—preserves the familiar word prefect. But instead of using the Latin letter “P,” it spells out the letter as pī (पी): “Pī for Prefect!”
Each approach has its advantages. Molly, ever supportive, would certainly show her pride in Percy by stitching the letter of his prefecture into his sweater. And this strategy has literary merit in that it doubles down on the image of Percy as both a goodie-two-shoes and a momma’s boy.
Gili Bar-Hillel comes up with a smart solution for Hebrew, preserving the P for Percy while also tying the tease to the Madrich position so well known to Israeli schoolchildren. On the other hand, it’s not clear in this case why Percy would be ashamed of a sweater that has P for Percy. Perhaps being Prefect makes him too good to wear his mother’s handknit sweater.
But my favorite approach is that of Hannah Lützen. With the P for Perfekt, she successfully connects the first letter in Percy’s name with the twins’ recurring mockery of him as prefect, using a phrase (vejleder) for prefect that translates naturally into Danish language and life.
Explore this in your translations at home! Check out the Catalan, Ancient Greek, and Chinese translations, for instance, which each take their own interesting approaches. Let us know what you discover in the comments!