Harry Potter and the Troubles of Translating

Translating is hard as it is, but how do translators cope with non-existent terms like wizarding, an essential part of Harry Potter? Check out in our blog post.

For those of you who don't know, Harry Potter is the main protagonist in a series of fantasy novels written by J.K. Rowling. In a nutshell, he and his two best friends, Ron and Hermione, attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and every now and then they confront Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter's archenemy.

The increasing popularity of the book, increased the need for its translation all over the world. As you may know, the books are packed with invented names for spells, potions, alleys and basically everything connected to the wizarding world. But what you may not know, or even think about, is the difficulties most translators have with such non-existent terms, especially since there were no instructions given to the translators regarding Rowling's motives for each invented word. This lead to different takes and interpretations for each language, even in different editions of the same target-language.


The most obvious example for that is the fact that the original name Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in the UK turned into Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the US. The reasoning for it might have more to do with the publishers and their opinion on what would be a more attractive title in the US, but it proves the point in the most obvious way.

We can see different takes in other languages as well, such as Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers (Harry Potter at the School of Wizards) in French, or Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen in German and Harry Potter i kamen mudraca in Croatian (both translated into Harry Potter and the Stone of the Wise Men). But that's just the title.

And what about the names?

Harry Potter fans know that many characters from the series have names that reveal a lot about that character. For instance, Severus Snape. Severus has apparent connotations with strictness and severity, and Snape sounds like snake, and, of course, the alliteration is obvious. Therefore, you can see how it might represent a problem in translation. For that reason, the Italians opted for Severus Piton (Python), and the French for Severus Rogue (arrogant), both sacrificing alliteration for meaning. Most, however, stuck to the original, losing the meaning in the process.

The same happened with translating Moaning Myrtle, who, for example, became Plačljiva Myrtla (crying Myrtle) in Croatian, but some languages cleverly managed to maintain the alliteration, such as Mirtilla Malcontenta (unhappy Myrtle) in Italian or Hisztis Myrtle (hysterical Myrtle) in Hungarian.

The translators surely had an interesting time translating the real name of Lord Voldemort, Tom Marvolo Riddle, which eventually must create an anagram for "I am Lord Voldemort". So let's see several examples of the result:

- Tom Elvis Jedusor --> Je suis Voldemort (I am Voldemort), French
- Tom Rowle Denem --> Nevem Voldemort (My name is Voldemort), Hungarian
- Tom Rojvol Raddle --> Já, lord Voldemort (I, Lord Voldemort), Czech

Some versions, however, opted for the original name with a footnote explaining the anagram.

This is, naturally, only a brief analysis focused on names of characters, but the examples are endless for every edition. It's the translator's job to transfer the story into a target-language to the best of his/her abilities. But what can one do when there is no exact translation equivalent? Something must be sacrificed. Which means that every translated book is written at least twice; by the author and by the translator who must adapt it. It can make you wonder just how much of the source text remains lost in translation.

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