Translating Harry Potter

Miniatures of Harry, Hermione and Ron

This year 2017 has seen the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the first book in the Harry Potter saga, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which came out in June 1997. The series went on to break all records and laid the foundations for a successful multimedia franchise, including eight extraordinarily popular feature films. All in all, J.K.Rowling’s story has become one of the defining international social phenomena for children born over the last thirty years.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the books, the production of so much material translated into over 80 languages put translators in the eye of the storm. Translation decisions could not be made lightly, since they would need to be maintained over the rest of the series, but they invariably needed to be made fast, as publishers rushed out the latest volumes.

So it is that, in the ensuing period of relative calm, the wizardry of Harry Potter translators has become the subject of study, delight, confusion and criticism.

In this article we take a brief look at the translations into French, Spanish and Catalan of some of the people and places in the books and compare the strategies (or not) of these versions.

Original French Spanish Catalan
Hogwarts École de Poudlard (‘Poux-de-lard’, or ‘bacon lice’). Not the more literal ‘verrues de porc’. Hogwarts Hogwarts
Gryffindor Gryffondor (‘Gryffon d’or’, or ‘golden griffin’) Gryffindor Gryffindor
Ravenclaw Serdaigle (‘serre d’aigle’, or ‘eagle talon’). Not the more literal ‘serre de corbeau’. Ravenclaw Ravenclaw
Hufflepuff Poufsouffle (which suggests ‘à bout de souffle’, or ‘out of puff’) Hufflepuff Hufflepuff
Slytherin Serpentard (which contains the word serpent) Slytherin Slytherin
Neville Longbottom Neville Londubat (‘long-du-bas’, or ‘long-in-the-bottom’) Neville Longbottom Neville Longbottom
Severus Snape Severus Rogue (‘haughty’) Severus Snape Severus Snape
Oliver Wood  Olivier Dubois (‘of wood’) Oliver Wood Marc Roure (‘oak tree’)
Moaning Myrtle Mimi Geignarde Myrtle la Llorona Gemma Gemec (‘moan’)
Tom Marvolo Riddle (anagram of ‘I am Lord Voldemort’) Tom Elvis Jedusor (anagram of ‘Je suis Voldemort’) Tom Marvolo Riddle Tod Morvosc Rodlel (anagram of ‘Sóc Lord Voldemort’)
Horace Slughorn Horace Slughorn Horace Slughorn Horaci Llagot (wheedling words)
Pomona Sprout Pomona Chourave (a kind of cabbage) Pomona Sprout Pomona Coliflor (‘cauliflower’)
Gilderoy Lockhart Gilderoy Lockhart Gilderoy Lockhart Gilbert Decors
Nearly Headless Nick Nick Quasi-sans-tête Nick Casi Decapitado Nick-de-poc-sense-cap
Wormtail Queudver Colagusano Cuapelada
Peter Pettigrew Peter Pettigrow (sounding like ‘petit-gros’?) Peter Pettigrew Ben Babbaw
Alastor Mad-Eye Moody Alastor ‘Fol Œil’ Maugrey Alastor ‘Ojoloco’ Moody Alàstor ‘Ull-foll’ Murri
Fluffy Touffu (‘bushy’) Fluffy Pelut
Stan Shunpike (‘route without tolls’) Stan Rocade (‘bypass’) Stan Shunpike Stan Senspagà (without paying)

On this evidence, the French translation seems much more ambitious than the other two versions considered here. There are many inventions and new wordplays. Indeed, the effort and strategies of the French translator, Jean-François Ménard, have been the object of study, admiration and criticism. For example, in the English Wikipedia, referring to an issue first commented on by Anne-Lise Feral, we read the following:

In the French translation, explanations of certain features of British schools unfamiliar to French students were inserted in the dialogues (e.g., “Prefect” and “Head Boy”), but they were not distinguished from explanations in the original text of differences between ordinary British schools and wizarding schools. This could mislead readers into thinking that these features of the house and boarding systems didn’t exist in real-world British schools.

Another authority, Simon Kemp, an Oxford University French specialist, recommends reading Harry Potter in foreign languages to students in general and has also commented on the French translation.

It turns out that, in general, the names of the main Harry Potter characters are maintained in translation into other languages worldwide, Anna Bradley informs us, as they are for the most part, as we can see above, in Catalan (translated by Laura Escorihuela [I-IV], Marc Alcega [IV], Xavier Pàmies [V-VI]) and in Spanish (translated by Alicia Dellepiane Rawson [I], Adolfo Muñoz Garcia y Nieves Martín Azofra [II-IV], Gemma Rovira Ortega [V-VII]).

We cannot know, at this stage, why there is such variety in the translation strategies employed, even for similar versions, such as French, Catalan and Spanish. Why did the Catalan translators invent Ben Babbaw, Gilbert Decors and Horaci Llagot? Couldn’t the Spanish translators find a good anagram for Voldemort? Does anybody want to research this field further?

We are just scratching the surface of what might be called “Comparative Potterology”, the comparison of Harry Potter in different languages, a gigantic publishing endeavour that has focused the efforts of creative literary translators around the world over the years, to the delight and puzzlement of new generations of readers.

Richard Samson

Richard Samson

I’m a teacher living in Osona, Spain. I'm into tennis, dogs, and chickens. I’m also interested in translation and Moodle (well, digital tools for teaching, in general).
Richard Samson

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Richard Samson

About Richard Samson

I’m a teacher living in Osona, Spain. I'm into tennis, dogs, and chickens. I’m also interested in translation and Moodle (well, digital tools for teaching, in general).
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