After the revelation that we’ve been pronouncing Voldemort’s name wrong we ask, would you recognise JK Rowling’s well–loved characters after they fall under the translator’s spell?
We’ve all been getting Voldemort’s name wrong by not pronouncing it with a French accent (it’s a silent T, who knew?), so now it’s time to look at the real foreign names of JK Rowling’s band of wizards.
Harry Potter and his friends have travelled the world: since the first book was published in 1997, the franchise has been translated into over 60 languages. While on their travels, however, some of the characters have undergone a bit of a transformation.
Translating a book always comes with a host of challenges – idioms (ie to spill the beans actually means to reveal a secret), humour and style, for example, are very tricky. JK Rowling’s books are no exception; the Harry Potter series is spattered with references to mythological creatures, puns and made up names.
Translators often tackle this difficult language with a brave face and successful results. It is easy to see the logic behind some choices: Scabbers for instance, Ron’s rat, becomes Croûtard in French. Croûte means scab, so French Scabbers is pretty similar.
Other characters’ names display more signs of interference. Mrs Norris becomes Miss ‘Teigne’, unfortunately for her the word for ringworm, although it can also be used to insult a person – even better. Mrs Norris is not the most pleasant of cats (as Filch’s sidekick she often creates problems for Harry and his friends as they have their adventures), but Norris itself does not immediately bring that to mind.
The wizarding world changes yet again when you cast an eye over the Italian translation. Albus Dumbledore inexplicably becomes Albus Silente, despite the fact that almost all the other language versions keep his original name. The French, German and the Finnish are all perfectly content with Dumbledore; not surprisingly, considering it takes its etymological roots from an English dialect word for bumblebee. Dumbledore is a fun word in English, calling to mind a cheerful character, whilst Silente is much sterner. Dumbledore may be quietly pensive at times, but he is far from silent.
If readers of Harry Potter in other countries experience the world of Hogwarts differently, it may be worth reflecting on the nature of the translations we ourselves enjoy. When we pick up a foreign language book and love it, whose work are we actually appreciating? The author’s or the translator’s?
It is clear that even translating between European languages can be problematic, so imagine if you were reading children’s stories translated from a language with a different alphabet, or completely diverse grammar system.
Japanese manga for example, is easily found in most big bookstores and has spawned a host of specialist shops. Japanese texts not only use a different alphabet (with three different scripts), but will also make cultural references that may be difficult for us to understand.
A good translator then, must not only have a superb grasp of the language itself but also the culture surrounding it. Translation becomes an art and a knowledgable translator is paramount. Otherwise, you run the risk of errors in interpretation as well as bad choices, detracting from the quality of the work that caused it to be translated in the first place.
Then again, deviation might not be such a bad thing after all. Momentarily forgetting about Albus Silente, I rather like Madama Poppy Chips (Madame Pompfrey in an early Italian translation).