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How Harry Potter and Anagrams Made for a Tough Translation

By Yana Schottenstein

One of the most amazing and important things about translation is that it opens us up to experiences from other countries and other cultures that we wouldn’t be able to understand otherwise. American books and movies are popular all over the world, and the only reason that these works of art are able to be so widely shared, is because they’ve been translated into so many different languages.

When a book, specifically, is translated into another language, most people think that it’s translated literally word for word. This, however, is just not the case. It is the translator’s job to make sure that not only the meaning of the book is transformed from one language to another, they also must ensure that the author’s intention shines through, which can prove to be very problematic in some instances.

One of the most famous books ever written, Harry Potter, was an unusually difficult example for translators all over the world. When you have a book that is filled with so many cultural references, made up magic words, and anagrams, the task of translating it accurately and still capturing the magic and humor intended by the author can seem almost impossible. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest issues that translators had to face when translating the Harry Potter books.

Anagrams

An anagram is a direct word switch or word play. In an anagram, you rearrange the letters of a word or phrase in order to produce a new word or phrase, using all of the letters exactly once. The famous anagram in Harry Potter appeared in the second book, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” You may remember a character called Tom Marvolo Riddle. If you switch around the letters in Tom’s name, you come up with “I am Lord Voldemort.” And he was.

Recreating this anagram in other languages proved to be difficult and many changes had to be made in order to make the translations work. Some languages, such as Chinese, Japanese and Korean, where different characters are used, pose separate issues all together. With languages such as these, the main idea can sometimes get a little lost in translation, though translators do their best to make it work. Other languages that do use the same characters as English are certainly easier, but translators must get creative.

In Spanish for example, the translation of “I am Lord Voldemort” is “Soy Lord Voldemort.” So, Tom Marvolo Riddle’s name had to change as well. In this case, Tom became Tom Sorvolo Ryddle. In French, “Je suis Voldemort” turned Tom’s name into Tom Elvis Jedusor, and in German, “Ist Lord Voldemort” became “Tom Vorlost Riddle.” It’s always very interesting to see what new names the translators were able to come up with so that the name could look and sound similar, while still allowing the anagram to apply. It’s also quite astonishing to think about how much went into the creation of these names, which some readers may not even think twice about.

Made Up Words

J.K. Rowling was very clever in the language she used throughout Harry Potter. First of all, for every spell, magic trick, and potion, she came up with a language all her own. It takes translators a great deal of time to properly and appropriately translate the imaginary magical words that Rowling brought to life in English. Not all of the names of the characters translated well either, so translators had to get very creative. All of this also has to keep in mind the tone that Rowling was trying to set. Every word she wrote was crafted very carefully, with names and spells often having double meanings or plays on words. This is something that’s very difficult for translators to handle and is something that makes the translation process almost like an art.

To give an example, the name of one of the main characters of the book, Severus Snape, was meant to sound mean. The name Snape was meant to sound like the word snake. This didn’t translate into every language, so adjustments had to be made. In Italian for example, Severus Snape became Severus Piton (to sound like python). The translator had to keep the author’s intention in mind when making the translation.

Cultural References

Harry Potter is unmistakably written by someone who is British. From street names to character names to cultural habits (tea and crumpets, for example), translators had to make sure their readers were able to understand these references in their own native language. In some instances, footnotes were added to the bottom of pages to help explain certain rituals or ways of writing. In other circumstances, details were slightly changed to reflect the country where the book was being translated. This made is easier for readers to understand what was happening and also relate to the characters.

While Rowling, of course, is the genius behind the Harry Potter franchise, a lot of credit must be given to all of the translators of this particularly difficult book. These translators had to work to not only ensure the book made sense in other languages, but also to make sure they were able to bring Rowling’s magic to life, just as she did in English.

About the writer

Yana Schottenstein, the founder of Access 2 Interpreters, contributed content to this article. Yana is a recipient of the International Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and is dedicated to providing equal opportunity and access to services for non-English speaking communities. Access 2 Interpreters is a leading translation and interpretation company in Columbus.

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