Harry Potter in translation

Here’s one for you Harry Potter fans out there. Ever think about how all the different names and ‘made up’ (or rather historically sourced) words in the Harry Potter books are translated into other languages? Well I just listened to an interview with the guy who had the great privilege of translating the books into French, and if your French is up to scratch you can hear the whole conversation here.

Otherwise, here is a summary of the most interesting points concerning his translation considerations and the research that went into his work. Interestingly, I’ve since read that once the books became hugely popular, strict control was placed on the translation of the terms and names into other languages, but as the French version had already been published, the many inventions of the translator were there to stay. So ‘muggle’ is ‘muggle’ in all the different Harry Potters, except in French, where it is…

Muggle – Moldu

Here the translator was looking for something with a similar consonance (starting with an ‘m’, perhaps with an ‘l’ in there somewhere) and suggestiveness. J.K. Rowling claims ‘muggle’ came from the colloquial insult ‘mug’, or someone a bit dumb, although the word itself has appeared in literature before. The translator took the term ‘mol du cerveau’, literally ‘soft-brained’, and simply shortened it to moldu, to refer to all the silly, oblivious humans in the world of wizards.

Hogwarts – Poudlard

J.K. Rowling claims she saw a plant called the hogwort in a botanical gardens and based the name of her famous school on that, changing a vowel along the way. In the French translation that connection is lost, but the word-play remains. The warts of the hog become the lice of the lard – ‘pou de lard’, and so, Poudlard. Interestingly, the translator notes that ‘Poudlard’ sounds vaguely English to French speakers who often puzzle at how to pronounce it ‘correctly’.

Madeye Moody – Maugrey Fol Oeil

Madeye Moody is always moody (moaning, grumbling, bitter) about something or other. How to convey this in French? Take the verb ‘maugréer’, which means to moan, mutter or grumble about something, and turn it into a vaguely English-looking ‘Maugrey’. ‘Madeye’ keeps its literal translation to ‘Fol Oeil’, and ta-da! Other fun literal character translations include Neville Longbottom who becomes Neville Londubat (from ‘long du bas’) and Scabbers (Ron’s rat) who is Croûtard in French (from ‘croûte’ meaning ‘scab’).

Hufflepuff – Pouffesouffle

The translator noted that the name ‘Hufflepuff’ evoked two things: first the story of the three little pigs (‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!’), and second that the students of Hufflepuff were perhaps less academically gifted, and so trying to catch up to the others, always slightly behind and a little out of breath. The French version uses the three little pigs vocabulary (‘Je souffle et je pouffe…’) to make a composite word which conveys the same meaning as in the English and even uses the same repetition of ‘ff’, evoking the puffing and breathing.

Voldemort – It’s already in French!

Exceptionally, J.K. Rowling used a French term for ‘the flight of death’, to stand in for her very evil antagonist. She has since apologised to France. Nevertheless, she needn’t have apologised to the translator who had very little (i.e. none at all) work to do to translate the name. He has remained in French, as in all other languages, Voldemort. But his other incarnation, Tom Marvolo Riddle (an anagram of ‘I am Lord Voldemort’), had to be changed for the riddle to work. In French he became, amusingly enough, Tom Elvis Jedusor (‘je suis Voldemort‘). So there’s no literal ‘riddle’ (‘devinette’) in his name, but ‘jeu du sort’ does mean ‘game of chance’, and ‘sort’ is also a word for ‘magic spell’, so the translation not only works well as an anagram, it’s also exceedingly clever. Not sure what the Elvis is about, but I have a feeling the translator had a good chuckle when he came up with it.

Untranslated: Dumbledore, Hagrid, Minerva

There are also some names he chose not to change, and the reasons are also quite compelling. The three names, Dumbledore, Hagrid and Minerva, all appear on the same page of a Thomas Hardy novel it would seem. ‘Dumbledore’ is an old dialect word for ‘bumblebee’, giving the image of a busy person, zipping from flower to flower; in Hardy’s novel he’s an of-the-earth kind of character, lacking the pretention which would befit his status. Hagrid is an old term referring to a tortured soul, someone haunted by spirits and nightmares. As for Minerva, she is the Goddess of wisdom, of the arts and of war, and exists as Minerve in French. The translator considered that none of them could be improved through translation and left them as they were.

For more information about Harry Potter in translation, there’s a nice section on the Language Realm website.