Here at Wordfish HQ we are looking forward to diving into J K Rowling’s newest book: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. While we wait for 31 July to come we decided to take a look at some of the fantastic wordplay in the Harry Potter books and how translators have tackled J K Rowling’s use of the English language.
From The Philosopher’s Stone to The Deathly Hallows, J K Rowling used the English language to introduce us to a world of magic and introduced us to characters and ideas using words that have now become a part of our day-to-day vocabulary. Unsurprisingly, this creation of a whole new world lead to a number of obstacles for the translators responsible for recreating the novels into a staggering 73 languages.
Often overlooked by all except the most eagle eyed reader, the choice of proper names often gives a hint to the personality or backgrounds of characters. Take, for example, Albus Dumbledore. Albus is the Latin for white, while Dumbledore is an archaic word for bumblebee (Rowling explained that she imagined Albus Dumbledore as someone who hummed while he walked around). Other readers have speculated that Albus refers to Dumbledore’s standing as a “good” wizard, playing on the connotations between white and good, black and evil.
The translation of proper names can be a tricky business in literature, especially in a such a well-known franchise where the character names are recognisable across the globe. To deal with this, most of the translators chose to reproduce the name Albus Dumbledore in their own versions. Obviously this meant that the image of a humming bumblebee of a headmaster was lost to the reader, although I think it’s safe to say that the number of English readers who knew the word dumbledore was very small to start with! Some translators did, however, play with similar ideas to give a hint to Dumbledore’s character. Czech also used an archaic term for bumblebee in the name Albus Brumbál, while Brazilian Portuguese changes Dumbledore’s name Alvi, which also means white or clean. Rather bafflingly, the Italian translation plumps for Albus Silente, which is quite a contrast to the image of a humming bumblebee but the translation of Madame Pomfrey as Madama Poppy Chips more than makes up for odd choice.
While Dumbledore draws reference from Old English, other proper names derive their meaning from Latin, which is more transferable to other languages. Professor Lupin’s surname comes from the Latin lupinus – of a wolf, while Sirius Black’s first name is the Latin name of the Dog Star, the brightest star in our (Black!) night sky.
Rowling also needed to come up with names for the creatures and objects that filled her new world. The boggart takes its name from a creature of English folklore, although it manifests itself very differently as a shapeshifter that embodies a person’s worst fear. Translators have either drawn from their own folk tales to source names, like the Croatian bauk and the Brazilian bicho-papão or they have created a new word that represents the nature of the beast, like the French éprovatard, which combines éprouvant – terror and épouvantail – scarecrow.
No stranger to neologism herself, Rowling coins a number of new words throughout her work. The remembrall (an item that reminds its owner that they have forgotten something) is an obvious portmanteau (Again! Read my previous blog on these here) formed from the words remember and ball and similar words are used in the French (rapeltout) and the German (Errinnermich) translations. The fact that this new word does not derive meaning from something that is culturally specific means that translators have more leeway to create a fun and memorable new word. For example, the Norwegian translation plays on the word forglemmegei for forget-me-nots with its translation of forglemei.
Rowling also creates a number of acronyms that have a magical spin to them. School examinations go by OWLs (Ordinary Wizarding Levels) and NEWTs (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests). Many of the translators take some creative twists and turns to create a similar effect in their own languages with highlights such as the Dutch SLIJMBAL (slimeball) and PUIST (pimple) exams.
SPOILER: LOOK AWAY IF YOU’VE SOMEHOW MISSED THE WHOLE HARRY POTTER THING. PS. I AM JUDGING YOU
Wordplay is even used to reveal a major plotline when Tom Marvolo Riddle’s name is revealed to be an anagram for I am Lord Voldemort. As the name Voldemort was generally reproduced in translated works, translators had to find first and middle names that would create a similar revelatory anagram. Tom Elvis Jedusor (French), Trevor Délgome (Icelandic) and Том Ярволод Редл (Ukranian) all fit the bill nicely while the Swedish Tom Gus Mervolo Dolder creates the Latin anagram of Ego Sum Lord Voldemort.
There are so many, many more examples of Rowling’s fantastic use of language and, while we can’t examine them all here, we hope that this blog has inspired you to revisit the wizarding world of Harry Potter and maybe even to see it through different eyes by reading one of the translations.