At a unique event, summarising a 10-year translating phenomenon, all the translators of the Harry Potter books met in Paris to discuss “what was lost in translation” and to celebrate their shared experience.
To mark international literacy day on 8th September, a Unesco-backed inititiative turned Paris’s Institut de France into a Hogwarth’s workshop as scores of wizards from the translating, publishing and academic world pondered the Potter phenomenon.
According to the clips on the BBC World Service‘s report, the real difficulties lie in conveying the cultural concepts, giving the reader an experience like the experience of reading in English.
For example, Israeli children (mostly) don’t celebrate Christmas or sing carols, so a compromise has to be found. In Japanese there are different words for twins, depending on the order they were born, so the Japanese translator had to ask JK Rowling who was older, Fred or George. In Nepal, it was food that posed a major problem: pies just don’t exist; indeed the whole concept of the boarding school is totally alien, and the translator had to change the practice of calling the children by their surnames (Mr Potter, Miss Granger). In other countries, it was the mythological creatures that posed problems (goblins and house elves), or the titles (anyone want to have a bash at The Deathly Hallows in Hebrew?)
The Georgian translator also pointed out the unique nature of the job: being the “Harry Potter” translator in a particular country turned the limelight onto a profession that usually works very much behind the scenes.
Still, a great occasion which celebrates the achievement of these professionals: I haven’t calculated the numbers of pages translated into each language, and the total number of languages (somewhere between 67 and 77 depending on which you include), but it probably amounts to a staggering 120,000 or more!
The Potter spell has cast a bit of sparkle over foreign languages and the translators themselves… let’s hope it lasts until European Languages Day on 26 September, because languages are a bit of a Cinderella in this country and this is just the fairy godmother they need.