Harry Potter in translation

20 years ago, on the 26th of June 1997 the first book of Harry Potter was published, since then followed six more books, eight movies, video-games and lot more. Harry Potter is today a cult, and it has been translated in many countries, there are approximately 74 authorised translation. The translators’ work for this book was particularly challenging compared to the translation of other books for different reasons, let’s see which ones:

  • Invented names
  • Word plays
  • Focused on the British culture

Invented names and world plays

In the HP saga, J.K Rowling made up a lot of new words to represent creatures or places that do not actually exist. While some of these are funny or interesting for native speakers, for the translators it was a real challenge to bring them into their own language without changing the meaning. The invented names cannot be separated from the word plays, because often they were created in order to make a word play.

Some interesting examples are the names of the characters, which in the majority of cases mean something that leads us to understand their personality already from their name. Some of these names in the translated version lost part of their meaning, while some others kept the meaning.

One name that lost part of his meaning is the translation of Cornelius Fudge in Italian. While in English with Fudge we indicate both the fudge as a sweet, and a certain behaviour of being unreliable, vague and hypocrite, in the Italian translation the second meaning was lost. It was translated as Cornelius Caramell, leaving the idea of the sweet untouched, but in this way the reader misses the word play that allows him to understand something about this character.

The name Voldemort was complicated in all the translations because of the anagram that is created in the second book from Tom Marvolo Riddle that becomes I am Lord Voldemort, while many translators decided not to change it, and lose the anagram, in France it was changed with Tom Elvis Jedusor, that creates also a double meaning with “jeu du sort” as a twist of faith.

The name Severus Snape was changed in different translations, in Italian it became Severus Piton, in French Severus Rougue, but in both cases, it lost the alliteration that J.K Rowling had created. The alliteration was kept in the Slovenian translation, where it became Robaus Raws.

Also names of places often mean something, for instance Diagon Alley that resembles “diagonaly”, so a different path from what we are used to, in many translation it was left as Diagon Alley, while some translator tried to bring this meaning to the readers, for instance in Finnish it was translated as “Viistokuja”, where Visto means “sloping” and kuja means alley. The meaning is not the same, but it gives to the reader a bit of the idea of what the original meant.


Focus on the British culture

Another interesting fact about Harry Potter is how focused it is on the British culture, that’s why in the United States they actually had to translate some parts of the book, creating a second version in English of the book. The biggest change was in the name of the first book, while in the British edition is Harry Potter and the Philosopher stone, in the American one it is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer stone. It was changed because the publishing house thought that the word philosopher was too complicated for kids.  They also had to change some words that are typically British, as jumper that became sweater, since in American English jumper means a kind of dress.

Often in the books food is mentioned, this was not translated in the same way in the Arabic translation, where the variety of food mentioned diminished, they used the word food many times instead of translating the dish that the characters where eating. In the Arabic version, there were also many changes made because of different cultural habits: drinking alcohol is forbidden, therefore it was changed every time it happened in the book, and also scenes in which the characters were kissing were changed.

In general, the translation of Harry Potter in every language was a challenge, but despite the differences that might occur in each translation the language barrier didn’t stop the story from being loved by thousands of kids – and also grownups –  who were brought into the amazing world that J.K Rowling created.


by Roberta Mingo


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