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British Library programme HP event
A couple of weeks ago I was privileged to get tickets to attend the “Translating Harry Potter” event at the British Library in London. My elder son was the perfect age for the Harry Potter books when they first came out in 1997 and a friend sent him one for Christmas soon afterwards. They magically converted him to reading (along with many others) and it was only a matter of time before I started reading them too, although in my case it was when I had some free time to read after a small op – and ended up unable to put the first three down, reading them virtually back to back! After that, we would eagerly await the latest book each June/July – fortunately it coincided with the start of the school holidays in Scotland, so we would fight over who should read it first, knowing that we’d have plenty of time to immerse ourselves in wizarding adventures.

Hardly surprising then that I was keen to attend this event, part of a series to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter – can you believe it?! The full title was in fact “Hogwarts, Poudlard, Rokfort: Translating Harry Potter”, reflecting on the French and Slovak names for Hogwarts (purely because the program designer liked the sound of the names, we were told later!). It took the form of a panel discussion chaired by the engaging Daniel Hahn, himself a writer and translator, and the Norwegian and Ukrainian translators of the series respectively: Torstein Bugge Høverstad and Victor Morozov.

HP event photo

After a brief introduction by Daniel, he invited the translators to start us off by reading out the first few paragraphs of their versions – in their respective languages, of course. Although I speak neither, they both sounded marvellous to my ears, but there was one noticeable difference. While there were still some instantly recognisable names in the Ukrainian text, the Norwegian one had been localised with Norwegian names for the main characters and places. I must admit, it would never have occurred to me to translate proper names, but when you think of their effect, especially “made-up” names and new-fangled wizarding terms, I suppose it is an entirely valid strategy. After all, we know Pippi Longstocking by its translated name rather than the original Pippi Långstrump. However, this policy was to throw up problems further down the line when those very same names turned out to be riddles or to have hidden significance, as in the case of Tom Riddle / Voldemort.… Who’d be a literary translator?! Of course, the translators had no idea at the outset that the novel they’d been asked to translate would go on to be part of a world-famous series, and that films and plays would follow suit.

Interestingly, the Ukrainian translator had had to wait a good year before being granted the rights to translate the novels. By the time he came to put pen to paper, a comprehensive style guide had been issued which stated in no uncertain terms that the names should stay as they were, wherever possible. The Norwegian translator, on the other hand, had no such guidelines (or chose to ignore them?!), so opted to create Norwegian equivalents. I’m not sure we received a satisfactory answer to the question of how he resolved the problems he faced when the precise names turned out to be crucial – but I think he mentioned that fudging was necessary, or even underhanded wholesale changes of name if push came to shove… Although of course, it would be possible to amend the original translated names subsequent editions if absolutely essential.

HP in Ukrainian

Using different names also causes problems with film subtitles – but I suppose it’s asking a lot for a translator to think that far ahead when translating a new novel by a new author! When asked how they won the contracts in the first place, the Norwegian translator confessed that he had actually been second choice, but the first translator asked had too much on his plate when asked to translate the book within the usual short timescale – 4-6 weeks now you ask! You can’t help but wonder whether the first-choice translator now bitterly regrets that quirk of fate, but such is the life of a freelancer. Plum projects often come in when we’re already inundated and it takes a brave soul to alienate an existing contact for a new and unknown novel, no matter how tempting!

The Ukrainian translator had quite a battle on his hands to win the contract, as Ukrainian was very much a minority language in the early days of the books’ history. He had thought it would be a great coup to translate them into Ukrainian before the Russian translations were available, and thus encourage children to read in Ukrainian. Sadly, that wasn’t to be, but he was successful in the long run and Ukrainian children can now read the stories in their own language.

The fascinating discussion also touched on the challenges of translating individual words: the Mirror of Erised became the Mirror of Hearts in Ukrainian because the direct translation of desire, written backwards, sounds like the word for a frog! And Dumbledore in Norwegian is the similarly onomatopoeic Albus Humlesnurr: the original English word is from the old dialect word for a bumblebee, so Høverstad took the Norwegian word for a bumble bee and added the word snurr (to spin, not unlike the word for buzz, which is surr) to come up with an equally satisfying name with similar gravitas. Fawkes, the splendid phoenix, who to an English reader conjures up images of Bonfire Night and the Gunpowder plot, has no equivalent in other languages, so became the majestic Vulcan in Norwegian, with all its fiery connotations. As a mere technical translator, I can only admire the huge skill at play in this very specialised niche…

All in all, it was a hugely entertaining evening and I’m informed that the British Library hopes to make the sound recording available soon for those who missed the live event. The British Library do in fact now have their own Translator in Residence (Jen Calleja), and this and similar events are a welcome sign that translating as an art form is coming to the fore. I’ve noticed several local events featuring translators in the South East this past couple of months and in these dark Brexit-shadowed times, it’s comforting to think that our efforts are still appreciated. A huge hats off to the translators who took the trouble to talk to us about their translations of these iconic books – and roll on the next translation-themed event.

Harry Potter books all 7