Made-up words, puns, and a rushed schedule made translating 'Harry Potter' a 'riddikulus' undertaking

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In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hermione makes a correction to one of Harry’s essays about Jupiter’s moons. “Europa’s covered in ice, not mice.” In Norwegian, that wordplay plays a little different. Europa is covered in “Is” not “Fis.” Fis, in case you were wondering, is a Norwegian word for fart. That misunderstand is just one example of the many scenes in which the Harry Potter saga presented a unique challenge to its international translators, who were tasked not only with translating Rowling’s sentences, but also her playfulness and inventive language.

Case in point: In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the diary projection of Tom Riddle writes his full name in the air, and rearranges the letters TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE to become I AM LORD VOLDEMORT. But that anagram only works in English.

And so, in German, Voldemort’s alter-ego is named Tom Vorlost Riddle; in France, he’s Tom Elvis Jedusor (with Jedusor in French means “twist of fate); and in Danish, he’s Romeo G. Detlev Jr (the G stands for “gåde” the Danish word for Riddle). Other translators came up with clever problem solving techniques to fit their language. In Hungary, the two V’s in “Nevem Voldemort,” merged to form the “w” in Tom Rowle Denem. “I am” in Swedish requires an umlaut which wouldn’t exist in the name of a British schoolboy. And so, the translator emphasized the character’s pretentiousness and intellect “Tom Gus Mervolo Dolder” rearranged into the Latin “Ego Sum Lord Voldemort.”

“Translating puns and humor is creative work, and sometimes it’s hard to be inspired when working under tons of pressure and a constant barrage of criticism,” said Hebrew translator Gili Bar Hillel. “It took me weeks to come up with my translation for ‘Pensieve,’ [which] in Hebrew is ‘Hagigit,’ a portmanteau of ‘hagig’ — a fleeting idea — and ‘gigit’ — a washtub.

German translator Klaus Fritz also found a unique solution for Rowling’s made-up word for the basin in which one can relive memories. “I came up with the word ‘Denkarium,’ which kept the ‘thinking’ and had the connotation of ‘aquarium’ as a container from which thoughts could be recovered. Thus, it was possible to ‘save’ the semantic content which was the dominant requirement here.”

Credit: Yediot Acharonot; Carlsen; Pottermore Publishing

Fritz also found ways to insert humor specifically for German readers when faced with semantic challenges: “Particularly challenging were some acoustic misunderstandings within the wizarding community (so-called mondegreens). Mr. Weasley and others are fascinated by certain technical features of the muggle world like escalators, but don’t quite understand the words and subconsciously transfer them into their own language game. In one case, ‘escalator’ becomes ‘escapator.’ I had to re-create this misunderstanding in the German language, and not only that, I had to simultaneously keep the funny effect of this shift from one word to another. Trying and re-trying, I came up with ‘Rolltreppen’ (escalators) – ‘Trolltreppen’ (stairs for trolls). In this way it was possible to reproduce the acoustic shift within the German language — and also the funny effect. In my view, these were the dominant requirements. The semantic content of ‘escapator’ was lost, but in this context it was only of secondary relevance.”

Sometimes the new language provides opportunities for humor that don’t exist in English. “There is an unhappy wizard in the Goblet of Fire who sadly is unable to attend the Triwizard Tournament, suffering from a condition named “lumbago.” For this medical term we have the common expression ‘Hexenschuss’ – witches’ shot. Of course I used this funny coincidence with gusto. There was no pun intended in the original, but sometimes it is legitimate to use a pun in our own language to make up for puns that we possibly lost in other parts of the translation.”

The French translator, Jean-François Ménard invented a new word for the Sorting Hat: “Choixpeau,” a combination of French for choice (choix) and hat (chapeau).

“But we shouldn’t add puns randomly,” Fritz said. “We have to preserve the character, the “tone” of the whole body of fiction we translate.”

Bar Hillel made the decision to alter a scene in which Sirius Black sings, “God rest ye merry Hippogriffs” to make the work more accessible for readers in Isreal. “Most of my readers were probably Jewish, and there’s no standard, recognizable Hebrew translation for Christmas Carols, so I substituted a well-known Hanukkah song. There were fans who ridiculed this and said that I was trying to convert Harry to Judaism, but really the point was just to convey the cheer and festivity of making up words to a holiday song. I don’t think any of the characters come off as obviously Christian, other than in a vague sort of cultural way, so I didn’t feel it was a huge deal if I substituted one seasonal holiday for another!”

“Literature refuses to be handled in fixed terms,” said Danish translator Hanna Lützen. “It is a winding road, it is a wonderful mess and you have to be prepared for anything.”

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book)
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