Elvis Has Left The Chamber: What Is Lost And Gained When Translating Harry Potter

The Trials and Tribulations of Translating Harry Potter

Literature aimed at the younger reader often has deceptively complex language, as it tends to rely on word-play, puns and humour – all of which are intrinsically tied to the rules of the original language and its cultural conventions.

Jokes drawing on homophones and cultural inside-jokes can be almost impossible to compensate for when translating a text into a different language. For instance, Professor Sprout’s name might be sniggered at by British children who associate her namesake with a disgusting, flatulence-causing vegetable. In contrast, their French counterparts would not raise an eyebrow to an ordinary vegetable associated with their Belgian neighbours. 

Incidents like this could fall into the trap of ‘translation loss’, the non-replication of additional information or details. Consequently, writers like the sole French translator of the entire Potter series Jean-Luc Ménard must be accomplished in ‘translation compensation’. This is the transfer of a piece of information or stylistic device to a different textual moment than originally intended in order to preserve its effect on the text as a whole. Below, the varying successes and pitfalls of different translations will be explored.

Ménard’s ‘Choixpeau’

Ménard’s translation of ‘The Sorting Hat’ is a monument in the series in terms of creative translation and compensation. As you may know, the Sorting Hat is an anthropomorphised hat which chooses the new students’ schoolhouses. Though he could have opted for a seemingly straightforward word-for-word translation, Ménard went above and beyond. 

In his translations, the Hat has been renamed ‘Le Choixpeau’ which is a pun combining ‘choix (choice)’ and ‘chapeau (hat/cap)’. The smooth combination of the two in this seamless pun mimics the tongue-in-cheek, humorous tone of the series and compensates significantly for losses in word-play.

For more creative examples of Harry Potter translations in French, see Professor Simon Kemp’s article for the University of Oxford’s literature blog, “Adventures on the Bookshelf”:

The riddle of Tom Riddle

Ménard’s initial translation of Tom Riddle’s name is an excellent piece of word-play, perhaps it is translation compensation to make up for some losses over the course of the series. The Riddle family name is replaced with ‘(Tom) Jedusor’ which is a homophone for the French phrase ‘jeux du sort’ meaning ‘games of chance’.

While Jean-Luc Ménard may have been proud to accomplish a similarly mysterious surname to the source text, when the (spoiler-alert) revelation of Tom Riddle’s secret identity as Lord Voldemort came in the form of word-play involving his name, it could be imagined that he was not so happy. The English text reveals Riddle’s full name as ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ which is rearranged to the proclamation ‘I am Lord Voldemort’. 

Of course, this complex word-play could not be formed with Tom Jedusor, so how did Ménard avoid a major incident of translation loss? He opted to dub Jedusor ‘Tom Elvis Jedusor’ which he rearranged to ‘Je suis Voldemort (I am Voldemort)’. Though this is an effective alternative to the word-play, ‘Elvis’ is a somewhat bizarrely modern and English middle-name for a French character whilst ‘Marvolo’ is an archaic yet recognised gender-neutral name in the English-speaking world.

Translating an unfinished text, such as a book series which is published as it is written, poses translation dangers like this as a translator’s decision can be reversed or challenged by new content. Unfortunately, as the sole translator for the most hotly anticipated book series for a huge, impatient French readership, Ménard could not escape the pressure for hasty translations and could not afford the luxury of waiting for the series to be completed.

Similar issues cropped up for translators into different languages such as Italian. The Italian text calls Riddle ‘Tom Orvoloson Riddle’ which gets rearranged to ‘Son io Lord Voldemort (I am Lord Voldemort)’. Though this of course successfully transposes the essence of the word-play, ‘Orvoloson’ is not a name found in Italian nor English-speaking cultures. On the other hand, the syntax of the phrase creates an archaic emphasis on the ‘I’ pronoun as it is essentially doubled by the grammar. In fact, a more literal  translation could be, ‘It is I, Lord Voldemort’.

Essentially, this textual moment requires both word-play and the anachronistic nature of ‘Marvolo’ to be made clear to readers. Here, the Italian captures a certain old-fashioned grandeur typical of the Gaunt (Voldemort’s) family in the revelatory phrase rather than with a traditional, archaic middle-name like the original text. In contrast, the French alternative does not seem to achieve this aspect in either syntactic part. Of course, the potential to rearrange the character’s name to the famous proclamation would be a priority for a translator but it is clear that in Ménard’s offering we have lost something from the source material.

To see all the characters’ names from the entire Potter series in a huge variety of languages, click here.

Expansion Patronum

Linguistic contraction and expansion are translation phenomena which occur when texts are moved from one language to another. Contraction indicates that the word count has decreased while expansion is the opposite. Depending on different grammatical factors – such as the widespread use of compound nouns in German or the variety of prepositions in French – certain languages will almost always contract a text when it is translated from English, while others will almost always expand it. Generally, when going from English into French, a text will expand up to 20% so maintaining brevity and flow is a challenge for translators like Ménard.

For example, Lord Voldemort’s many names cause no shortage of translation problems. His more commonly known epithet ‘He who must not be named’ can create issues of brevity depending on whether there is contraction or expansion when going from English to the target language. In the case of French, Ménard went with ‘Celui-Dont-On-Ne-Doit-Pas-Prononcer-Le-Nom’ which means ‘He whose name must not be spoken’. Clearly, this has successfully communicated the original meaning yet a word expansion rate of 50% and a syllable expansion rate of 100% for good measure hardly maintains the succinct aspect of a name or nickname. 

Though Arabic is typically viewed as expanding English texts, Arabic translators in this case have taken advantage of grammatical features missing from English which can be used to contract a text. ‘(aladhī lā yajibu dhakara ismhu) الذي لا يجب ذكر اسمه’ is the alternative posed in Arabic, literally meaning ‘(he) who one should not mention the name of’.

Like many Romance languages but unlike modern English, Arabic is a gendered language and the gender of words is explicit within the words themselves so they do not require additional adjectives like ‘male’ or ‘female’ which are sometimes needed in English. Moreover, the subject of a verb as well as its gender and plurality is embedded in conjugated verbs so subject pronouns are often omitted. As such, the Arabic translation has a 17% lower word count though the syllable count is double that of the English as Arabic has grammatical case endings and internal vowels which are essential to communicate meaning. Here, the Arabic translation has overcome word count expansion more successfully than the French for the sake of the brevity needed for names.

Feeling creative?

The Modern Languages Faculty at the University of Oxford runs several creative writing competitions where you can explore the limits and the advantages of writing in your target language(s). The Anthea Bell Prize for Young Translators can enhance your language learning in school and provide opportunities for more advanced translation in French, Spanish, German, Italian and Mandarin.

Will you need to compensate for a cultural association which does not apply in Germany? Will you realise your word count gets high much faster in Spanish? Get creative and try to compete with Ménard’s ‘Choixpeau’.

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