The Magic of Translation

After recently posting on issues that don’t relate directly to translation in the traditional sense, I wanted to try to write something firmly on topic while still being accessible and targeting popular culture.The area of discussion in this post is literary translation which, while evading the majority of professional freelance translators, is still a huge part of the profession.

While much of the current focus in Translation Studies hinges on the acceptability of the prevailing strategy when working with literary texts which, due to a prioritisation of commercial interests, is to ‘domesticate’ the foreign text – to make the text read fluently so as not to pose difficulties to the reader and, ultimately, to give the impression that what you are reading is not a translation (one great metaphor I’ve come across likens translation to contraception in the way that the less it is noticed, the better it seems!) – I wanted to look at a quick example to try and simply demonstrate the extent of creative re-writing involved in literary translation in order to offer a small indication of the challenges posed by attempts to transfer meaning.

And what better example to use than the biggest of the big bestsellers: the Harry Potter series.

This series of books poses a huge range of translational obstacles and the overall aim of the translations is to try to reach the foreign audience with as much as possible of the many levels of meaning still in tact.

Features of the original such as the creation of new words, the repeated use of rhymes, anagrams, acronyms and cleverly formed names are just a few examples of such challenges and, by taking a few examples of wordplay and showing how they were dealt with, hopefully the strength of the translations – which ensured that the series became a global bestseller – will be clear.

As briefly mentioned above, names in the book often contain small plays on words and descriptions of the very character they name, with the example of Mad-Eye Moody being one prominent case in point. The French translation as Fol-Oeil Maugrey (with ‘maugréer’ meaning to grumble) manages to replicate much of the sound of the original while also maintaining this semi-hidden characterisation. Similarly, Madame Pomfrey (sounding like ‘frais’ meaning ‘fresh’) is neatly translated as Pomfresh in the French. Further still, the Sorting Hat of the original is cleverly renamed as La Choixpeau Magique (cleverly linking ‘chapeau’ (hat) and ‘choix (de) peau’ (choice of skin) to produce a magic skin choosing hat!)

One final, excellent example of the creativity in the translation lies in the key anagram of Tom Marvolo Riddle and ‘I Am Lord Voldemort’: the French translation of his name as Tom Elvis Jedusor initially seems rather strange, until you realise that this is an anagram of ‘Je suis Voldemort’. Then, when you add in the fact that Jedusor sounds like ‘jeux du sort’, meaning ‘games of chance’ and paralleling the English surname Riddle, you have an extremely clever translation.

Of course, certain languages have been left with versions that are less successful (the Italian ‘Cappello Parlante’ (‘talking hat’ for Sorting Hat) is much less effective, and Madame Poppy Chips (for Pomfrey) is simply bizarre) and I can’t come close to even scratching the surface of the vast range of interventions that have been made throughout the entire series, but hopefully with these few examples I have managed to hint at the amount of linguistic gymnastics involved in transferring even small aspects of meaning that we take for granted from one language to another.

6 thoughts on “The Magic of Translation

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