skip to Main Content

Harry Potter and The Translator’s Quandary

From the Philosopher¹s Stone to the Deathly Hallows, J K Rowling used the English language to introduce us to a world of magic and introduced us to characters and ideas using words that have now become a part of our day-to-day vocabulary. Unsurprisingly, this creation of a whole new world led to a number of obstacles for the translators responsible for recreating the novels into a staggering 73 languages.

Often overlooked by all except the most eagle-eyed reader, the choice of proper names often gives a hint to the personality of the characters. Take Albus Dumbledore. Albus is the Latin for white, while Dumbledore is an archaic word for bumblebee (Rowling explained that she imagined Albus

Dumbledore as someone who hummed while he walked around). Readers have speculated that Albus refers to Dumbledore¹s standing as a ³good² wizard, playing on the connotations between white and good, black and evil.

The translation of proper names can be a tricky business in literature, especially in a such a well-known franchise with character names that are recognisable across the globe. To deal with this, most of the translators decided to reproduce the name Albus Dumbledore in their own versions.

Some, however, chose to play with similar ideas that gave a nod to Dumbledore¹s character. Czech also used an archaic term for bumblebee in the name Albus Brumbál, while Brazilian Portuguese changes Dumbledore¹s first name to Alvi, which also means white or clean. Rather bafflingly, the Italian translation plumps for Albus Silente but the translation of Madame Pomfrey as Madama Poppy Chips more than makes up for this odd choice.

Rowling coins a number of new words throughout her work. The remembrall is an obvious portmanteau formed from the words remember and ball and similar words are used in the French (rapeltout) and the German (Errinnermich) translations. She also created a number of acronyms that have a magical spin to them. School examinations go by OWLs (Ordinary Wizarding Levels) and NEWTs (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests). Many of the translators take some creative twists and turns to create a similar effect in their own languages with highlights like the Dutch SLIJMBAL (slimeball) and PUIST (pimple) exams.

Wordplay is even used to reveal a major plotline when Tom Marvolo Riddle¹s name is revealed to be an anagram for I am Lord Voldemort. As the name Voldemort was generally reproduced in translated works, translators had to find first and middle names that would create a similar revelatory anagram. Tom Elvis Jedusor (French) and Trevor Délgome (Icelandic) fit the bill nicely while the Swedish Tom Gus Mervolo Dolder creates the Latin anagram of Ego Sum Lord Voldemort.

There are so many, many more examples of Rowling¹s fantastic use of language and, while we can¹t examine them all here, we hope that this blog has inspired you to revisit the wizarding word of Harry Potter and maybe even to see it through new eyes by reading one of the translations.

Back To Top