It’s been 20 years since the first Harry Potter novel came out in 1997. Since then, the boy who lived has had quite a global reach. The series has been translated into 74 languages, more than The Hobbit, The Great Gatsby, 100 Years of Solitude, and even the Qur’an. Despite J.K. Rowling’s simple, clear prose, the Harry Potter translations came with their fair share of technicalities.
Having no contact with the author in case of questions, and no information outside of the novel, meant that translators were in the dark about any mysteries that the author set up for the next volume.
And they worked under tight time constraints in order to meet the demands of the publisher and pressure from fans. In Italy, fans organized ‘Operation Feather,’ an attempt to inundate the publishers with mailed-in feathers in protest of having to wait for the Italian Harry Potter translations.
In France, fans were so impatient for Harry Potter translations that they eventually gave up and bought the English version—making The Order of the Phoenix the first English volume on France’s bestseller list.
Because of the imaginative character and place names, many of which are based on puns, translators had to decide whether to try to transfer the humor in the Harry Potter translations, or leave the gags in their original English forms.
In French, Slytherin is called Serpentard and Snape is called Rogue “arrogance.” The Norwegian Harry Potter translations call quidditch rumpledunk.
Acronyms like O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s, in the Swedish Harry Potter translations, became G.E.T. (Grund-Examen i Trollkonst, or “Basic Exams in Troll Arts”) and F.U.T.T. (Fruktansvärt Utmattande Trollkarls-Test, or “Awfully Exhaustive Wizards Test”). In Swedish, G.E.T. means “Goat,” while F.U.T.T. means “measley”.
What’s in a Name?
For character names, Lena Fries Gedin, the talent behind the Harry Potter translations into Swedish, agreed on a policy with her editor. She points out that Dostoevsky characters also often had names with secondary meanings in Russian, and yet they remain untranslated. The same should be true of Harry Potter translations, she decided.
But what was the hardest part about handling the Harry Potter translations?
“Apart from the puns,” Gedin says, “the hardest thing to translate was the anagram in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In the original, ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle’ was an anagram of ‘I am Lord Voldemort’. But the Swedish ‘Jag är Lord Voldemort’ of course includes the letter ‘ä’, which would not occur in an English-sounding name. I solved it by giving him the surname Dolder (not wholly un-English sounding, and with a hint of mystery) and adding an extra forename, so I had Tom Gus Mervolo Dolder = Ego Sum Lord Voldemort. I had to put in a little explanation of ‘ego sum’, but since Rowling uses Latin for spells and mottoes, I felt justified in doing the same. It was a hard nut to crack.”
This scene caused even greater problems in Chinese Harry Potter translations. Mandarin is a non-alphabetic language and therefore cannot have anagrams. The translator solved the Tom Riddle problem by mentioning it directly in the narrative, explaining that “‘汤姆马沃罗里德尔’ in English is ‘Tom Marvolo Riddle,’ and ‘我是伏地魔’ in English is ‘I am Lord Voldemort’; the letters are completely the same, only the order is different.” Since the story’s setting is very clearly English speaking, the translator determined that this aside wouldn’t be too jarring to the reader.
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How did other translators change Tom Riddle’s name to tackle this anagram problem in their Harry Potter translations? Here’s are some creative solutions:
Tom Marvolo Riddle in Harry Potter Translations
French: Tom Elvis Jedusor = Je suis Voldemort (Jedusor also sounds like jeu du sort, which could mean game of fate, or game of spellwork)
Spanish: Tom Sorvolo Ryddle = Soy Lord Voldemort (I am Lord Voldemort)
Portuguese: Tom Servolo Riddle = Eis Lord Voldemort (Behold Lord Voldemort)
Icelandic: Trevor Delgome = Ég er Voldemort (I am Voldemort)
Finnish: Tom Lomen Valedro = Mä olen Voldemort (I am Voldemort)
Dutch: Marten Asmodom Vilijn = Mijn naam is Voldemort (My name is Voldemort)
Norwegian: Tom Dredolo Venster = Voldemort den store (Voldemort the great)
Danish: Romeo G. Detlev Jr. (aka Romeo Gåde) = Jeg er Voldemort (I am Voldemort; Gåde means riddle)
Ukranian: Tom Yarvolod Redl = Ya Lord Voldemort (I’m Lord Voldemort)
Slovenian: Mark Neelstin = Mrlakenstein (translator Jakob Kenda culturally translated the name Voldemort)
Czech: Tom Rojvol Raddle = Já, lord Voldemort (I, Lord Voldemort)
Croatian: Tom Marvolo Riddle (untranslated) = Ja sam Lord Voldemort (in Croatian. Not an anagram, but clarified with the English text in a footnote)
Arabic: Untranslated. Tom writes out “I am Lord Voldemort” directly, with no anagram.
Turkish: Tom Marvoldo Riddle = Adım Lord Voldemort (My name is Lord Voldemort)
Hindi: Untranslated, one of the only sentences in the series to remain in English.
Greek: Anton Morvol Chert = Archon Voldemort (Lord Voldemort, though it’s an imperfect anagram)
German: Tom Vorlost Riddle = …ist Lord Voldemort (…is Lord Voldemort; the anagram finishes the sentence)
Romanian: Tomas Dorlent Cruplud in the first book had to be changed in the second book to Tom Ruvel Doodler = Eu Lord Voldemort (I Lord Voldemort)
Hungarian: Tom Rowle Denem = Nevem Voldemort (My name is Voldemort; caused an unintended connection to a character named Thorfinn Rowle, whose name was then changed to Rovel of Thorfinn)
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Translating Names Can Have Unintended Consequences
Name entanglements like the one in the Hungarian Harry Potter translation were common in other Harry Potter translations as well. Translators don’t have any additional information outside of the book, so if they translate one character’s name but not another’s, they could run into a sticky situation if in a later book, the two characters need to have the same name.
This happened with Tom the Innkeeper, who meets Harry in the first book. Some translators had to omit a line of Dumbledore’s dialogue in later Harry Potter translations when he mentions that Tom the Innkeeper and Tom Riddle share the same name. Tom Riddle’s name changed in many cases, so this wouldn’t make sense.
Even a simple young adult novel with uncomplicated prose can present a variety of dilemmas to translators. The best of them treat their translations with elegant, inventive solutions, ensuring that the Harry Potter translations have just as much color and originality as their English predecessors. Now who’s up for a game of rumpledunk?