J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

During winter dark days, I needed to find solace and comfort in my commute reading, because days are long at work. So in 2011, I am at long last starting the Harry Potter series (I watched one or two movies a long time ago, but it doesn’t really count, does it?)

 A few months ago, I asked everyone around if it was better to wait until Baby Smithereens was old enough to start the series, and the answer was to read it first and then perhaps enjoy it as a re-read later on if and when he would get interested (perhaps by this time, Harry Potter will seem completely moth-eaten and unfashionable). I’m glad I did so, because the story requires a child to be quite familiar with the school system, and I guess it’s not so enjoyable to read it before he is 7 (if the blog is still up and running by then, I’ll duly report)

I swallowed the book (in the French edition, more compact) in a few days’ time and had a lot of fun. The fact that the story is so popular let me concentrate on other topics, notably on the plot and the translation issues. (I must confess that I read it in February, see how late I am…, so my mind was full of translation due to Verbivore’s project to translate and publish a short story of mine)

The first thing that struck me is that the title was changed: French children didn’t read anything about Philosopher’s Stone or Sorcerer’s Stone, it was translated as “Harry Potter at the Sorcerers School”. I found it a daring shift, but it works just as well because Rowling spends a lot of the book building up Harry’s world and explaining the school organization. The philosopher’s stone itself plays a minor role, in my opinion. But the result was confusing to me (and to the amateur librarian who helps at my company’s little library).

I soon discovered the different challenges that the translator had to tackle, and it must have been a pretty steep summit to climb: accents, personal names loaded with allusions and possible meanings, a whole world with places, familiar objects, cultural references to rebuild in another language. The result has to be fluent and simple enough for children to appreciate and keep in mind. And it works!

I tried to pay as much attention as possible to the choice of words and it was a real pleasure. Some translations were very good choices in my opinion, such as “Serpentard” for “Slytherin”. It creates an unpleasant, hissing sound and the ending in “ard” puts the school under a negative light. I also loved “Moldus” for “Muggles”. It rimes with a lot of stupid expletives in French and sounds highly comical. What does “Muggles” sound like? Sometimes, I was “lost in translation”, like when Severus Snape becomes Severus Rogue. I would have preferred to keep the alliteration of the triple “s”, but instead “rogue” brings “arrogant” and “bulldog” to mind. Not bad. “Snape” brings “snake” and “snap” to my foreign mind, is that what’s intended? Other attempts seemed more forced, like for the Sorting Hat, that became “Choixpeau”, a funny combination of choice and hat that sounds close to “chapeau”.

After this first instalment, I’ll probably choose an English edition for the next one, or maybe go back and forth between French and English. Did any of you read Harry Potter in different languages?

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One thought on “J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

  1. First of all, I started reading the Harry Potter books as they came out – when I was seven. Actually, at first my elder sister read them aloud to me (I was still a little young to tackle that big a book…) but age seven is perfect for that. Just saying.

    A few years after reading the books that were out at the time (I think it was just after Prisoner of Azkaban…?), I decided to “reread” Sorcerer’s Stone in Hebrew. There were a few changes, but typically ones that furthered the plot. Sadly, subtle adjustments like a Snape rename didn’t happen (your analysis of the name change is spot on) but set-ups for later books were amended. I don’t really remember most of them…

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