How hard is it to translate books? Very much, but don’t take our word for it.
Let’s look at Harry Potter, one of the most famous books ever published. You would think that because it’s supposed to be a kid’s book (it isn’t), the language in it is easy (it isn’t), and translating it was easy (it wasn’t).
Harry Potter Translations
The Harry Potter book series has been translated into 68 languages. From Chinese and Macedonian, to Khmer (language in Cambodia) and Azerbaijani.
Book rights are bought by different publishing houses, which means that most of the authorized translations are done with little to no oversight from the author. Which makes sense, when you consider that it’s hard enough to write seven international best sellers, to also ask the author to understand 68 languages.
It is with projects like these where it’s easier to understand how complicated the translator’s job is.
A good translation is never word for word. It can’t be. A good translator must interpret the author’s intention, and adapt it to the target audience’s culture.
In the case of Harry Potter, this task is even more difficult, because J.K. Rowling had to invent words (magic spells, places, verbs, food name), and the book is packed with British cultural references.
While the process from translating british English to American English may be straight forward, you can imagine how hard it can get for the other 67 languages.
The Sacrifices of Translations
Sometimes to make a good translation, the translator must make sacrifices. The most important part of a message, is the intention of the message. What result is it trying to achieve. In the case of a story, it can be to produce an emotion, to get the reader to like a character, or to let us see a scene in the eyes of the protagonist.
Sometimes the job of a translator isn’t to translate words, but to translate the intention of the author. And that is difficult.
For example, let’s start with an easy translation. The names of the lead characters. Harry, Hermione and Ron. These names stayed the same throughout all translations, with some adjustments in spelling to accomodate for different alphabets. But nothing major.
However, names like Severus Snape, the antihero of the series, is meant to sound like a mean character (and the word snake). Let’s see how those got translated in different languages:
- Italian – Severus Piton (python in Italian)
- French – Severus Rogue (arrogance in French)
Those are two examples where the translator must decide to keep the intention of the author (to portray a character as mean), and lose an iteration (name and last name start with an S).
Another example is Hogwarts, the name of the wizard school this universe takes place at. The word Hogwarts is the combination of Hog and Warts. In french, Hogwards is translated as Poudlard, a shortened version of Pou du Lard, roughly translated as lice of bacon. In Hungarian, the school’s name is Roxfort, a combination of the Oxford University and Roquefort cheese.
You can see more of these examples and other interesting word plays in this video.
Some of them are fascinating, like changing bacon for eggs in the arab translation, or Harry’s mentor, Hagrid who in the film is supposed to have a western british accent, but you can’t translate an accent, so most translations turned it simply into informal speaking or no accent at all.
In the most difficult cases, some translations had to have footnotes to explain puns or cultural references.
This is the kind of work we do at Clear Accent. While we haven’t had to translate names of magical spells and wizard names, we translate documents for all kinds of people and cultures. We related to this video so much, because this is one of the best ways to explain the complexity of the work that we do.
We love translating for you.