• Sabine Little

Harry Potter in Translation

Updated: Jan 27, 2018

Does Harry Potter translate? What experiences do readers in other languages get of Harry, Hermione, Hagrid & Co.?

Sometimes, everything comes together. I was on holiday, volunteering in Zambia with my 9-year-old son, when an email from University came through, asking whether anybody felt they could tie their research to Harry Potter in any way. Since we have Harry Potter at home in about five languages, I asked my son whether he thought I should do a session on how speakers of other languages experience Harry Potter. Following his enthusiastic "yes", I typed out a short summary on my mobile and sent it off.

A Labour of Love

The actual preparation was probably the most elaborate talk I ever prepared - about 40-50 hours went into hunting down obscure translations. A big thank you must go to all linguists and Harry Potter fans who have been there before me, and to the translators who must have spent hours and hours puzzling over the perfect translation (my favourite remains the work of Norwegian translator Torstein Bugge in translating "Dumbledore", and Wiebe Buddingh''s (yes, that's two apostrophes) wonderful translation of "Diagon Alley" as "De Wegisweg". Equally impressive was the audience's language acumen when they took on the challenge of translating a creature's name from German to English, taking into account subtle word play and meaning.

Research Context

While I won't even try to pretend that this wasn't the most fun talk I ever prepared, there is a serious undertone to the work. Harry Potter is among the most-translated books of all time, and therefore a book that is easily accessible to many heritage language speakers. Books might be read in isolation, but the way we discuss them, borrow them, share our thoughts and engage with them, makes them a social experience. As such, reading Harry Potter means you can read in your home language and *still* talk to your friends about it - if you know who is who in each translation! But, as a society, we don't necessarily value reading in the heritage language - not even if it is Harry Potter. During my research with a group of school children, I asked them what they read, and they obligingly listed many (English) books. They already told me they were all fluent speakers of another home language, but when I asked whether they had read anything in their respective home language, one girl responded:

“Oh, yeah, I read all the Harry Potters in Hindi. But why do you want to know that? That’s not important. Nobody wants to know about that.”

She was eight years old at the time of the interview, but already self-editing in her assumption that an English-speaking grown-up in a school context would not be interested in her home language - an attitude shared by all the other children I spoke to. Throughout my research, parents and children have shared with me communications with school about reading in the home language(s), and their stories show that a lot remains to be done for our multilingual children to have their multiple languages acknowledged, supported and celebrated in formal education contexts - and this includes schools receiving adequate support and training.