Harry Potter and the Overworked Translator

A few days ago the topic in the textbook was books, especially translating books between languages. Most of the students I’ve ever taught read very few books, and this class was no exception. Some of them had read books in English. I asked about Harry Potter, probably the most famous set of novels in English in the recent past, and available in many languages. Some had read at least some of the books either in their language or English, but not both. I asked about the titles. The first book is usually either ‘magic stone’ or ‘magician’s stone’, but the Korean word translates as ‘wizard’. The Nepalese students conferred, then said ‘shining stone’.

Wikipedia gives the title as ह्यारी पोटर र पारसमणि (I hope WordPress and your computer can cope with that), which Google Translate translates as Harry Potter and Parasmani. Parasmani is a 1963 Hindi-language Indian movie following a typical ‘hero’s journey’ of a poor villager who meets a princess, is tasked with finding the Parasmani, a ‘rare gem … a hypothetical jewel which is considered to keep the bearer young forever’, because the emperor is under a curse that as soon as his daughter marries, he will die, meets a sorceress, kills the monster guarding the stone, is reunited with his long-lost real father, marries the princess, saves the emperor and presumably lives happily ever after. I can’t find anything online that explains whether the Parasmani already existed in Indian/Nepalese culture/literature, or whether it was created for the movie. Either way, it is well enough known to be used in another movie title. Unlike the ‘Philosophers’ Stone’, which was so well-known that it had to be changed to the ‘Sorcerer’s Stone’ for the American version. The movie is officially ‘Philosopher’s Stone’.

On the other hand, the books do not seem to have penetrated to Fiji, where one of my students is from. A search for ‘Harry Potter Fiji’ returned precisely nothing relevant, not even Fijian children reading the English language version.

All of this reminded me of one lesson while I was teaching at a high school in South Korea in 2008. Fortunately, I recorded the gist in my diary at the time.

Many students say “Harry Potter” in response to “What is your favourite book” or “movie”. This annoys me slightly, as there are seven books and three [at that time] movies, and I really want *one* title. Sometimes I say “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?” (spelling?). A student said “No, Harry Potter and the Fire Cup”. I thought “ting” “The Goblet of Fire”. I wondered how else the titles are translated. I wrote “the Goblet of Fire” on the board, then called for attention, pointed to the board, held up seven fingers and said “Harry Potter and the -?”. Various answers were “the Azkaban slave”, “the secret room” (the chamber of secrets), “the fire bird” (the order of the phoenix). Between us, we came up with all seven titles. When I wrote up “philosopher`s stone”, someone called out “magician”. (If he`d said “sorcerer”, I would have written that up, too.) Someone said “Have you read?” and I had to say, no, I hadn`t read any of the books, or seen any of the movies. [I still haven’t, but I know the outline of the story.]

(Wikipedia has a whole article about Harry Potter in translation.)


One thought on “Harry Potter and the Overworked Translator

  1. I have not read any of the Harry Potter books, either, nor have I watched any of the movies, although I have seen 10 minutes or so of several of them. My 11 year old granddaughter has read all of the books, as has my daughter, Carly, post-stroke. Many of the adults I know have read them, whether or not they have children. I think I would have loved them as a child, but now they hold no attraction for me. On the other hand, the books I do love to read would hold little interest for many others. One of the books I am currently reading is “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes” another is “Our Father:Reflections On The Lord’s Prayer” and “Human Errors: A Panorama ofOur Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes”. I always read three books at a time. It’s a holdover from school days, when we all read books on many subjects at once.


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