I’d never really thought too much about translations of fiction from one language to another, but I read a blog post recently that brought up a few interesting points. They were mostly to do with how to translate character names and puns that work well in the source language, but would be difficult to translate without losing some of the meaning. This post was based on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but what it discusses could be applied to any fantasy story, or even technical book.
A good translator will not only get the original meaning across in the new language, but also the feeling and mood the author intended. That’s fine for your average verbs and adjectives, but what happens when places, characters, objects and spells have names that are not only tricky, but also contain double meanings? Professor Sprout (the herbology teacher) could be literally translated and still retain the same meaning, but what about Diagon Alley or petrificus totalis?
The three main ways to tackle these kinds of problems are to use the original form (e.g. most of the languages that use Roman script retain the name Harry Potter), a transliteration (especially for languages that use a different script), or trying to find a word or phrase in the second language that still captures the essence of the original (obviously the hardest).
Because nobody was allowed advance copies of the books, readers of other languages often had to wait months after the original launch to find out what happened. The rushed translations (sometimes done by teams) were sometimes so rushed that retranslations were released later on (as in the Italian version).
To date, Harry Potter has been translated into over 64 languages (the count is higher if you count dialects). It’s also done its part in helping people learn English, as many fans bought English copies while waiting for translations to come out in their own languages. I can only admire people who can read novels in other languages, especially fiction. There would be so many words that would not be available in dictionaries – although I guess that’s what the Internet’s for!