Harry Potter and the Language of Magic

Harry Potter and the Language of Magic


Translating J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World

The covers of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" in Arabic, Japanese, and French.

Gryffindor. Slytherin. Ravenclaw. Hufflepuff. Hogwarts. Muggle. Quidditch. Squib. Horcrux. Dementor. Pensieve. OWLs (Ordinary Wizarding Levels). These are just a few examples of the unique words that form the vast magical vocabulary that frames the Harry Potter universe. The language of the Harry Potter series is rife with clever wordplay that includes terms invented by the author, alliteration, spells, and names with underlying meanings related to the characters (take, for example, Xenophilius Lovegood, whose name means “lover of the strange or foreign” or the Malfoys, whose surname comes from the French “mal foi” or “bad faith”). J.K. Rowling’s creative use of language is a defining feature of the novels, an intrinsic and foundational element of the extensive world-building that is part of what makes Harry Potter so special. With the emergence of Harry Potter as a transnational sensation, it was not only the stories that rose to fame, but also the Harry Potter vocabulary; a person confused by someone’s casual use of “muggle” or “quidditch” in conversation can now look up their definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) because they have been so effectively integrated into the English vernacular. What must be emphasized here is that these fictional words have been inducted specifically into the OED, that is, the English language. This clarification is important to consider in light of the fact that, as of 2018, the Harry Potter series has been translated into eighty languages.1 But, when Rowling first embarked on writing the series, she had no way of knowing that the books would resonate across cultures in this way. Participants in the Harry Potter fandom hail from all over the world, and the ability to communicate in a common magical language is no small part of membership within this community. As readers around the world eagerly anticipated diving into the stories of Harry’s adventures, translators were faced with both the typical challenges in translating fantasy literature and the particular difficulties of undertaking this task for a series with such an intense international following. A closer look at the translation of the Harry Potter series and, more broadly, the Potterverse, consequently offers a unique opportunity to consider the role of language in shaping fan communities and their relationships to the books.

The translation of literature, regardless of genre, is never an exact science; to take a story from one language and translate it into another, translators always have to interpret and amend the original text in an attempt to capture the tone and essence of the story as closely as possible. There are generally no strict guidelines for translators to follow, leaving the decision as to when and where not to translate up to the individual translator. Where proper nouns such as character or place names are often kept in their original form for the sake of consistency across translations (and because in most cases there is relatively little to be gained from altering them), fantasy literature can sometimes complicate this strategy by inventing unique names and imaginary places. In the case of the Harry Potter novels, however, Rowling added an additional layer of complexity by giving many of the people and places in the stories names that are imbued with significance, sometimes playing with English words and sometimes drawing on other languages altogether. As noted above, Xenophilius Lovegood and the Malfoys are two examples where this occurs in the novels, but there are many more cases in which translators come to a difficult crossroads: keep the names as they are in Rowling’s original in order to stay close to the text (a choice that risks non-English speaking readers missing the underlying meaning), or change them in order to communicate this meaning as effectively as possible (a choice that risks both losing or altering the meaning and potentially alienating the readers from the wider English-speaking Potterverse). In the case of the Arabic translations, the translators paid almost no attention to the descriptive aspect of names, simply transliterating them into the Arabic alphabet.2 Given that these names are unfamiliar and that short vowels are not written in Arabic texts, anyone reading these translations who doesn’t also know the English counterparts is apt to have a difficult time figuring out how to even pronounce the names, let alone any underlying meaning. By preserving English-language sound at the cost of meaning, these transliterations likely make the Harry Potter series seem even more overtly foreign and inaccessible to a reader of the Arabic translation. The name of Severus Snape is one case in which other translators took some liberties in altering the name to fit his character in spirit. In the English text, Severus evokes “severe” and Snape sounds like “snake,” thus capturing both his character’s personality and his relationship to Slytherin house. In the Italian translation, the translator kept Severus but changed “Snape” to “Piton” which is very close to the Italian word for “python,” whereas the French also kept Severus but used “Rogue” as his surname, which means “arrogant.”3 These translators were able to keep the character close enough to the original text to remain recognizable while still adapting Rowling’s model to a different cultural context. While the changes to Severus Snape’s name were fairly simple, sacrificing only the alliteration, others posed far greater challenges, such as Voldemort.

The name Voldemort is one case in which Rowling drew from another language; broken up into “vol de mort,” the villain’s name can mean “flight of death” or “theft of death” in French, either of which are extremely fitting for the character who both brings death wherever he goes and is consumed by the desire to evade death for himself (hence his seven Horcruxes). If the name were merely a clever use of French to craft a menacing name for the antagonist of the series, it would perhaps not represent any more difficulty for translators than similar names in the stories. The significance of Voldemort’s name, however, is a recurring theme throughout the novels, and therefore the choices of translators have significant implications for the overall narrative of the series. Voldemort’s name holds a special place in the Harry Potter universe, a fact illustrated by the reluctance of most of the magical world to say it at all (substituting “You Know Who,” “He Who Must Not Be Named,” or “The Dark Lord”). As a result, when a character does choose to say his name, as Harry and Dumbledore both do, the act of naming marks that character as special; in their determination to say Voldemort’s name, Harry and Dumbledore demonstrate their refusal to succumb to the name’s power over wizarding society. In later books, they take this refusal even further by referring to Voldemort with his given name, Tom Riddle. Voldemort has a complex relationship with his given name, as he shares it with his muggle father who was magically seduced by Voldemort’s mother. This name and its connection to Voldemort’s heritage is significant to the plot throughout the series, starting with the second book, in which one of the central mysteries (in addition to the Chamber of Secrets) is the identity of the newly-introduced Tom Riddle. The mystery reaches its climax during a dramatic reveal in the chamber, in which Tom rearranges his full name, Tom Marvolo Riddle, into “I am Lord Voldemort.” Later in the series, both Harry and Dumbledore address Voldemort as “Tom” rather than using his chosen name, a tactic meant to communicate that they see through his facade of an all-powerful, god-like figure to the mortal wizard beneath. That initial reveal in the second book therefore carries a lot of weight, as it establishes a connection that is crucial to the dynamic between Harry and Voldemort later on. Translators have grappled, however, with how to re-work this scene and the iconic anagram, particularly in the cases of languages that are very dissimilar to English or that use different alphabets. Some have addressed the problem by altering Tom Riddle’s name, as in the case of the French translation, which creatively styles him “Tom Elvis Jedusor,”4 which can be rearranged into “Je Suis Lord Voldemort” (that is, “I am Lord Voldemort”).5 Of course, it is a distinct advantage for the French translator that Voldemort’s name in the original text comes from French. In the case of the Arabic language translation, however, the translator opted to drop the anagram concept altogether; the words “I am Lord Voldemort,” magically appear, but this phrase does not consist in the same letters as the transliterated version of Tom Riddle’s name.6 The experience of this pivotal moment is consequently altered for fans reading the Arabic version, and the connection between Voldemort’s given name and chosen name is lost entirely. Particularly since the name Voldemort was simply transliterated, its meaning to readers of the Arabic version seems to carry far less significance beyond being the made-up name of the primary antagonist. This case thus illustrates how the translation of names in Harry Potter can have larger implications for the experience of reading and for understanding the characters.

In addition to her imaginative use of language to craft names in the series, Rowling also introduced her readers to a vast number of spells and potions, many of which are rooted in or inspired by Latin: “oculus reparo” repairs Harry’s glasses, “lumos” provides light (while “nox” extinguishes the light), “expecto patronum” calls upon a patronus, “wingardium leviosa” causes the target to levitate, “accio” summons, “expelliarmus” causes an opponent’s wand to fly out of their hand, “confundo” confuses, “crucio” tortures, “felix felicis” gives the drinker luck, and “veritaserum” forces the drinker to tell the truth. These are just a few of many examples of Latin-inspired spells and potions in the Harry Potter universe, and, as Sylvia Pamboukian notes, Rowling’s use of the language effectively gives these magical tools a sense of gravity and mysticism “by drawing upon Latin’s cultural authority as a learned language and upon its association with alchemy and magic.7 Especially if their meanings have already been established for the young reader, the use of Latin (although Rowling has clarified that she took plenty of liberties with the language) throughout the series in spells and potions helps further the narrative because the association between the name of the spell or potion and the result/effect is clear. Rowling strategically chose Latin words that would resonate with an English-speaking audience, and often applied Latinate treatments to English words (such as in the case of “Riddikulus,” a spell that plays on the word “ridiculous” and which is used to make a frightening boggart transform into something humorous). Some readers have suggested that this element of the stories has contributed to their popularity among older readers, who may recognize and enjoy the connections more than their younger companions.8 Though the savvy English-speaking reader might enjoy these hidden gems throughout the series, it is necessary to unpack how the extensive references to Latin might affect non-English-speaking readers who are encountering the novels in translation. In particular, it is useful here to consider how readers who speak languages that are very far removed from Latin and English, such as Arabic, are affected by the liberal use of Latin-inspired material in the series.

In order to understand the use of Latin, however loose or imperfect, it is important to understand its cultural significance. Classical education, which includes study of Latin, has a long tradition in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom. The students of private educational institutions (or “public schools” as they are called in the United Kingdom) have often been required to learn Latin, which has helped solidify the language’s connotation as elite and traditional. While, naturally, not all English-speaking children know Latin, many have been exposed to it in some way as English words are often derived from Latinate languages, and technical and scientific names borrow much from Latin; through this exposure, they are subsequently able to make connections between the Harry Potter lexicon of spells and potions and their knowledge, even limited, of Latin. Though the meaning of the spells is of course communicated through context as well as language, the ability to make these connections gives English-speakers (and speakers of other languages related to Latin such as French, Italian, and Spanish) a more intimate relationship to the language of magic in the Harry Potter universe. While Rowling should be lauded for her attention to detail and creativity, as well as her nod to traditional English education, the idea of the language of magic being rooted in Latin is uncomfortably Eurocentric. Readers are given indications throughout the book that the magical community is international, but does this mean that witches and wizards in places like East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Africa (where the majority of spoken languages are completely unrelated to Latin) are learning and using Latin-derived spells and potions as well? The translator of the Hindi version chose to circumvent this dilemma by re-working the spells into Sanskrit, a dead language that could imbue the spells with a similarly ancient magical quality for the target audience.9 Given the almost scientific quality to magical education the reader is shown at Hogwarts (where pronunciation is as important as focus and wand movement), however, it seems unlikely that in this universe the same spells could be performed successfully in different languages. The translator of the Arabic version of Harry Potter seems to agree, as all of the spells in the book are simply, like the names, transliterated into the Arabic alphabet. As such, to the Arabic-speaking reader with no familiarity with Latin, the transliterated spells are essentially complete nonsense; the connotations mentioned previously are not present, as this reader is unable (understandably) to make the connection between the Latin word and the result of the spell or potion.10 In this way, they might retain a sense of mystery and wonder, but they also lose some of the linguistic magic that comes with being able to anticipate the purpose of a new or unfamiliar spell. Notably, the only spell in the first book that is translated into Arabic (rather than simply transliterated) is the unsuccessful spell Ron attempts to show Harry on the train to Hogwarts, where he endeavors to turn his rat Scabbers yellow. The spell in English is “sunshine, daisies, butter mellow, turn this stupid fat rat yellow!” The translator for the Arabic translation copied this spell very closely into “oh sun, oh iris, oh soft butter, turn into yellow this stupid rat!” It is worth mentioning here that the translator was able to re-work the spell into Arabic in a way that produces a rhyme and rhythm similar to the original English version, retaining the childish tone of the spell. Thus, the only time young Arab readers see magic performed in a recognizable language, it doesn’t work. While none of this is to say that readers of the Arabic-language version don’t enjoy and relate to the Harry Potter novels, one can’t help but wonder how this dynamic might affect their relationship to the series.

Another important factor to point out is that not all readers outside of the English-speaking world read the novels in their translated forms. Because of a variety of factors, one of which is a legacy of European and American imperialism, plenty of children around the world grow up bilingual, often speaking English as their second language. Many of these young readers thus may have the privilege of reading Harry Potter in its original text (and yes, one could argue that reading the original text rather than a translation is a privilege). Such young readers, however, likely come from backgrounds that are privileged in other ways, such as in terms of class and education; though they still may not know any Latin, a knowledge of English gives them an advantage in relating to the Harry Potter series that their non-English-speaking counterparts do not have. As a result, the degree of accessibility of the magic in Harry Potter is intrinsically related to a reader’s educational, cultural, and linguistic background.

Building on the significance of culture, it is also interesting to consider how the cultural elements of the series (its distinctively British qualities) are affected by the process of translation. As mentioned above with regard to names, translators often find themselves making a decision between staying close to the source material and adapting the text to meet the needs of the target culture of the translation. Just about every translation of Harry Potter, if not every translation, has struggled to balance these two factors (including the “American translation,” a concept which many readers/fans find ludicrous and offensive). On one hand, altering the language to make the names, places, and concepts more familiar to the reader might make the texts feel more accessible, but on the other, it becomes difficult to retain the sense of Englishness that is integral to the series. If Hogwarts is in England, and there are obviously magical schools in other countries (Beauxbatons in France and Durmstrang in northern Europe are two such schools that the Hogwarts students interact with), why are there so many students with French, Spanish, Dutch, Italian, or German names who are using terms and references rooted in those countries? Plenty of translators (including the “American translator”) even chose to change many of the foods that the characters consume throughout the series in order to make the food more recognizable and relatable to the target audience. At what point must translators draw the line between what changes are necessary to make the story resonate with the target audience and what changes would too radically alter the fundamental essence of the narrative?

The Arabic translation is again interesting to look at here, because it is one of the translations that makes linguistic changes not simply because of the differences in language between English and Arabic, but because of the differences in culture between England and much of the Arabic-speaking world. For example, in this translation, all references to adults drinking any type of alcohol are removed and replaced with water except in the case of Death Eaters (presumably because the publisher and/or translator was comfortable enough with the villains consuming alcoholic beverages, since it connects the alcohol to negative characters). Characters do not kiss each other (even on the cheek), but rather wave. References to the characters eating bacon or any other kind of pork were changed to eggs in order to accommodate the sensibilities of an audience anticipated to be predominantly Muslim. These are the kinds of changes that might make more conservative or religious parents more likely to allow their children to read Harry Potter, but do they needlessly sacrifice important cultural elements of the stories? Furthermore, one could go so far as to question whether the omission or alteration of some of these elements constitute a form of censorship, a concern that has risen frequently with regard to Harry Potter in many countries (including the United States). When translators or publishers screen and filter the content of the novels through the process of translation, they are essentially denying the audience (specifically the audience that cannot read the original text) the access to the series in its entirety. It would not be unreasonable to assume that readers who have only had the opportunity to read the filtered (or censored) translations would have a markedly different relationship to the series than readers who have been able to read the original text, especially if the translations are as significantly different as they are in the case of the Arabic version.

The richness of language in the Harry Potter series offers more nuance and complexity that can be fully explored here. Given this richness, it would be possible to go on for pages and pages of analysis of the language of the original texts and the language of the many available translations. While J.K. Rowling certainly should not be criticized for creating a text that makes translation such a tricky undertaking (she couldn’t have possibly anticipated the series exploding into an international phenomenon, and the process of translation is always fraught with tensions), it is important to consider how non-English speaking readers engage with these texts. Does the use of language in the novels exclude those who do not speak English from participating fully and meaningfully in the Potterverse community? How do readers and fans around the world circumvent these linguistic barriers to foster connections with each other and relate to the series? It would be interesting, perhaps, to put Harry Potter fan fiction written in other languages in conversation with both the original texts and the translated versions in order to begin exploring some of these questions. One could even go so far as to look at how the films were adapted (subtitled or dubbed) into other languages to compare the differences between written and cinematic translation. These questions hold particular weight given that the Harry Potter Universe is one that is dynamic and expanding – a process in which its original creator is deeply involved. As the franchise continually moves, guided by J.K. Rowling, into previously uncharted territory, whether through the addition of new narratives (in the case of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child or the Fantastic Beasts movies) or through the amendment of existing ones (Rowling’s assertion that the character Dumbledore is gay, for example), it maintains its tenacious hold on a huge international fan base. From the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme parks to the ever-growing body of fan fiction to Harry Potter video games and merchandise, Harry Potter has effectively become more than just a brand or fictional series; it has evolved into communities, organizations, and even social movements that span the globe. Considering how language has impacted this process opens up the possibility of gaining a stronger understanding of how a series of children’s novels has been able to capture and keep the attention of the world for over two decades and counting.

  1. “500 Million Harry Potter Books Sold Worldwide,” Pottermore, February 1, 2018, www.pottermore.com/news/500-million-harry-potter-books-have-now-been-sold-worldwide
  2. Wafa Dukmak, “The Treatment of Cultural Items in the Translation of Children’s Literature: the Case of Harry Potter in Arabic,” British Library EThOS, University of Leeds, January 20, 2012, 136. http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/6761/.
  3. Gina Barton, “Harry Potter and the Translator’s Nightmare,” Vox, June  26 2017, www.vox.com/culture/2016/10/18/13316332/harry-potter-translations.
  4. This translation is particularly clever, as not only is it able to keep the name Tom, but “Jedusor” is a variation on “jeu du sort” which can mean “game of the curse” or “game of destiny,” either of which is fitting
  5. Gina Barton, “Harry Potter and the Translator’s Nightmare.”
  6.  J.K. Rowling, هاري بوتر وحجرة الأسرار., translated by Raja Abdullah (Giza, Egypt: Nahdet Misr, 2008), 269.
  7. Sylvia A. Pamboukian, “Taboo: Names and Naming in the Harry Potter Series.” Topic: The Washington & Jefferson College Review, vol. 57, Winter 2011, 52.
  8. Dukmak, “The Treatment of Cultural Items in the Translation of Children’s Literature,” 108.
  9. Alta Language Services, 2018.
  10. Dukmak, “The Treatment of Cultural Items in the Translation of Children’s Literature,” 115.
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