Why JK Rowling owes translators a butterbeer
Updated: Feb 1, 2018
Norwegian translator Torstein Bugge Høverstad on how translators helped to make Harry Potter a worldwide success - and why he broke the rules.
My recent article in the ITI Bulletin (see post, ‘Translating Harry Potter’) started out as a review of an event at the British Library. Torstein Bugge Høverstad, the creator of Harry Potter in Norwegian, took the stage with Ukranian translator Victor Morozov to talk about the challenges of translating Harry Potter – and it was quite an evening, with the audience agog to see how host Daniel Hahn would handle the maverick performance from Victor and the at times terse responses from Torstein. (The answer was with humour, charm and a true lightness of touch.)
The article grew into a much broader piece, and I was left feeling that I hadn’t really done justice to the wonderful and abundant material provided to me by Torstein, who seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to understanding a text and articulating the thought processes of the translator. I am delighted to publish the material he has given me as a bonus article.
Thank you, Torstein, and thank you to Victor Morozov, Daniel Hahn and the British Library for a truly wonderful event.
The Harry Potter books are full of newly-coined words for objects, creatures and beings. At the British Library’s “Translating Harry Potter” event you mentioned that among the many translators of Harry Potter, you were one of the few who translated even the names of the characters. Why was that, and why didn’t everyone do it?
Torstein Bugge Høverstad: The reason why most didn’t is simple: we were all expressly forbidden by Rowling’s agents to tamper with her names. No reason was given, so one can only speculate as to why. In my case, it was still early days; discipline was not yet so strictly enforced, so, what we might call a creative misunderstanding allowed me to get away with it.
It still seems to me obvious, and fortunately, the Norwegian publishers agreed, that these names and terms carry meaning, laboriously selected or constructed by the author and enjoyed by English-speaking readers, so that any translation neglecting that aspect would result in a lesser work. Letting headmaster Dumbledore stay Dumbledore, or muggles muggles, in the translation, would make them just meaningless sounds and lose a whole level of meaning. As a translator, that’s simply not something I could in good conscience do, when the whole idea of the job is to convey meaning.
Rowling, in her creation of proper names, continually seems to give us little messages: Is this person to be trusted? Is he one of the good guys or bad guys? It’s a sort of signposting. Take the headmaster of Hogwarts. Dumbledore is an old dialect word for ‘bumblebee’, besides being an impressive collection of sounds fitting for a headmaster. Why does she call him that? Might it be because of that insect’s associations with something unequivocally good (summer, flowering meadows, etc), while it can certainly also sting, if forced to—useful pointers, both, which should of course be kept in any translation.
'Humle’ (the Norwegian for bumblebee) on its own lacks the required gravitas. It needed another syllable. A natural addition might be the word for ‘buzz’, which is ‘surr’; however, he being an odd and secretive character, why not give that word a twist, substituting the word ‘snurr, keeping the associations, but adding the meaning ‘turn, twist’. Voilà, meet the three syllable headmaster ‘Humlesnurr’.”
The translator should translate whatever is meaningful in the original. Proper names, used in the way they are here, give you a handle on the person or thing concerned. But to continue doing so in a translation, they need to be transferred into a word-, sound- and connotation system familiar to the reader. Without that, the translation would be incomplete, and the reader the poorer for it.
Could you give me some more examples of the names you invented? What did you do with Voldemort and Slytherin, Malfoy and Lupin?
TBH: Where Rowling uses names with non-English origins, I have normally kept them (such as Voldemort) or replaced them with non-Norwegian-sounding names (most often substituting German or Danish-sounding names for French ones, because that’s where we imported our upper classes from. For instance, Malfoy became Malfang. Lupin simply became Lupus. Slytherin became Smygard, keeping both the dominant vowel and the associations to slither, creep, secrecy etc.
I’d also like to mention one of the terms I struggled with, which turned out to become a public favourite. The magicians’ sport, quidditch, gave me a lot of trouble, as I simply couldn’t work out what its roots were. (Later, clever people have pointed out that it’s constructed out of the names of the balls used in the game.) In the end, I had to do the same thing that Rowling did: make up a name. It should preferably be descriptive, and certainly acceptable to readers. Now, this is a violent contact sport, conducted at great height at terrific speed and at great risk of injury; obviously, a fitting name for it could contain nothing soft or yielding. So I sat down and collected all the short, harsh syllables I could think of – about 150 of them – and juggled them around until I felt they fit properly together. The result was ‘rumpeldunk’. Now there are rumpeldunk tournaments around the country.
With so many challenges in the text and the time pressures involved, the translators must sometimes have felt less than satisfied with their version. At the British Library event you mentioned that you’d changed the name you’d given the Minister for Magic to something different in book two. Can you tell us more?
Torstein Bugge Høverstad: The name ‘Cornelius Fudge’ gave me particular trouble. The word Fudge has two completely different meanings, both wonderfully descriptive for a politician of his sort. No word in Norwegian comprises both, so I had to sacrifice the sweet goo that sticks in your teeth and settle for the other one, ending up calling him Bloeuf, which looks French, but is pronounced in Norwegian like ‘bluff’. However, this name did not appear until book two.
For the first book, the publishers gave me one and a half months to complete a couple of hundred pages—and the same number of names and phrases to find Norwegian-
sounding versions of. Time pressures, as well as lack of foreknowledge of how things and persons were to develop in later books, certainly made some choices less than satisfactory in retrospect, and he was one such. My excuse was that after all, even in the world of magic, they must appoint/elect new ministers occasionally!
Translators say that one of the hardest things to translate in Harry Potter are the riddles. How did you make the anagram of “I am Lord Voldemort” work? [In The Chamber of Secrets, the name “Tom Marvolo Riddle” turns out to be an anagram, signalling the return of the dark wizard who gave Harry his scar. Translators had to come up with a name that could be reordered to give “I am Lord Voldemort” in their language.]
TBH: It was hellishly difficult, and the name that came out of the anagram —Tom Dredolo Venster—while acceptable, is not one many prospective parents are likely to give their pride and joy. Dredolo is unknown and means nothing, but sounds vaguely off-putting. Venster is a version of venstre, meaning left, end ‘the left hand path’ is a well-established concept for black magic.
How do you feel about the texts so many years on?
TBH: I’m proud of my small part in enticing young people to read instead of sit back and wait for the movie. I still love the books, their magical universe, their great jokes and overall inventiveness, and, a bit more reservedly, the entire whooping hullabaloo. Surely, we shall never see its like again.
Have you ever had any contact with JK Rowling?
TBH: The Harry Potter books have been translated into about 80 languages, its inventions are familiar to half the world, and it must count as the publishing phenomenon of all time, perhaps excepting the Bible. Isn’t it fun to think that without translators, it would just be a medium sized success in a medium sized European country? Nothing indicates that this thought has struck its author. To my knowledge, none of the translators have ever had a word from her, which is quite unusual. It would be a nice gesture to acknowledge our contribution by inviting the lot of us for a two week get-acquainted holiday in the Caribbean, or failing that, a pint at her local!