Why the French translators of Harry Potter have more work than their German colleagues

People have translated texts for centuries. As the world has become globalized and more connected, we have seen an increasing number of written as well as spoken translation (i.e. interpreting). At this point we can make a first distinction: texts that are transferred from one language into another in written form are ‘translated, while speech that is being transferred orally is ‘interpreted.

by monika1607 (Pixabay CC0)

There is, however, not only written and oral translation, but there is also translation into sign language. This becomes obvious when watching theTagesschau on TV while a person is gesticulating and thus transferring spoken language into sign language. This mode of translation is called intersemiotic translation (if you are interested in this topic, check out https://www.britannica.com/science/semiotics).

There is another way of distinguishing different types of translation, namely intralingual and interlingual translation. The former describes the process of rewriting a text, for example for a specific target group like lay people, children or pupils like you are. The category of interlingual translation refers to what we usually think of when we hear the word translation – transferring the meaning of a source text into a target text, for example if a book, originally published in English, is translated into German. This category becomes especially relevant when we think about books or movies that are of interest for a vast majority of the world’s population, e.g. the bible which has been translated (at least in parts) into 3,324 languages.

A more recent example of a literary text that many people are interested in is J.K. Rowling’s series of Harry Potter. Those of you who have read the books were probably happy that they had been translated into German so that you didn’t have to figure out words you didn’t know in English. A feature of the translation into German is that the original names of the Hogwarts  houses were kept the same: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin.

Even if the house names carry a specific meaning in English, it is not necessary to have the literal German translation to understand the story. This, however, is not the case for the French translators who preferred to translate the names of the respective Hogwarts  houses. The French translation of, for instance, Ravenclaw is “Serdaigle” (‘serre d’aigle’) meaning ‘Kralle des Adlers’ in German. Another example is Hufflepuff, which comes from English ‘to huff and puff’ (in German ‘schnaufen und keuchen’). Translated into French, it would mean ‘souffler et haleter’. And the French translator used the name “Poufsouffle” for Hufflepuff. Here, you can see that the translator tried to keep parts of the original name and mixed it with parts of the literal translation: “Pouf” (related to English puff) + “souffle”  (French translation of huff).

by Maurygraf (Pixabay CC0)

And this is one of the most difficult issues translators have to deal with – deciding on how to translate:

  1. Translate the text, in this specific example names, into the target language so that the readers understand their literal meaning (remember the example Ravenclaw, which is Serdaigle for the French version). It is also an adaption to cultural norms of the target language to enable a global understanding for the reader, meaning that they can relate to what they read and do not wonder about some of the invented words.
  2. Stick to original expressions to make sure that the feel and the aesthetics of the source text do not get lost during the translation process (see the German version of Harry Potter, in which Hufflepuff  is not translated).
  3. Make individual choices each time such a problem comes up, basing your decision on whether you think the partial loss of meaning (which may happen when you leave the original names) would be critical for understanding the text.

What do you think? If you were in the shoes of the translator of Harry Potter, would you rather keep the original names (and this of course goes also for the character names and names of certain places) or translate them to your target language?

For the French translation of Harry Potter, it seems that the translator wanted to find a balance of giving the readers any possible information about the specific words (literal translations) and to keep the puns as good as possible (mix of literal translations with original names). But compared to the German translation, this way is a lot more difficult and work-intensive. Would you prefer to let the other culture shine through or translate it as if the text is supposed to read like it had originally been written in the target language?

Picture credits: Featured image “The magic world of Harry Potter” by Rae Tian (Unsplash)


Alexandra, Katja and Maria completed their bachelor degrees in Marburg, Bonn and Vienna, respectively. They are currently enrolled in the Master programme “Applied Linguistics” at the University of Bonn.

3 Responses

  1. BlogAdministrator says:

    Dear Hypotheses team,
    Many thanks for featuring this article! It is a great honour for us.
    Best regards,
    Stefanie Pohle + the student group

  2. Marion Wesely says:

    Dear Hypotheses blogger,
    We found your article particularly interesting. To increase its visibility so the community can more easily appreciate it, we made it a headline article on the en.hypotheses.org and hypotheses.org slider.
    Best regards,
    The Hypotheses team

  3. Bel articolo. Grazie!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search