Skip to main content

Even with my limited grasp of foreign languages, I've long been fascinated by how translators deal with concepts that cannot be translated directly between languages. The simplest example is puns. Because puns exploit word pairs that sound alike but have different meanings, they usually are language-specific. I got a chance to see the process in action when I purchased a Hebrew translation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix during my 2004 trip to Israel.

Take the following passage from Chapter Seven:

"And don't take too long, Weasley, the delay on that firelegs report held our investigation up for a month."

"If you had read my report you would know that the term is 'firearms,'" said Mr. Weasley coolly.

This exchange depends on the double meaning of arms. Unfortunately, Hebrew has no word that means both weapons and limbs. What the translation does is make Mr. Weasley's report about ekdichay yad (אקדחי יד), or handguns, and the confused wizard calls them ekdichay regel (אקדחי רגל): "footguns." This gets the same point across as in the original--the wizard's ignorance of technology--and creates an equally outlandish image. But it doesn't involve the same level of wordplay.

In other instances, the translation does manage to retain the wordplay of the original book. For example, in the English version Hermione starts a club called Society for the Promotion of Elf Welfare, or S.P.E.W. The Hebrew translation gets lucky on this one, rendering the club's name almost word for word, with the resulting acronym sounding very close to the the Hebrew word for "allergy"!

At least the Hebrew version preserves most of the character names from the original. Many other Harry Potter translations don't. When I posted the "footguns" example on a language list, someone wrote back to me that the Norwegian version changes Dumbledore's name to Humlesnurr. The reason given is that the name Dumbledore comes from a British dialect word for "bumblebee," and humle is Norwegian for "bumblebee," while snurr means "to whirr."

I have no idea how often translators find sensible solutions to these kinds of problems. Puns and wordplay are only the beginning of the challenges. Good translations stand on their own as works in their own right. But they may overstep their boundaries by improving on the original work. One Israeli teenager asserted that he considers the Hebrew version of Order of the Phoenix superior to the English version. That is not necessarily a compliment.

Originally posted to Kylopod on Sat Mar 21, 2009 at 10:25 PM PDT.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site