Tuesday, April 17, 2007

More on Translating Harry Potter and Other Children’s Literature

Awhile back, I posted a link to an article on translating the Harry Potter books. Here is another article (in two parts) and it goes into some specific issues more in-depth. I still haven’t read the books in question, but I nevertheless find that this article gives me a lot to think about.

Thank you to Gili Bar-Hillel for sending these links to me. Ms. Bar-Hillel is the Hebrew translator of the Harry Potter books and other works and I met her at the conference recently described. She is mentioned in this article: “Gili Bar-Hillel, the Hebrew translator, agrees that the pressure is intense but in her case believes that this actually contributes to the quality of her translations, for two reasons: first, she must by necessity be single-mindedly focused on the task, and second, everyone around her—including her family—is geared to helping her work as fast and as effectively as possible.” Lucky Gili to have such a supportive family and to be able to work so well under pressure!

Here are a few comments on part one of this article:

“…translations of the first four volumes into Russian had been widely criticized for inaccuracies, a lack of fantasy, and inserted moralizing…” – I find it interesting that children’s books (okay, adults read Harry Potter, too, but they are still children’s books) have added moralizing. This has been a common issue in the translation of children’s literature (which happens to be my primary research field), but I would have liked to believe that translation these days had moved beyond this idea of adults thinking that they know best what children ought to read, and what they ought to get out of their reading. Would this happen in a work of fiction for adults? In my experience, generally not. I wonder if this has occurred in any other translations of these books.

As for cultural issues: “Translators have several options, including de-Anglicizing the text, leaving names and concepts as they are (but including explanations of particularly difficult notions, such as Christmas crackers, Halloween, and Cornflakes—the latter having earned a footnote in the Chinese translation, to indicate that these are consumed immersed in milk for breakfast), or some combination of the two.” I’d be curious to know if any readers of the Harry Potter books in other languages have noticed any particular strategies for cultural topics. Some people think that domestication (the term for when a translator removes the foreign elements from a text and adapts the work to his or her own culture) might be more common in texts for children, because of the idea that children will find “exotic” items, such as kinds of cereal or holidays, confusing. My personal view, however, is that exposing people – whether children or adults – to new things is generally beneficial.

A somewhat related topic is UK versus US English. J.K. Rowling’s comments here are interesting (though I am not sure why American children would be confused by the idea of a philosopher – does that say something about the US educational system?): “Along with her American editor, J.K. Rowling decided that beyond Americanizing the spelling (flavour/flavor, recognise/recognize, etc.), words should be altered only where it was felt they would be incomprehensible, even in context, to an American reader. “I have had some criticism from other British writers about allowing any changes at all, but I feel the natural extension of that argument is to go and tell French and Danish children that we will not be translating Harry Potter, so they’d better go and learn English,” Rowling says. Thus dustbin becomes trashcan and a packet of crisps is turned into a bag of chips. Dumbledore is barking in Britain but off his rocker across the Atlantic. Most importantly, at the suggestion of the American editor, the title of the first book was altered from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, both to avoid what might be thought of as a reference to misleading subject matter, and to reflect Harry’s magical powers. The choice of Sorcerer’s Stone was Rowling’s idea.”

As for part two of the article:

I found this comment somewhat odd: “Contact with J.K. Rowling is not an option, as the author has generally not made herself accessible to the translators, nor has her agent been especially forthcoming on problematic areas of the translations.” – One would think an author would want to be helpful, in order to help make the translations of his or her work as good as possible. Some may expect the work to speak for itself, but the fact is that translators may still have questions, and thus contact with the author would be a great book.

And, finally, let’s end on a slightly depressing note: “Torstein Hoverstad, the Norwegian translator of Harry Potter, is among the many who have described the experience of being a literary translator as that of attempting something inherently impossible, being badly paid, and remaining virtually invisible—and that’s if you’re successful.”

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