with Lena Fries Gedin and translation by Sarah Death, who is grateful
to her two daughters for all their help with the English terms.
Do you know why the Swedish publisher chose you to translate J.K.
Rowling’s Harry Potter books into Swedish? Have you translated
children’s literature before, and if so, how did it compare
Sweden, the Harry Potter books are published by Tidens förlag,
a small subsidiary of Rabén & Sjögren. To date I’ve
translated some thirty books for children and young people for Rabéns.
The very first translation I did for them was a sweet little English
children’s book called John and Mary, published in
1953. Since then I have translated books for various publishers
and from many different genres including fairytales and fantasy,
admittedly in recent decades mostly books for adults, but interspersed
with the occasional children’s book. I had recently done two
children’s books about princesses and dragons, and from there
it was only a short step to magic and wizardry, so I wasn’t
that surprised to be asked if I would like to translate Harry
Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was a reader at
Rabéns who recommended the book, but they signed it over
to Tidens (and they may well have regretted it since, though of
course the money goes to the same group of companies!). Reading
it myself, I thought it was good, funny and full of imaginative
ideas. It didn’t strike me as any more unique or remarkable,
though, than many other children’s books I’d translated,
particularly not in linguistic terms.
2. The books are set in a very English boarding school milieu, with
houses, prefects, class distinctions, social snobbery and so on.
How did you deal with transferring these cultural aspects into Swedish?
the boarding school setting into Swedish soil didn’t cause
me any great problems. There have been other children’s books
in English with that setting; I remember reading the Singleton books
myself as a child (seven books written by Louis de Geer in 1929-54
about a Swedish boy’s experiences at an English public school),
and when I was a language teacher I would often show my pupils the
film “If”, though that’s a rather extreme example
of the genre! There are actually boarding schools in Sweden, too,
and although they don’t conform exactly to the British pattern,
they do have houses with house fathers and mothers, inter-house
competitions and trophies and so on. There are also cases of bad
behaviour and bullying – the most unpleasant description of
a Swedish boarding school is the one in Jan Guillou’s Ondskan
(Evil), which is partly autobiographical. But the very fact that
it’s still an unfamiliar environment to many Swedish children
undoubtedly makes it more exciting, because it’s strange and
exotic. I’ve had no qualms about working with various school
houses, dormitories, common rooms and meals in the dining hall,
with house captains, prefects and monitors, with inter-house challenges
and cups. The fact that this is a very special school with ghosts
and a poltergeist makes it all the more thrilling. But there’s
still a great deal schoolchildren the world over can recognize:
teachers of the nice, horrible or absurd variety, supportive friends,
nasty bullies, the hierarchy among the pupils, the competition,
homework and tests.
3. Do you think J.K. Rowling has a distinctive style in her writing,
and have you tried to imitate it?
don’t feel Rowling has a particular literary style of her
own; hers is the sort of language traditionally found in many children’s
books. The books contain a lot of dialogue and that can sometimes
be rather extended, but of course some parts are quite funny. One
recurring feature is the fact that almost all the reporting clauses
are amplified by characterizing adverbs or phrases, for example:
“said Harry (Ron, Hermione etc.) coldly, eagerly, bitterly,
carelessly, happily, breathlessly, in a grating voice, with a self-important
look, with a cutting laugh, with a friendly grimace.” Children,
however, seem to have nothing against this sort of elaboration.
What definitely does mark out Rowling’s personal style is
her imaginative invention of names and terms, her alliterations,
puns and witty allusions. Naturally these are precisely the features
that have been trickiest to resolve in translation. (More on this
below.) I’ve tried to be as faithful to the original text
as possible, which I think is important, and find a tone to match
it. There hasn’t been much consensus in the feedback I’ve
received: some reviewers thought I succeeded very well in striking
“a rather cosy British note”; others decided I had been
too faithful to the original, making the Swedish version a bit cumbersome.
But it was a deliberate strategy on my part not to simplify, abridge
or make any additions to “improve” the text.
4. Rowling makes a lot of use of inventive, resonant names, for
example the names of the characters (the dreary Dursleys, the sneering
Malfoy) and other names like the school itself, Hogwarts, the non-wizards
(Muggles) and the house names (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw,
Slytherin). Did you translate these, and if so, would you like to
say something about your strategies and solutions?
head of the publishing house, my editor and I discussed the question
of names in some detail at the outset. We agreed on a policy and
have basically kept to it ever since. As regards the often very
funny personal names (of teachers, pupils etc) which have meanings
associated specifically with the character in question, we adopted
the convention usually applied, even in books for children and young
people, namely non-translation. In Dostoevsky’s Crime
and Punishment, for example, many of the names such as Raskolnikov,
Razumichim and Malmeladov have secondary meanings in Russian, but
one would hardly think of translating them. Another example is the
set of bird names given to the women in Kerstin Ekman’s Gör
mig levande igen (Remember Me). There are thousands of instances
like these in our collective literature, and to translate them is
the exception rather than the rule. A different approach is sometimes
taken in children’s books, especially those for very young
children, but we thought the book would appeal predominantly to
Swedish readers of eleven and up, who have already had a lot of
exposure to English, and the names contribute to the overall exotic
flavour, if nothing else. (We admittedly failed to foresee that
much younger children would read the Harry Potter books and listen
to the stories on tape – I still think it must be hard for
young children to understand them completely, partly because plots
are so intricate, partly for linguistic reasons. Rowling isn’t
one to avoid difficult words, and I’ve deliberately kept most
of them, in phrases like ‘aerodynamic perfection’, ‘jovial
smile’ and ‘apoplectic plopping noises’ –
‘ploppande ljud’, because I think it’s good for
children to learn new and unusual words.) I’m perfectly well
aware that non-translation of the personal names means comical effects
and double meanings are lost, but that was our policy and I’ve
kept to it fairly rigidly. Rechristening the children Harriet and
Hasse or calling Professor Sprout Grodd or Örtgren seemed pointless
to me. I have seen other translations, the Norwegian one for example,
in which names and terms are translated; this can produce very effective
jokes, but sometimes the result is rather forced: Bill Weasley =
Rulle Wiltersen, for example, Alicia Spinnet = Alliken Spunt, or
Morag MacDougal = Morag McDonald.
So I kept the personal names and some of the place names in their
original English form. Swedish children should be able to get their
tongues round most of them (apart possibly from McGonagall, but
you have to be consistent). It doesn’t really matter if the
pronunciation goes a bit awry. And our policy proved to be the right
one, because all the translators have now had to sign a contract
agreeing to keep the original names, so Warner Brothers can distribute
the films, computer games and other merchandise all round the world
with the names everyone recognizes.
seemed perfectly reasonable to let the school keep its English name
of Hogwarts. I did translate some of the more readily transferable
place names, for example: ‘Diagongränden’ (Diagon
Alley), ‘Magnoliagränden’ (Privet Drive), ‘Svartvändargränden’
(Knockturn Alley), the two pubs ‘Den läckande kitteln’
(The Leaky Cauldron) and ‘Tre kvastar’ (The Three Broomsticks),
‘Kråkboet’ (for the Weasleys’ house ‘The
Burrow’, because ‘Lyan’ sounded too weak), the
names of the shops and so on. But I left the tricky names of the
four school houses unchanged, because they were named after people.
main strategy for dealing with all Rowling’s invented creatures
was to use the original words in a Swedish form and with Swedish
endings where possible. This produced terms like ‘mugglare’
(which works in both singular and plural), nifflare, boggart-ar,
grindylogg-ar, hinkypunk-ar, dementor-er, animagus-er, hippogriff-er,
pixignom-er and so forth. This didn’t work for ‘kappas’,
though, which would have been ‘kappor’ (the Swedish
for coats) in the plural; so I invented the word ‘kvarror’
(which keeps the same ‘k’ and ‘a’ sounds
and also has a slightly creepy feel to it, like the creature ‘Mårran’
in Tove Jansson. ‘Redcaps’, which of course has a meaning
in its own right, became ‘rödhuvor’, and so on.
It was quite straightforward to adapt the denominations of money
at Gringotts Bank into Swedish: ‘galleoner’, ‘sikler’
and ‘knutingar’ (the last slightly elongated, because
‘knutar’ has other meanings in Swedish).
I left the name of Rowling’s invented game ‘quidditch’
unchanged, though, because it had such a special, thrilling ring
to it. In the case of the names of the players and balls, which
often occur in both the plural and definite form, I either translated
or made up a new term. The players became ‘Slagmän’
(Beaters), ‘Jagare’ (Chasers), ‘Sökare’
(Seekers) and ‘Vaktare’ (Keepers) and I called the balls
‘Dunkare’ (Bludgers), ‘Klonken’ (The Quaffle)
and ‘Den gyllene Kvicken’ (The Golden Snitch). What
I was aiming for was some similarity in either sound or meaning
(cf. the Norwegian translation, which calls Quidditch ‘rumpeldunk’
and the three balls ‘klabber’, ‘sluffen’
and ‘gullsnoppen’). I called the various sorts of broomstick
Rensopare (Cleansweep) and Stjärnskott (Shooting Star), and
Harry’s beloved Firebolt became Åskviggen.
animals had names, I’m sorry to say I was rather inconsistent.
I kept some, like Fang and Scabbers (easy to pronounce, and the
latter has associations with the Swedish word ‘skabb’),
but I translated most of them to emphasize the meanings. For example:
Krumben (Crookshanks), Vingfåle (Buckbeak), Måntand
(a werewolf), Slingersvans (a rat), Tramptass (a dog), Tagghorn
(a stag). The little owl known as Pig or Pigwidgeon was tricky,
since I could hardly call it Nasse (Piglet’s name in the Swedish
Winnie-the-Pooh), so in the end I opted for Piggy and Piggelin.
new coinings on my part included Ormviskare (Parseltongue); Ynk
(for Squib, the family name of Filch the caretaker); Smutsskalle
(for Mudbloods, and naturally with associations to the racist Swedish
term ‘svartskalle’); and Sprängstjärtsskrabbor
(Blast-ended Screwts). The list is long, because the books are full
of linguistic jokes and word play.
feature I tried hard to preserve in translation was the alliteration,
in personal names, book titles etc. There are minor characters,
for example, called Missnöjda Myrtle (Moaning Myrtle), Monsterögat
Moody (Mad-Eye Moody) and Blodiga Baronen (The Bloody Baron). I
made the Whomping Willow into ‘Det piskande Pilträdet’,
came up with my own book titles like Helger med häxor and Finurliga
finter för fiffiga filurer, and invented confectionary equivalents
like Doktor Dregels Bästa Bubbelgum (Drooble’s Best Blowing
Gum) and Smaskmaskar (Cockroach Clusters).
5. What, as far as you can remember, has been the hardest scene
or concept or phrase to translate in the Harry Potter books so far?
from the puns, the hardest thing to translate was the anagram in
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In the original, “Tom
Marvolo Riddle” was an anagram of “I am Lord Voldemort”.
But the Swedish “Jag är Lord Voldemort” of course
includes the letter ‘ä’, which would not occur
in an English-sounding name. I solved it by giving him the surname
Dolder (not wholly un-English sounding, and with a hint of mystery)
and adding an extra forename, so I had Tom Gus Mervolo Dolder =
Ego Sum Lord Voldemort. I had to put in a little explanation of
“ego sum”, but since Rowling uses Latin for spells and
mottoes, I felt justified in doing the same. I was a hard nut to
crack, as was finding an equivalent to the riddle of the sphinx
in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
are a lot of rhyming verses in the books, and one of the hardest
of these was the rhyming puzzle about the seven bottles in the penultimate
chapter of the first book. Acronyms were also tricky: how to find
abbreviations which also made a different word in their own right,
as with the pupils’ various tests and exams: O.W.L.s (Ordinary
Wizarding Levels) became G.E.T. (Grund-Examen i Trollkonst) and
N.E.W.T.s (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests) turned into F.U.T.T.
(Fruktansvärt Utmattande Trollkarls-Test).
found another play on words, the verb pair “apparate/disapparate”,
one of the most difficult challenges of all. I couldn’t come
up with anything better than the rather laboured “transferera
sig” Sometimes I used the “förflytta sig på
spökvis” (to move ghostwise), but I’m not particularly
happy with it.
Mirror of Erised and the back-to-front inscription on it –
Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi – were in a problem
category all of their own. I twisted and tested words in all manner
of ways before finally deciding to translate neither Erised nor
the inscription, although I was well aware of their meaning. I simply
left it as ‘Erised-spegeln’, having discarded Eksnö(Önske)spegeln
or Snakskö-(Önskans)spegel as too strange in Swedish,
not to mention Mörd (Dröm)spegeln, which are too close
to nörd (nerd) or mördare (murderer). The backwards inscription
didn’t read well in Swedish either, whereas the English one
had a rather exciting, almost Celtic feel to it. But I’m still
looking for alternative solutions, which could conceivably be incorporated
into later editions.
there was that perennial translation difficulty: dialect and non-standard
language. Not only were there French and Bulgarian accents to contend
with, but the gamekeeper Hagrid has an unrefined, ‘countrified’
way of speaking, which I tried to recreate by use of simple markers,
spelling words the way they sound. For example: “Jag ana att
Voldemort lura nånstans där ute. De va tvunget å
hända. Ja, å nu har de alltså hänt, å
vi måste bara se till å göra nåt åt
you had any contact with the people translating Harry Potter into
other languages, or with the author herself?
haven’t been in direct contact with any of the other translators
yet, though I am currently writing to all of them here in Scandinavia
to compare rates of pay and ask whether they, too, have had to sign
away their copyright to all names, terms and phrases to Warner Bros.
I’ve read the Danish and Norwegian translations; the Norwegian
one translates every single name, and the Danish one changes or
translates some of the names but not all. Unfortunately I haven’t
been able to contact J.K Rowling directly.
is said to have planned a series of seven books, and each new title
published so far has been longer than the one before. I heard the
French translator say in a radio interview that he was being forced
to work to impossible deadlines so the translations could be published
quickly. Has this happened to you, and do you fear that quality
can suffer under this kind of pressure?
the third book was to be published here in Sweden, the marketing
department at Rabéns decided to bring it forward by two months,
and the same thing happened with number four, which they wanted
urgently to keep in step with other countries. The first Harry Potter
book came out here about two years after the English original (a
fairly standard interval for translations), which meant we were
lagging behind from the start. But the hysteria surrounding the
whole phenomenon meant there was tremendous external pressure from
Swedish readers eager for the two most recent books. It meant I
had to work on number three from September 2000 until just before
Christmas, then start straight away on number four (c. 650 pages)
in January last year, with a deadline of the end of May. It was
taxing to say the least, and I’m sure it affected the quality
of the translation; if nothing else, the terminology expands with
every new book almost to overflowing point, and it was hard to find
time to check everything for consistency with the earlier books.
8. The making of the first Harry Potter film led to a lot of hype
and a flood of spin-off merchandising in Britain. Is the same happening
in Sweden we too have a lot of products linked to Harry Potter:
computer games, dolls, notebooks, calendars, posters, jigsaws, china
and so on – but sale of them is reportedly not that brisk.
I’m happy to say it’s still the books that sell best,
in incredible numbers for a country as small as ours.
9. Do you receive many letters from the readers of your translations,
and are there any recurring themes to what they say?
publisher gets quite a lot of reader correspondence and some comes
addressed to me personally. Children email or write from home or
school asking for help with projects, class presentations and so
on. Then there are always the critical voices (usually not children)
who take me to task for minor details in the translation, like Hagrid’s
sloppy speech. A lot of people write to tell me what the name ‘Mirror
of Erised’ means, and I’m frequently informed that I
haven’t understood or translated this or that name. Someone
even sent in a translation of their own and thought it should replace
my useless one, but in fact it had the opposite effect, making the
publisher realize how difficult the translator’s job is, even
in children’s books! The majority of letters, though, are
encouraging and positive, which is gratifying. When I started on
the first book about Harry Potter and his world I had no idea how
far it was all going to develop,but I can sum up the venture as
rewarding and great fun – and one that I probably haven’t
seen the back of yet.
you want to read more:
Moore:“The translatability of Harry Potter”, The Linguist
(Institute of Linguists), vol. 39 no. 6, 2000, p. 176-77.
Randall: “Wizard words: the literary, Latin and lexical origins
of Harry Potter’s vocabulary”, Verbatim: The Language
Quarterly, vol. 26 no. 2, spring 2001, p. 1-7.