Interview with Lena Fries Gedin and translation by Sarah Death, who is grateful to her two daughters for all their help with the English terms.

1. 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 with this?

In 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?

Transplanting 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?

I 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?

The 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.

It 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.

My 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.

Where 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.

Other 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.

One 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?

Apart 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.

There 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).

I 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.

The 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.

Finally 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 de...”.

6. Have you had any contact with the people translating Harry Potter into other languages, or with the author herself?

I 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.

7. Rowling 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?

When 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?

Here 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?

The 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.

If you want to read more:

Miranda Moore:“The translatability of Harry Potter”, The Linguist (Institute of Linguists), vol. 39 no. 6, 2000, p. 176-77.

Jessy 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.

2002 Translation Supplement Contents page