Translate or not to translate: The example of Harry Potter

Literary translation has its own challenges that are only rarely found in legal translation or financial translation, for example. This is the case for proper names. Should they be translated? Not translated? Discover 5 cases taken from the French translation of Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling.

When to translate? Muggles and Hufflepuff

The case of “Muggles” is particularly interesting and enlightening. Remember that the term “Muggle” refers to people without magical powers and leading their lives often in ignorance of the wizarding world. “Moldu” is the French translation of “Muggle”. Muggle is a very rare term in English. There’s barely a trace of it in a Thomas Middleton play from the beginning of the 17th century, but we actually don’t know what it means. It also appears in some regional dialects, muggle is essentially a word which has no clear or defined meaning in English. The translator, Jean-François Ménard, looked for a word that had similar characteristics in French, and he invented “moldu”:

  • “Muggles” are “weak”, in the sense that they lack something, namely the ability to produce magic;
  • The sound “moldu” is reminiscent of the original English term.

The Hufflepuff house, on the other hand, has had a literal translation or almost. In French, this Hogwarts house is called “Poufsouffle”. This is the formula that is used in the traditional fairy tale when the wolf blows down the three little pigs` houses (“I will huff and puff and I will blow your house down”). But it was also, for the translator, to convey the idea that the school students from Hufflepuff have difficulties learning and that, somehow, they struggle with the tasks Hence the term “Hufflepuff”.

When not to translate? Dumbledore, Hagrid and Minerva

Some proper names, however, have not been translated by Jean-François Ménard. This is especially the case with Dumbledore, Hagrid and Minerva (McGonagall). Why these three? Because these three names are present in the first two pages of Chapter 20 of a book by Thomas Hardy entitled The Mayor of Castelbridge. The fact that these three terms have this common origin pushed the translator to keep them. But Menard also offers other explanations:

  • The term “Dumbledore” refers in some dialects refers to bumblebees. But Ménard finding that it was clumsy to use the French term, preferred to keep the original, which refers to the character`s curiosity, who always goes from flower to flower.
  • Hagrid”, for his part, refers to a person haunted by nightmares or evil spirits. For the translator, to find a corresponding term in French to vividly describe this character was an impossible task.
  • Minerva, the first name of McGonagall, is, as everyone knows, the goddess of wisdom, science and arts, but also of war. Here more than elsewhere, the decision was easy: not only does the first name perfectly describe the character, but in addition it is “transparent” for French readers.

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