I am currently living and working in France, teaching English in a French school. I am also trying, with varying degrees of success, to improve my French. Part of this effort includes reading more in French. I’ve started with something nice and simple, Harry Potter. I know the story back-to-front and therefore can fill in the inevitable gaps in my knowledge of French vocabulary pretty easily. I also don’t get lost when I’m reading, which often happens when I’m reading an unknown narrative.
In this short post I am going to share my opinions on some aspect of the translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, or Harry Potter á L’Ecole Des Sorciers as it is known in France.
Let me start by saying that, in general, I think Jean-Francois Ménard’s translation is great. The warm tone J.K Rowling has in this first novel is preserved as are the vivid characterisations of her creations. The dialogue is also wonderful and all-in-all the feeling of the novel is very similar to the original. The comments I have about the translation are mainly about the translation of character, thing, and place names.
For example, though the Dursleys are the Durselys and they do live in Privet Drive, the wizarding school Harry attends is Poudlard (Poux-de-lard, literally: bacon lice) rather than Hogwarts. The Head of Griffindor (or Gryffondor) House is le professeur McGonagall but Harry’s nemesis in teaching form is le Professeur Rogue (lit: haughty) rather than Snape.
Indeed, Gryffindor is Gryffondor (Lit: Griffin of Gold) but Hufflepuff is Poufsouffle a word suggestive of the phrase á bout de soufflé/out of breath. The words Ménard choses to translate and the way in which he is does this is really interesting. A Muggle is a Moldu, the headmaster is Albus Dumbledore but the balls played with in Quidditch are a Souafle (no idea why!), Cognards (cogner means to bang/bash/wallop), and the Vif d’or (vif is an adjective meaning bright or lively and a noun meaning quick).
As Pickles points out in his article on this topic, often Rowling’s subtlety is lost in translation. The nod towards the French in the English ‘Gryffindor’ is now a direct label. Similarly, Slytherin’s fairly subtle association with snakes is explicit in the French ‘Serpentard’. Snape’s name – which in the English has no particular allusion except perhaps the unpleasant ‘sn’ sound associated with words like snide, snail, snap, snake, snare – is now an explicit characterisation. I think this change is my least favourite. I don’t understand why such an important character’s name was changed to something so entirely different!
Rowling’s use of French names/French inspired names must also have been difficult for Ménard. Voldemort translates into French as something like Deathflight/Deaththeft. A nice symbolism in English but a bit too obvious in French. Equally, as Pickles points out, many of the other baddies names – think Malfoy and Lestrange – are French or at the least Anglo-Norman.
Some names make sense as direct translations: Le Baron Sanglant, Nick quasi-Sans-Tête, and the author of A History of Magic Bathilda Bagshot, who becomes Bathilda Tourdesac. However, the result as read by an English speaker is an odd mixture of English, Frenchified, and French names.
As a language learner armed with Google translate it can be fun to try and figure out how Ménard arrived at these translations: Rapeltout (rappel-tout, literally: recall-all) is Neville’s remembrall, the Choixpeau (lit: choice-skin/leather?) is the sorting hat, and Croutard (croute translates as crust, scab) is Ron’s rat Scabbers.
I haven’t even mentioned the puns found in latinate spells such as wingarduim leviosa and the imperious curse which help the reader understand exactly what the spells do. However, reading the French translation has given me a new appreciation for the inventiveness of Rowling and the challenges of a translator approaching such well-loved texts which play endlessly with the English language. Rowling’s use of names, spells, places is full of jokes and puns which are evident only to those fluent in English and maybe not even then (it took me an embarrassingly long time to cotton on to Diagon Alley/diagonally). The translator must capture the sense, fun, and creativity of the original but make it work in their own language. Ménard’s translations have been very successful in this respect, and rightly so!
In writing this post I found this article interesting and helpful: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/arts-blog/challenge-translating-harry-potter-french#