Sunday, February 6, 2011

What's in a name, Severus Kalkaros?

I've just read Pollomuhku ja Posityyhtynen, written by the Finnish translator of the Harry Potter books Jaana Kapari-Jatta. In it Kapari-Jatta talks about the process of translating the novels, the complexities of finding suitable translations for Rowling's neologisms, decisions about which names to translate and hoping that a particular judgement call on a translation doesn't destroy crucial hints or plot developments in subsequent books.

The book itself is not high literature by any means, but the examples and rationales for her choices are interesting. It's also a fascinating insight into the work of a professional translator, and really makes you think about all the different possibilities you need to juggle. It was also interesting to know that Kapari-Jatta confined herself to hard copy dictionaries in her research: partly because the Harry Potter words often had an "olde" feel about them, so books already in print long ago were often a good choice to look for equivalents. The main reason, however, was that as she did not get her hands on a copy until the book had been published in English, all internet searches on a curious word inevitably led her back to references to Harry Potter rather than any indication as to what a word could have referred to prior to Rowling getting her quill around it.

I've only read the Harry Potter books in English, so I don't know how the Finnish translation flows, but just on the level of individual names and words I rather like Oljo (Kreacher), huispaus (quidditch) and professori Verso (Professor Sprout), while Kalkaros (Snape) and McGarmiwa (McGonagall) in particular don't sit quite right with me.

There were also some interpretations and directional choices that surprised me. Gringotts bank is Irveta, a partial reference to Merita, a real bank in Finland, with the sense of grinning or leering retained with "irve". It's a clever solution, but I thought I probably would have taken my cue form "ingot", given it is a bank and site of incredible wealth, and gone from there. (Notice I'm not up to providing alternatives here. Translating, it turns out, is hard.)

The decision to translate Buckbeak's alias Witherwings as Surkusiipi was also interesting. Again, I can't really fault the logic: withering is a sad, mournful thing, so there's no reason why the creature couldn't effectively be called "Sadwing". But I did wonder, given Buckbeak is in exile, whether the "wither" could not have been approached through "whither" as well. I put my theory forward to someone yesterday, and he disagreed completely. For him, the "buck" in Buckbeak suggested a deformity, of not looking quite right, so sad,'withered' wings was in keeping with that meaning. Kapari-Jatta had (and here I would agree) taken 'buck' in the sense of a horse bucking, of being difficult to control and energetic. Meanings-a-plenty, eh?

There is of course also the issue of which names to translate in the first place. Kapari-Jatta says she was pleased with herself for deciding to translate the briefly-mentioned Sirius Black as Sirius Musta in The Philosopher's Stone, given how prominent a character he became from The Prisoner of Azkaban onwards. Incidentally, Regulus Black's role in the search for horcruxes can't have remained a mystery for long, since the note signed RAB in The Half-Blood Prince's English version was RAN in French, RAS in German, RAM in Finnish... Translating Snape as Kalkaros in turn meant she had to change Karkaroff to Irkoroff in The Goblet of Fire, so that the two old Death Eaters wouldn't sound so similar.

Tom Marvolo Riddle would have been quite a challenge. It's an anagram of I am Lord Voldemort, so translators need to somehow wrangle that revelation into the name. The name in Finnish is Tom Lomen Valedro, which emerges then as Ma olen Voldemort. My favourite, though, is the Danish version (courtesy of the Internet), better even than the original: Romeo G. Detlev Jr. Isn't it just perfect?

I do wonder whether there have been any big mistakes, or translations that just didn't stand up to revelations in the subsequent books. A classic example from the Finnish context is translating Huey, Dewey and Louie, Donald Duck's nephews, as "veljenpojat", or 'brother's sons', when they actually turn out to be his sister's ducklings. Finnish just doesn't have a generic word for "nephews" or "nieces", so the translator had to pick a specific relative and got it wrong. And as much as I like Kapari-Jatta's huispaus for quidditch, I wonder how she coped with the explanation of its origin in Quidditch Through the Ages, which tells us the game was named after Queerditch Marsh...


Pollomuhku and Posityyhtynen, by the way, are Bubotuber and Pigwidgeon, respectively.


  1. Fascinating take on the challenges of translating not just a book but an enitre universe, really. I am now reading the books in Finnish, and have the exact same questions you do on Kapari-Jatta's choices, rising from the linguistic winks to the reader Rowling's original neologisms inspire (my native language is English however). Overall, it appears she has gone for "sense" equivalence where possible (while semantic equivalence, as in Black to Musta, is preferable when sensible). Kalkaros might inspire in a natively Finnish reader the same ill-ease a word like Snape does. But I can't stand McGarmiwa. That choice makes no sense.

  2. Hello jeverettr! How does the prose work in Finnish? I have wondered whether some of the odd choices of names might weigh down the expression and make the text too over-wrought to be enjoyable. It's one thing to come up with a clever translation, and another thing entirely to credibly sustain it for up to seven books.

    My problem with Kalkaros in particular is that it doesn't sound natural: Snape could quite easily be a real English surname, but Kalkaros is far too artificial. The sense it gives me, at least, isn't "snakelike" but rather "this is supposed to seem snakelike".

    And yes, McGarmiwa is just plain wrong. :-)