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Challenges Translating Culture-Specific References: Harry Potter

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Published: 8th Dec 2020 in Translation

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The Harry Potter books are an immensely popular and successful series that have been translated into around 78 languages (PotterGlot, 2017). Due to the nature of the series and large scale on which it has been translated, much has been written about the difficulties of translating culture-specific references, and literary devices. Moreover, much work has been produced about the aim of the translators and how they attempted to overcome these difficulties. However, with regards to the Spanish translations, there has not been a great amount of analysis.

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According to Katharina Reiss’s text-type model, the series is expressive and creative, therefore the translators should adopt an ‘identifying’ method and the perspective of the author (Munday, 2013, p.112). In an interview with the Spanish translators of books II-IV in the series, Nieves Martín Azofra and Adolfo Muñoz García, Azofra stated that their aim was to transmit the real and fantasy world that appears in Rowling’s book naturally, in clear and correct Spanish (Fortea, 2004, pp.73-74). From this interview, it could be argued that the translators’ given approach is one of fidelity to the author and foreignization, as they aim to convey the story as it appears in the source text, which would involve the preservation of the source text’s cultures, and the style and characterization of the author. Furthermore, as a domesticating approach to translation can be linked to invisibility of the translator (Emmerich, 2013, p.200), it could also be argued that they aim to be visible as translators. However, invisibility of the translator is also linked to notions of fluency (Emmerich, 2013, p.200). So, as Azofra also mentions their intention to translate into clear and correct Spanish, it could conversely be argued that they are taking a domesticating approach.

This essay will explore how their translation approach manifests itself throughout Harry Potter y la cámara secreta. This will be discussed in terms of domestication, defined in this essay as producing a target text that sounds ‘native’, may lose some characteristics of the source culture and language and the ‘otherness’ that comes with these characteristics, and foreignization, defined as producing a text that generally preserves these characteristics but at the expense of the norms of the source culture and language which can make the text feel ‘foreign’ to the reader (Gile, 2009, pp.251-252). As well as making reference to visibility and invisibility of the translators and fidelity to the author. In order to do this, it will analyse the strategies used to translate Hagrid’s speech, the name “Moaning Myrtle” and culture-specific references.

One way in which the translator’s aim manifests itself is through the treatment of Hagrid’s dialect. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (hereafter referred to as Chamber of Secrets), Hagrid’s style of speech is uniquely characterised by use of non-standard spelling and grammar, and colloquialisms (Davies, 2003, p.82). For example: “‘Skulkin’ around Knockturn Alley, I dunno – dodgy place, Harry – don’ want no one ter see yeh down there –’” (Chamber of Secrets, p.57). From Hagrid’s dialect, the reader receives important speaker-related information (Hervey & Higgins, 2002, p.161). Hagrid’s West Country dialect reveals information about his geographical origin, which is the Southwest of England (Katerinov, 2012). It could also be argued that the reader is given speaker-related information through his social register. That is to say, from his speech, the reader can assume which social stereotype he belongs to (Hervey & Higgins, 2002, p.162). It implies that Hagrid has a lower level of education and, as Rika Santika argues, is of a lower social class (2016, p.35), because in English society, non-standard, grammatically poor English is stigmatised and can indicate a lack of education. It also portrays him as an outcast as he is one of the only characters who speaks in a non-standard way.

 In Harry Potter y la cámara secreta (hereafter referred to as Cámara secreta), Hagrid’s speaks in standard Spanish:

(1)  ‘HARRY! What d’yeh think yer doin’ down there?’ Chamber of Secrets, p.57

 –¡HARRY! ¿Qué demonios estás haciendo aquí? Cámara secreta, p.53

 [HARRY! What the hell are you doing here?]

This choice results in a loss of characterisation, as standard Spanish does not reveal that same speaker-related information in terms of social register and there are no dialectal features present. The decision to not use a dialect of Spanish in the target text (hereafter referred at the TT) could be seen as a lack of fidelity to the author, as the translators do not retain Rowling’s chosen style and characterisation of Hagrid. It also suggests a domesticating approach, as the TT experiences a loss of speaker-related information. Also, translating the aspects of Hagrid’s speech, such as the omission of final consonants and subject pronouns, would not conform to the norms of the target language (hereafter referred to as the TL) and would interrupt the fluency of the translation. This is important as it shows further evidence of a domesticating approach.

It is evident that Hagrid’s way of speaking is important to his characterisation. Azofra admits that there was some loss of the author’s style and characterisation through the translation of characters’ ways of speaking (2005, p.25). While the importance of social register and dialectal features to characterisation is recognised, so are the difficulties in finding an accurate parallel between cultures (Hervey & Higgins, 2002, pp.163-166). It is possible that it would be offensive to speakers of the chosen dialect if a dialect of Spanish was chosen to replicate Hagrid’s and avoid the loss of speaker-related information. In most cases, effects of dialectal features are reproduced by compensation (Hervey & Higgins, 2002, p.166). Keith Harvey defines compensation as “making up for the loss of a source text effect by recreating a similar effect in the target text through means that are specific to the target language and/or the target text” (1995, p.66). It could be argued, using example (1), that Azofra and García attempted to compensate for the loss of Hagrid’s stylised speech, and therefore characterisation, by including the interjection “qué demonios”, which is a colloquial expression (2020), that was not present in the source text (hereafter referred to as the ST). As previously stated, colloquial language was one of the aspects that characterised Hagrid’s speech in the ST. Although it could be argued that this is evidence of a foreignizing approach as the translators have attempted to conserve the information of the ST, they have done so while conforming to the target culture (hereafter TC) and TL.

Another interesting aspect of the translation of Chamber of Secrets is the translation of names. Azofra writes about the difficulty they faced in trying to preserve the effect that certain character names have, making particular reference to difficult of translating the name “Moaning Myrtle” (2005, p.23), a wailing ghost who haunts Hogwarts.

(2) Moaning Myrtle was floating on the cistern of the toilet, picking a spot on her chin. Chamber of Secrets, p.165.

Myrtle la Llorona estaba sobre la cisterna del retrete, reventándose un grano de la barbilla. Cámara secreta, p.138.

[Myrtle the weeping woman was above the cistern of the toilet, popping a spot on her chin.]

The play on words of “weeping willow” and alliteration have been lost from the ST, but the characterisation of a crying woman has been retained through the use of the cultural reference, “la Llorona”. “La Llorona” is a Hispanic and Latin-American legend that tells of a woman who drowns her children (Delsol, 2012). After she dies, she is not allowed into Heaven, so wanders Earth crying for her children and looking for others to steal in exchange for her own, hence the name, which can be translated as “the weeping woman” or “the wailer” (Delsol, 2012). The compensation via the use of a TC reference suggests a domesticating approach.

This example also brings to light another important aspect when attempting to ascertain the translator’s approach which is target audience (hereafter referred to as the TA). The original, UK version of Chamber of Secrets was published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, suggesting the original TA was primarily children. It could also be argued that the use of the legend of “la Llorona” in order to render the crying, wailing characterisation of “Moaning Myrtle” shows a lack of fidelity to the author. As this reference brings a much darker aspect to the character than the original, changing her characterisation. It could also be argued that this changes the TA from children to adults as, although children may enjoy the alliteration and understand the meaning of “llorona”, it is more likely that older readers would know the full legend or that younger readers of the TA would be more scared than those of the original TA.

Although from the original publisher it can be assumed that the TA of the Harry Potter series in English was children, after its U.S. release in 1999, Chamber of Secrets spent five weeks at the top of The New York Times Best Seller List of adult fiction (hawes.com, n.d.). This suggests that there was also an adult audience for the series. Therefore it can be argued that this shows fidelity to the author as the translators are translating for both audiences.

The use of the legend of “la Llorona” could also be seen as further compensation for the losses from the ST as “Moaning Myrtle” is known for her activity with and around water: “[the girl’s toilet] has been out of order all year because she keeps […] flooding the place” (Chamber of Secrets, p.139). Therefore, using a TC reference to a legend that involves water, could be seen as showing fidelity to the author while still domesticating the text for the TA.

The final point that this essay will discuss is the translation strategies used to translate culture-specifc references with regards to British culture and wizarding culture. As well as the differences in strategies when translating from one culture as opposed to the other.

In Chamber of Secrets, there are references to locations in London such as “King’s Cross” (p. 70). In Cámara secreta, this is retained, showing a process that Davies calls preservation (2003, p.72). It could be argued that, especially in the case of “King’s Cross” which was well-known before the release of the Harry Potter series, the TA would have had prior knowledge. Due to this and lack of contextual significance to the story, King’s Cross was chosen because of personal significance (Rowling, 2015), it could also be argued that, there was no need to use an equivalent place, here meaning a place which holds the same cultural relevance for the TC,  such as a well-known train station in Madrid. This suggests a foreignizing approach as it keeps the TT in touch with the SC and adds a ‘foreign’ element to the TT.

While this example was preserved, other examples of strategies for translating culture-specific references can also be seen. For example:

(3) Hagrid had sent him a large tin of treacle fudge […]. Chamber of Secrets, p.224.

Hagrid le enviaba un bote grande de caramelos de café con leche […]. Cámara secreta, p.183.

[Hagrid sent him a big tin of coffee-flavoured caramels […]]

As “treacle” and “fudge” are British foods that may be unknown to the TA, the translators use a strategy of localisation, defined as placing the reference in the TC (Davies, 2003, p.84). Therefore, “treacle fudge” becomes “caramelos de café con leche”, a Spanish sweet that has similar connotations. This shows a domesticating approach, as the translators’ choice will be less ‘foreign’ to the TA than a more literal translation of “treacle fudge”.

Another interesting instance of translation of a cultural-specific food item is that of the translation of “haggis”:

(4) there was a great maggoty haggis […]. Chamber of Secrets, p.140

 había un pastel de vísceras con gusanos […]. Cámara secreta, p.119.

 [there was a pie of guts with maggots […]]

In contrast to the translation of “treacle fudge”, the translation of “haggis” uses a strategy of globalization, which Davies defines as using general, more accessible references (2003, p.83). This is important as a Spanish equivalent for “haggis” exists. Here, equivalent means a dish, native to Spain, that has ingredients close to those of “haggis”. “Chireta” is a dish made with sheep off-cuts, such as intestines, liver and lungs. Opting for a description of “haggis” instead of using “chireta” suggests a domesticating approach, as the TT loses an element of the SC. However, the opposite could also be argued as the translators chose not to localise “haggis”. Therefore, the translation of “haggis” suggests a foreignizing approach as the TT retains some sense of “otherness”.

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As previously mentioned, there is more than one culture in the series. For some wizarding culture-specific references, preservation can again be seen. For example, the wizard game “quidditch”, and the balls used in the game, “quaffle”, “bludger” and “snitch” (Chamber of Secrets, p.112; Cámara secreta, p.97) are preserved. In other instances, different strategies are used. For example, the names of quidditch positions, “beaters”, “chasers”, “seeker” and “keeper” (Chamber of Secrets, p.112). Unlike the names of the balls, they are translated literally: “golpeadores” [beaters], “cazadores” [chasers], “buscadores” [seekers] and “guardián” [keeper] (Cámara secreta, p.97). However, it could be argued that the names of the balls and the game have more importance, as some have theorised that the names of the balls, “quaffle”, “bludger” and “snitch” make up the word quidditch (Vox, 2016, 2:54). Whereas the players’ names do not hold as much importance and an equivalent, here meaning direct and literal translation, in the TL exists. Therefore, it could be argued that it is not a case of differences in translating one culture versus another but a question of the importance that each item and reference holds to the story.

Further evidence for this can be seen in the translation of “parselmouth”:

(6) ‘You’re a Parselmouth.’ Chamber of Secrets, p.206

 ‘Hablas pársel.’ Cámara secreta, p.170

 [You speak pársel.]

Here a strategy of grammatical transposition (Vinay & Darbelnet, 1995, p.38) is used to render the original noun as a verbal phrase. It could be argued here that “parsel” is the part of the ST phrase that has importance and was, therefore, preserved, showing a foreignizing approach, as part of the SC has been preserved. Furthermore, as this word does not exist in the TL, it brings a sense of “otherness” to the TT, which also supports a foreignizing approach.

Another example is that of “Floo powder”. In the following example, the translators use transformation, defined as changes to the ST beyond globalisation or localisation (Davies, 2003, p.86):

(5) ‘He’s never travelled by Floo powder,’ said Ron suddenly. Chamber of Secrets, p.49

-El nunca ha viajado con polvos flu -dijo Ron de pronto-. Cámara secreta, p.47

 [He never has travelled with flu powders -said Ron suddenly-.]

Although the sound of “Floo” has been preserved, the link between the words “flue”, like “chimney flue” as travelling by “Floo powder” involves standing in a fireplace, and “flew”, the past tense of “to fly”, have been lost. This suggests a domesticating approach as the preservation of the sound throught the altered spelling conforms to the phonetic norms of the source language and there is a loss of characteristics of the ST. However, it could be argued that italicising the word “flu” in the TT, and the use of a made-up word shows an approach that gives the translators visibility. This in turn suggests foreignizing approach as not all references specific to the wizarding culture are italicised, such as “muggles” (Chamber of Secrets, p.60; Cámara secreta, p.55) Furthermore, as with “pársel”, a made-up word in the TT would be foreign to the TA and would bring with it a sense of “otherness”. This is important because, with all the references specific to wizarding culture, it brings into question whether a domesticating approach could have been used successfully throughout Cámara secreta. Wizarding culture is fictionalised and, therefore, foreign. It includes made-up words that interrupt even the ST’s ‘native’ sound and brings it a sense of ‘otherness’.

This essay has discussed the ways in which Azofra and García approach the translation of Harry Potter y la cámara secreta. These include strategies of localisation to translate culture-specific references, such as food items, and Hagrid’s dialect, and compensation in order to compensate for certain losses from the source text, such as the use of the legend of “la Llorona” and colloquialisms in Hagrid’s speech. These show a domesticating approach as they remove the sense of ‘otherness’ from the target text and conform to the norms of the target language, making the target text sound ‘native’. However, strategies of preservation of culture-specific references, such and “King’s Cross” and “quidditch”, the creation of words and italicising them show an foreignizing approach.

In conclusion, evidence for both a domesticating approach with visibility of the translators and a foreignizing approach with invisibility of the translators can be seen, with both also showing attempts at fidelity to the author. However, overall, the translators’ have shown a domesticating approach by using localisation to translate culture-specific references and conforming to the norms of the target language. Nonetheless, the difficulties of translating a fictional culture must be acknowledged. A fictionalised culture will always bring a sense of ‘otherness’ as it is even foreign to the original TA. In the case of the Harry Potter, it is very important to preserve it. Therefore, even though overall a domesticating approach is seen throughout their translation, thanks to its fluency, ‘native’ sound and proximity to the target culture, it cannot be denied that, for wizarding culture-specific references, it was also necessary to use a foreignizing approach. Throughout this essay it has been seen that the translators recognized this necessity and employed a foreignizing approach to preserve the fantasy and the magic that forms aa important part of this well-loved series.

Reference List:

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