Literary Translation: Deconstructing Harry Translating Harry Potter Across the Globe

Greater than 2 minutes, my friend!

Ugh! You have a brilliant idea for an article, you do some online research and… it’s already been done.

I was going to do something about the translations of the Harry Potter series of books, but I found an article by Steven Goldstein that did it better than I ever could… and he did it 12 years ago!

Goldstein wrote a two-part article in Translorial, the journal of the Northern California Translators Association ( in December 2004.

Translating Harry, Part I: The Language of Magic


Translating Harry, Part II: The Business of Magic

Goldstein’s Part 1 describes two problems in translating fiction and fantasy novels. One is what I like to call the Dumbledore – Humlesnurr problem.

Dumbledore Spielbrick Films


How do you translate the things that are commonplace and well understood by the source readers into something comprehensible to the target readers who are far, far away from the environment and culture of the original? (Please see the Goldstein article for the back story to Dumbledore’s name in Norwegian.)

The second problem that maybe is more exclusive to fantasy translation is how to translate the made-up vocabulary? J.K. Rowling was very inventive with her creatures and locations, and the translators also stepped up to the challenge. The ‘skrewts’ became ‘escregutos’ in Spanish, while ‘Diagon Alley’ became ‘Winklegasse’ in German.

But perhaps you, gentle reader, are more interested in the dark side of translation. Then you should turn to Part 2 of Goldstein’s article…

Harry Potter Swedish Phoenix

When Warner Brothers bought the Harry Potter franchise in 1999, they forced the translators to give up their translation copyrights for any future translation (i.e., do it Warner Brothers way or the highway) AND they forbade the translators from making up any new terms/proper names in the target language. (No more Humlesnurr for you, Norway!)

Sal Robinson wrote an editorial about the Warner Brothers thing in 2012 ( which says:

…Gili Bar Hillel, the Hebrew translator of the Harry Potter books, describes a meeting of the international translators of the Potter series where the “running theme was that of insult, hurt, and rage directed towards the Harry Potter machine—the wall of lawyers surrounding J.K. Rowling, her agents and Warner Bros.—who had gone out of their way to disenfranchise translators of their intellectual and moral rights.”

Her own experiences mainly consist of Warner Brothers demanding that she sign agreements waiving all rights to her translations, which were then used as subtitles for the dubbed movie versions without crediting or any other kind of compensation either to her or the Israeli publishers.

Goldstein, appropriately, ends his article with this quote:

‘First think of the person who lives in disguise,
Who deals in secrets and tells naught but lies.
Next, tell me what’s always the last thing to mend,
The middle of middle and end of the end?
And finally give me the sound often heard
During the search for a hard-to-find word.
Now string them together, and answer me this,
Which creature would you be unwilling to kiss?’

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter Thirty-One, The Third Task

Thanks to Steven B. Goldstein for doing the Harry Potter articles. Steve is an advertising copywriter and creative director/principal of

E.S. Dempsey

About E.S. Dempsey

Literary and short business/science/legal translations from most European languages, also Japanese. Short book translations via Babelcube. Translations for (pro bono). Target=English

3 thoughts on “Literary Translation: Deconstructing Harry Translating Harry Potter Across the Globe

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this article! And for referencing other articles on the subject. I’ve just read the blog post by Hebrew translator Gili Bar Hillel and I’m absolutely speechless. What Warner Brothers did was absolutely disgusting.

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  2. Thanks for the thanks, and for pointing me to Gili’s blog post, which I hadn’t read even though I included the link. Guess what? The real scandal is in her post! This is what she wrote:

    ” I was invited to a chat with the Israeli publisher after I had already translated the first three books in a series. He met me in a café and required me to sign a memo, which I was not allowed to read in advance or show to anyone else, and of which I was not allowed to retain a copy. I was told I must sign on the spot or the job of translating future Harry Potter books would be given to another translator. As far as I was able to understand, the memo was a promise to Warner Bros. that I would not claim trademark on any of the translated terms I had invented. I could sign or be cut off from Harry Potter forever. I signed.

    It later became apparent that to Warner Bros. this memo was tantamount to a complete waiver of any and all intellectual rights I may have thought to lay claim to. When the Harry Potter films were distributed in Israel, my translation served as the basis for the subtitles and dubbing scripts of the film, without my permission…”

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  3. I wish you would have delved more into the subject. I know there are already two good articles that you’ve referenced in your own piece, but still, I’m reading this one, not those. I wish this was more interesting and less introductory. I was really excited to read it, but when I was beginning to engage in the reading, it came to an end.

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