English – French translation: A case study

Harry Potter et le Prisonnier d’Azkaban vs Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

When I was at college I studies French as one of my A-level subjects and since I came out with a grade A I’ve always fancied myself as having a pretty good grip on the language. Despite this I’ve never read anything longer than a few pages so I’ve never really tested my abilities. A couple of years ago a friend bought me a French edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban which seemed like an excellent opportunity to see just how good I am.

In case you think it’s a bit strange that she bought me the third book in the series I should point out that it’s a very poorly kept secret that The Prisoner of Azkaban is by far my favourite of the series so it was actually an ideal present.

While doing my A-level I was given a couple of French books to practise with but I never got further than a few pages into one of them before giving up. Reading a book is less fun when you have to refer to the dictionary every few words I found. But with HP the obvious benefit is that I already know the story inside out and I can also have the English copy to hand so I could easily look up the exact meaning rather than thumbing through my French-English dictionary. Even so it wasn’t until quite recently that I actually sat down and committed to reading the book all the way through.

Right away I found I was disappointed by how much I struggled with the language. Although this is perhaps to be expected as it’s six years been six years since I regularly used French so I suppose I can forgive myself for being a little slower than I might have wanted to be.

However something that I noticed very early on is that I was understanding a lot of what was written without referring to my other copy. J.K. Rowling exploits the English language to a massive extent and is incredibly inventive with the terms she employs. This creative use of language seemed to be missing from the French version. Instead of the many varied verbs Rowling finds to use for everyday activities such as walking and talking, the French appear to only have a small number of alternatives. This is great as it made the narrative easier for me to follow but is a sad reflection on the French language. Of course this may all be down to the translator, having never read a native French book I can’t be sure.

There were also occasions where the translator had clearly struggled to find an accurate way of translating a name or term. For example; Unfogging the Future the divination textbook was renamed Lever le voile du futur (lifting the veil of the future) which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. In other instances words were just completely omitted. For instance some of the passwords/insults invented by Sir Cadogan (the old-fashioned knight brought in to replace The Fat Lady) were completely ignored.

Although it may sound like it, this post isn’t meant to cast any aspersions on the language of our Gallic neighbours (or the man who translated HP), it is merely a recording of some observations I fell upon while reading Harry Potter et le Prisonnier d’Azkaban and is only meant to serve a as general interest. I thought I’d better clear that up because it seems I’ve been saying all the way through that my language is better than their language which is of course not the case. Perhaps next time I’m at home I’ll dig out Les Chiens perdu sans Colliers or the other native French book I was given at college and find out just how inventive the French language can be.

But for now I’m going to stick with reading HP in English and not just because it’s a whole lot faster!

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6 responses to “English – French translation: A case study

  1. A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff

    I did a degree in French and I found that translation isn’t always about substituting each word exactly as it says in the dictionary – it can be a very very nuanced thing. Just because something isn’t translated exactly as the dictionary or original text suggests doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad translation. Sometimes you have to be flexible with individual words in order to maintain style and tone. Perhaps the reason why the verbs were not very varied in the French translation could be because it would sound too archaic to a native. Obviously with HP being a text with a lot of invented English words, I can imagine that translating it in any language wouldn’t be a task for the faint-hearted!

    • That’s a great insight thank you! I realise how hard translating a text must be, I suppose I just expected to see more variation in the words used although, having said that, when I went back through trying to compare the number of words used for “say” or “walk” I found that there were actually more than I thought. I also have a feeling that in English we do tend to go overboard with our words, we have words that describe minute differences in terms of gait (shuffle, hobble, limp etc) which may not figure in other languages. And then, as you say, there’s the tendency to make up words which must be a nightmare for a translator!

  2. The French cover reminds me of a childhood tv series.

  3. Wow! I’ve never seen those covers before, so thank you for including a picture with the post!

  4. Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite too! This post was really interesting and I agree with the posts above, the cover is awesome! (Also, sorry for creeping on all your old posts..)

  5. Pingback: International Harry Potter covers | Books on the Tube

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