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The magic words

By Grace Cheung 1 December 2005 16:18
How do you say Muggle in Thai?

Behind the translation of the latest Harry Potter tome.


Everybodys a critic. But Suma- lee Bumroongsook, Thai translator of most of the Harry Potter books, doesnt mind when fans of the massively popular series are upset with the way she chose to render a word it shows theyre paying attention.

For example, some Thai students were confused as to why Sumalee chose to relate The Order of the Phoenix as a group of people, and not a command. At a school appearance, Sumalee patiently explained that the word order had several meanings in English, not just to signify a command.

Im so happy they asked me, that I could help them to learn, she said.

Tomorrow at midnight, Nanmee Books will release the fruits of Suma-lees latest labor: the Thai version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth book in the seven-part series. Almost 300,000 books Nanmees entire first print run have been reserved in advance.

Local Potter fans also showed their Gryffindor colors by running out along with the rest of the world last July to purchase the Bloomsbury-published English hardcover version of the Half-Blood Prince for a whopping 850 baht.

The English edition is still clinging to the number six spot on Asia Books bestseller list, and sales of the Thai version are expected to mimic the trend of the original, according to Jiaranai Boonprasatsuk, senior marketing manager of Asia Books. About 1,000 people have pre-ordered the Thai translation of the Half-Blood Prince through their stores.

I like reading the English version because it is better written, says Potter fan Yui Patthanapantlagonsagant, 23.

If the Thai translation is clunky at times, its not because Sumalee didnt try. Successful literary translation is very difficult, close to an art form. A thorough understanding of both languages and their surrounding cultures is required.

Literary translation tries to mimic the same kind of beat, the music, says Marcel Barang, a literary translator (and consultant to ThaiDay).

And the Harry Potter books pose special problems. First, the cultural environment of the books is quite English, and to Thai readers, somewhere very far away. For example, the boarding school mentality of Hogwarts is specific to English literature and must somehow be conveyed.

Second, there are many regional nuances in the way author JK Rowling crafts her sentences. Even the American versions are translated, with certain expressions changed, for example dustbin becomes trash can and a packet of crisps turns into a bag of chips. The translator must also try to retain dialects spoken by characters like Hagrid the caretaker.

Finally, Rowling invented many words in the books that were inspired by Latin, such as the incantations of spells (Sectumsempra!) and words like pensieve, a play on the words pensive and sieve, which describes a swirling magical pool where one can store and revisit a single unaltered memory. Translators can choose either to make up new words themselves as they go along, or transliterate.

Transliteration is a universal phenomenon where some words are written in another language, explains Barang. He imagines that it would not be so difficult to translate a Harry Potter book, where the level of language is fairly low and simple, intended as it is for children.

But for a series with so many rabid fans, there are bound to be complaints. Sumalee has heard a number of them.

One case was the first name of Hermione Granger, one of Harrys best friends at the Hogwarts magic academy. Although readers all over the world vary widely on how to pronounce the characters name some going as far as Hermi-OWN, or Hermy-ONE, like the number most pronounce it as she does herself in The Goblet of Fire in a conversation with young wizard Viktor Krum.

Her-my-oh-nee, she said, slowly and clearly.

Herm-own-ninny.

Close enough, she said.

However, when Sumalee raised the question with Harry Potter author JK Rowling, she discovered that the author did not emphasize the my syllable, as initial UK readers did due to the popular pronunciation of the names of two British actresses also named Hermione. Rowling instead emphasized the oh syllable making the name a completely different word in Thai. Sumalee had to explain in an introduction to the fifth book why she changed Hermiones name after four books, and fans were livid.

At another appearance, a student came up to her asking about a discrepancy in a specific line between her version and the American version in chapter five of one of the Harry Potter books. At least the kids are reading.

Because the original English manuscripts are highly guarded before publication, the translations are months behind.
In 1997, Sumalee was living in England and working as a teacher. Searching for books to give as presents to her nieces in the US, she stumbled upon the first Harry Potter book. After reading it cover to cover to see if it was any good, Sumalee was hooked, joining a booming legion of Harry Potter fans.

Having translated some fairy tales from English to Thai, Sumalee approached some Thai publishing houses with Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone to gauge their interest in a Thai translation of the book. I asked to be the translator, she recalls.

She convinced Suwadee Chongsatitwatana, managing director of Nanmee Books, who then outbid other local heavyweight publishers to produce, in 2000, the first Thai translation of the best-selling childrens books.

Eighty percent of Nanmee Books titles are foreign translations, according to Suwadee. To break even, the company will need to sell more than 300,000 copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in Thai.

Occasionally, pirated translations will cut into that profit, especially when there is too much lag time between the latest English Harry Potter book and its translated twin. Because the production and latest plot twists of each successive Rowling book are so closely guarded, the original book and the translations cannot come out at the same time.

The Half-Blood Prince, set to debut in Thailand tomorrow, comes nearly five months after its English companion. In contrast, the Serbian Half-Blood Prince hit the market a mere two months after the original, and Finns must wait until March 16, 2006 to read the sixth book in their own language.

The Harry Potter books have been translated into 62 languages, including Greenlandic, Faroese, Afrikaans, Urdu, Basque, Plattdeutsch (Low German), Modern and Ancient Greek, Vietnamese, Irish and Arabic. The Ancient Greek version was translated simply as an academic exercise to jump-start interest in the language and give students new material to pore over; it is purportedly the longest text translated into Ancient Greek in more than 1,500 years and took Andrew Wilson, the translator, one year to finish.

Working alone, it takes Suma-lee two and a half months to finish translating a Harry Potter book into Thai, with the exception of the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which took three and a half months because it was so long, she says.

When Sumalee temporarily moved to the United States, two other translators stepped in and translated volumes three and four.

She strives to translate 10 pages a day in her Durham, UK home. When she cant think of the right word as in the case of dementor or Horcrux, a word that shows up for the first time in the sixth book shell call her editor in Thailand, Pornkawin Sangsinchai, or her sister, also a translator.

A Horcrux is the most wicked of magical inventions, requiring very advanced Dark Magic. It refers to any object in which a person has concealed part of his or her soul. Now how to explain that in Thai?

After a heavy discussion, Sumalee decided in this case to simply transliterate Horcrux, not out of laziness, but in order for Thai children to be able to chat with other Harry Potter fans across the globe and refer to Horcruxes by the same name.

Incantations such as Muffliato!, which fills the ears of possible eavesdroppers with an unidentifiable buzzing so that lengthy conversations can be held without being overheard, and the ghastly killing curse Avada Kedavra!, are also transliterated to retain their Latin roots.

Whats clear is that Thais adore JK Rowling and the exercise she has given their imaginations. She wrote so well. You can feel that. I love watching Harry mature through the books from age 11 to 17. Sumalees favorite book is the third, the Prisoner of Azkaban, which she says is beyond fantasy and in the realm of mystery.

She met Rowling once in 2000 at the International Publishers of Harry Potter Conference in Bangkok. I was so fortunate. I was only a translator. She was lovely, Sumalees voice glistens over the telephone. She is so shy, not an extrovert at all. If you talk to her about her books she just brightens up.

The pressure of living up to Rowlings vision can be taxing. Sometimes I get so frustrated. I cant explain. I dont want to have footnotes. JK Rowling has such a knowledge of medieval history. For example, Harrys wand is made of wood from the holly tree, which is festive. But Voldemorts wand has yew in it, which in medieval times was used to make weapons.

I try to keep the spirit for the children, she says earnestly. Sumalee now writes her own childrens books in England.

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