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Acronyms in Harry Potter

The world of Harry Potter includes some wonderfully amusing and entertaining acronyms. J.K. Rowling must have had a lot of fun creating the acronyms that show up throughout the seven books.

An acronym is a word that is formed from the letters, usually the first letters, of other words. NASA, as in the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, and scuba, from self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, are both examples. But FBI is not, since each letter is pronounced by itself.

For starters, Harry and his friends encounter at Hogwarts the O.W.L. exams, the Ordinary Wizarding Levels that must be passed to advance to higher-level studies. These exams, much like the O levels in Europe or the SAT in the U.S. require considerable preparation and cause a lot of stress. But unlike our world, Hogwarts’ exams are aptly named, given how important owls are in the wizarding world.

The pun and fun here cannot be overlooked, and so the translations of the Harry Potter books attempted to reproduce this.

French BUSE Brevet Universal de Sorcellerie Élementaire
Spanish TIMO Título Indispensable de Magia Ordinaria
German ZAGs Zaubergrade
Italian G.U.F.O. Giudizio Unico per Fattucchieri Ordinari

The French did a great job, as did the Spanish. In French, buse means buzzard, or in slang, an imbecile or dolt. The Spanish TIMO is similar in sound to the verb form temo, meaning “I fear” or “I am afraid,” appropriate for the dread these exams inspire. The German and Italian did their best, but weren’t quite as successful with the wordplay.

Next come the N.E.W.T.S., the Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests, which are similar to British A levels, and the graduation exams that some American university programs subject students to. Success on the N.E.W.T.S. in Harry’s world greatly impacts one’s future, and so the words are apt, and the resulting animal, the newt, has a magical story of its own.

Again the pun and fun have to be reproduced, if possible, in the translations. The results are as follows.

French ASPIC Accumulation de Sorcellerie Particulièrent Intensive et Contraignante
Spanish ÉXTASIS Exámines Terribles de Alta Sabiduría e Invocaciones Secretas
German UTZ Unheimlich Toller Zauberer
Italian M.A.G.O. Magie Avanzate Grado Ottimale

The French ASPIC is wonderful, because in French an aspic is an asp, a venomous snake, and the words in the acronym nicely capture the content of the English. The Spanish is similarly successful, with éxtasis meaning extacy, trance, or rapture, a feeling that one might look forward to upon passing the exams. The German words are appropriate, but the acronym is no fun, unfortunately. The Italian is neat though, mago meaning wizard or magician, from the nicely created words in Italian for the translation from the English.

The final acronym worth digging into is S.P.E.W., the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare, created by Hermione Granger in Goblet of Fire to help better the lot of house elves, including Dobby. Spew, of course, has the unappealing meaning of vomit in English, and the translations did a nice job of capturing this.

French S.A.L.E. Société d’Aide à la Libération des Elfes
Spanish P.E.D.D.O. Plataforma Élfica de Defensa de los Derechos Obreros
Italian C.R.E.P.A. Comitato per la Riabilitazione degli Elfi Poveri e Abbruttiti

The French sale means dirty, the Spanish peddo is very close to pedo, meaning “I fart”, and the Italian crepa, is close to a word meaning junk or crap. The original name for S.P.E.W., Stop the Outrageous Abuse of Our Fellow Magical Creatures and Campaign for a Change in Their Legal Status, was abandoned by Hermione when she realized it would not fit on a badge or button.

In an interesting aside, J.K. Rowling revealed in an interview after the release of Deathly Hallows that Hermione Granger went to work at the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures in the Ministry of Magic after finishing at Hogwarts. There she played an important role in improving life for house elves.

So what happens to these acronyms and their ingenious wordplay in languages that don’t use alphabets, including Japanese and Chinese? Well, nothing. The translators simply cannot reproduce the wordplay and are stuck creating a straight translation. For S.P.E.W., the Japanese gives

妖精福祉振興協会 (yousei fukushi shinkou kyoukai)

Here, yousei means elf, fukushi means welfare, shinkou means promotion, and kyoukai means society or association. That’s the best that can be done in languages without alphabets. And it’s a fine example of how some things are inevitably lost in translation.

Acronyms are a lot of fun, and often reflect considerable ingenuity. Their creators often start with the acronym word they want, and then fill in individual words in an attempt to make it all fit together. Perhaps Rowling came up with O.W.L., N.E.W.T.S., and S.P.E.W. this way, but regardless, the result adds to the charm of the stories.

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