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The Pensieve

Possibly the most ingenious magical device in the world of Harry Potter, a pensieve is a magical repository for memories. Harry first learns about it in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the pensieve itself is featured on the cover of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

The penseive is a stone bowl with runes on it, filled with a silvery white gaseous liquid (or viscous gas). The user extracts a memory from himself or someone else with a wand, then drops it in the pensieve for later retrieval. Dumbledore explains that it helps keep his mind from becoming too crowded with old memories, and to experience a particular memory again when needed.

We find an additional way of using a pensieve in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Severus Snape gives Harry a selected set of memories as he lays dying. These memories are a montage of events from Snape's life that explain his decision and cast his actions in a sufficiently positive light that Harry gives his eventual son the middle name Severus, for "probably the bravest man I ever knew".

For as effective as the descriptions in the books are, the way the pensive is depicted in the films is all the more impressive. It presents the user with a walk-through of someone else’s memories, similar to what Harry experiences when he enters Tom Riddle’s diary in Chamber of Secrets, but much more detailed and, importantly, accurate. The memory is simply there for Harry or whoever to experience.

The name is ingenious too. Clearly a wordplay on pensive, and in the spirit with which J.K. Rowling creates a lot of her names, the pensieve also includes the word sieve, a device often resembling a screen that can be used to sift through something. Sieves are often used to eliminate undesired objects or items, such as when an archaeologist uses one to sift through sand or dirt in search of fossils or other relics. The pensieve seems to be a way to prevent people’s often sieve-like memories from losing important information.

The translation of pensive posed interesting challenges and a variety of results.

French pensine
Spanish pensadero
German Denkarium
Japanese ペンシーブ (pronounced "pensheebu"

The French sounds similar to piscine, which means pool or swimming pool, as well as pensif, meaning thoughtful or pensive, and penser, meaning to think, ponder, or remember.

The Spanish is close to pensado, meaning thought or thought out, or pensadero, meaning thinker.

The German is a nice combniation of Denk from denken, meaning to think, and ium, as in gynasium, creating a work that approximates the original.

The Japanese is simply a phonetic rendering of the English, and so conveys none of the idea of the word pensieve.

Interestingly, the penseive not only lets its user see a memory from a third-person perspective, but it also seems to add information the user could not have known. But Rowling has explained, in an interview, that the memories in a pensieve include what the person did not notice or remark upon originally. In this sense, the memories from a pensieve are similar to what can be obtained in some cases under hypnosis.

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