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Unauthorized Harry

The eagerness of fans around the world for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows combined with the greed of organized pirates has led to a predictable phenomenon: unauthorized translations of the final Harry Potter book.

Two days after the release of the English language edition on July 21, a Chinese translation appeared in China. A French version made its way onto the Internet on or before August 9, the product of a 16-year-old boy from Aix-en-Provence, who has since been arrested for his misdeed.

Meanwhile, J.K. Rowling and her French publisher Gallimard expressed concern not about enthusiastic fans producing partial or complete translations in their spare time, though that has happened, but rather about organized syndicates parceling out pages or chapters to individuals to translate, and then cobbling together a foreign-language version of the book ahead of the official release.

Considering the 335 million copies of the seven books that have sold worldwide, there is clearly money to be made. Many countries, China in particular, are notorious for not respecting copyrights on printed material. And once something is put on the Web, it is essentially impossible to remove it.

A measure of the interest in France in the seventh book is found in the brisk sales of the English-language edition. Since France has one of the lowest rates of English ability in Europe, this is more than a little surprising. However, my talk with a bookseller regarding the Harry Potter effect confirmed that these books have spurred interest in English worldwide among children, and J.K. Rowling likely has had more influence on literacy and English as a second language than any other person in history.

So here is the big question: are these unauthorized translations any good? If a schoolboy can produce a translation of the seventh book in three weeks, why are the French waiting until October 26 for Gallimard to publish the official translation? And if the Chinese can produce a translation in two days, why has anyone had to wait at all for the book in any language?

First, a few facts about literary translation in particular, and language translation in general, are in order. An experienced, competent translator can produce two to three thousand words per day on average. Even the most highly gifted translators rarely produce more than 5,000 words per day. So the numbers simply do not add up. This French lad likely had help, possibly from friends or even teachers, all eager to have a French version, though of course the boy himself clearly did not need it since he was able to read the English original.

Also important is that translation is a form of writing, and most people do not become good writers until they have had a decade or more of practice at it. Literary translators may be born, as is the view of Gregory Rabassa, arguably the world’s most famous literary translator and the man behind the English versions of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but they also require considerable training and experience before they can ply their craft.

I hope to be able to review the unauthorized French translation of Deathly Hallows to see how it compares to the work of professionals. The Chinese version has already been roundly criticized as sloppy, incomplete, and inaccurate, a poor rendition hacked together by too many people working too quickly on a project they were unqualified for.

That said, it would not take much effort to assemble a team of experienced translators for a given language pair, and have them work through a book in a week or two. Why then are books not produced this way?

Some books in fact are. The many political and ideological books that appeared after the September 11 attacks and during the 2004 U.S. election cycle were likely produced by teams of ghost writers. A similar approach is taken with the translation of magazines and newspapers, as well as books whose content is informational and time-sensitive. Strike while the iron is hot, or don’t bother.

A novel is an entirely different matter; it is a work of art. We will set aside the question of whether Harry Potter is literature, art, fiction, or what and just accept that it is closer to a work of art than a work of journalism or pulp fiction/non-fiction. As such, it deserves the careful attention of one person who can maintain the style, tone, and consistency of the original, who can select the right names and terms for the wizarding world, and who has access to the author and publisher so that any questions can be answered, problems clarified, and choices, such as how to translate a person’s name or an ambiguous idiom, can be made accurately and appropriately.

So the wait will be worthwhile, if frustrating, for the people around the world who do not read English. If you find this hard to believe, imagine this scenario: an archaeologist finds a manuscript in the Middle East, written in Latin by one of the apostles of Jesus. Unauthorized translations would likely appear very quickly, as would lots of speculation and sound bytes about its content. But until the translators finish the job, you wouldn’t want to draw any conclusions about the manuscript. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows may not quite compare to such a manuscript, but it is still an important book and deserves a proper translation.

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