Translating the Harry Potter books into Dutch. It must have been a Herculean task.
I think you have to be some kind of wizard yourself in order to pull it off. Not only do you have to come up with clever and funny word play for objects, potions, spells and names in your own language, but you have to do it under pressure.
After all, children all around the world want to have the opportunity to read the books on the day they come out, and with million dollar contracts hanging in the balance, none of the cogs in the wheel can afford to miss any deadlines.
It must have been both a blessing and a curse for Wiebe Buddingh, the son of a famous Dutch poet. I’ll never know whether I could have pulled off translating the Potter books, nor if I would have wanted to.
In any case, I got a small taste of what the scope of the project must have been like, when Jess from Asmodee came to me with a new board game translation assignment: Harry Potter: a Year at Hogwarts.
Despite its somewhat misleading title, the game spans the entire Potterverse, and draws on content found not only in the seven books, but also in the eight movies, and even in an obscure collectible card game.
I even had to come up with some never before translated terminology!
But more on that in a moment.
I knew from the get-go that I had my work cut out for me. The game’s translation consisted of just over 16,000 words. That’s about four or five times the size of an average rulebook. It became pretty clear to me early on that in order to get this game localized, I had to think outside the box (no pun intended).
Here are the four main strategies I used to perform my research and make sure every last letter of this game was translated meticulously.
Step 1: Watching the movies again
It had been years since I last saw the movies, and I’d forgotten most of the main storyline. I wasn’t looking for any specific terminology at this stage, but if I was going to translate this game properly, it was important to refresh my memory on the overarching story.
So, during the first Covid-19 lockdown, I locked myself in my room and binge-watched all eight of those bad boys.
Sometimes the life of a game translator can be glamorous!
What’s your favorite type of Harry Potter candy?
Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans
Yogurt Covered Raisins
Step 2: Wikipedia
This is where I began my research. Even though I managed to find some general terms, like names of shops and locations, I quickly hit a ceiling on Wikipedia. It lacked depth when it came to finding names of potions and spells, books and courses.
Trying to find translations for books like Magical Water Plants of the Mediterranean by Hadrian Whittle or potions like the Antidote to Uncommon Charms was a lost cause.
I needed to dig deeper.
Step 3: Harry Potter Fandom
I can’t stress enough how many hours of agony I was spared by using this unofficial Wiki spin-off site. Even though the clunky internal linking system leaves a lot to be desired, especially when it comes to finding translations, the fans of the franchise created something truly remarkable here.
The website of Harry Potter Fandom is a treasure trove of information. It even lists which books and/or movies reference the term you’re looking for.
Even if you’re not a translator, it’s totally worth it to spend an hour of your day browsing through the different sections and reading up on all the details that make this universe so lush and lavish.
Step 4: Comparing the books
Despite this incredible resource, there was still about 15% left to translate. While Harry Potter Fandom is as complete as it gets when it comes to English terms, there’s often no entry for their Dutch equivalents.
Luckily, the website would often reference the specific book that first mentioned the term I was searching for. It was time to resort to the books.
I acquired the digital versions in both English and in Dutch. That way, I could open them in my e-reader and search for terms in the English version. I would find out the correct chapter, page and paragraph, and then look that up in the Dutch books.
This is how I finally managed to find the translation for an obscure little shop in Diagon Alley called Gambol and Japes Wizarding Joke Shop (Dutch: Guichel en Slemp’s Magische Fopshop).
Its name occurs only a single time across all seven books: on page 45 of The Chamber of Secrets.
My Personal Contribution to the Potterverse
Being a perfectionist, I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself unless I found the official Dutch translation of every last reference in the rulebook.
It was a lot harder than you might think. You can find many things on the internet, thanks to the efforts of Harry Potter’s enormous fanbase. But believe it or not: even the internet has its shortcomings. On a couple of occasions I even had to come up with my own translation!
For example, if you Google Spindle’s Lick ‘O’Rish Spiders, you’ll quickly find out this is a type of candy that was never referenced in any of the books, but instead was introduced in the deleted scenes of the Prisoner of Azkaban movie.
The same goes for a type of candy called Glacial Snow Flakes, which only appears in one scene in the movie, but never in any of the books.
It was impossible to find an official Dutch translation for these terms, simply because they had never been translated!
So I baptized them Spindel’s Spindrop (literally: Spindle’s Spider Licorice) and Schotse Sneeuwvlokken (literally: Scottish Snow Flakes) respectively. I thought it would be nice to come up with an aliteration for both of these terms in Dutch.
Finally, there was a healing potion created by nurse Poppy Pomfrey (Dutch: Poppy Plijster), called Pomfrey’s Pick-Me-Up. The only place it ever occurred, was in the Harry Potter Trading Card Game – of all places!
I toyed with the idea of preserving the three-word structure (something like Plijster’s Pak-Me-Vast – literally: Pomfrey’s Grab-Me), but in the end decided that this wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. In the end, I chose a more literal translation that clearly hints at what the potion does: Plijster’s Opkikkertje.
Tribute to the Unsung Heroes of Translation
Harry Potter: a Year at Hogwarts is one of the most unique and rewarding localization projects I’ve ever worked on.
It took me about a week to complete, and by the end of it I felt like I could officially call myself an expert in the Dutch Potterverse.
It also demonstrated to me that translators like Wiebe Buddingh, who localized the books in Dutch, deserve all the praise they can get.
They are unknown, unsung heroes, whose art is all too often taken for granted.