One of the cool things about speaking two languages and being an avid reader is being able to compare original works and their translations. You can see if the translation was good or bad, you can pick up and understand weird language-specific expressions and, most of all, a good translation teaches you the differences in the way languages work, beyond words and grammar. I admit it might be a depressing skill sometimes – translations are a form of art, a good translator needs to be a good writer, and occasionally you stumble unto pieces of seemingly really bad writing that were good in the original, before they went through the translator’s ass. But mostly what you get are translations that aren’t either good or bad, they just work.
And then there’s the Harry Potter series. Its translations to Brazilian Portuguese aren’t either great or terrible. They live right there in the middle, with some annoying mistakes along the way. But every now and then they get weird, and just when you think they’re going just fine you’ll find things like…
– Muggles are idiots
If you read the books or saw the movies, you will remember Harry Potter is mainly a series about prejudice (and nonsense sports and, I don’t know, magic? Maybe?). The main conflict between the magical heroes and villains is how they think muggles, the non-magical people, should be treated. Based on that, the way Rowling created the word “muggle” might make you raise an eyebrow. According to Wikipedia and its source it comes from “mug”, an English term for gullible, altered to make it cuddly and lovable. That’s condescending at best (“oh, look at them – they’re dumb but they’re so cute“) but, being a made-up word with no direct association in the story to “mug,” it’s not a big deal.
Knowing that, you can see the translator made an effort. She started with the word “trouxa” – in Brazil, it kind of also means gullible, but it lives somewhere between “idiot” and “loser.” And then she stopped. She didn’t change the word to make it cuddly. She didn’t pick an obscure word. She just went “they’re not wizards, so they’re idiots.” Not even huggable idiots like Rowling’s muggles, just idiots.
When the racism theme picks up in the series, this choice sounds stranger and stranger. Imagine using the word “idiot” to refer to Jews or black people – that’s what’s going on in Brazilian Harry Potter. “We’ve got to protect the idiots – The idiots know nothing about our world – I’m half-idiot.” I mean, it might be hard to fight against racism when even the good guys are offending and demeaning non-magical people every time they mention them.
– Harry’s Patronus
First-off, here’s a small table of translations from English to Portuguese. That’s not an exact match (it’s complicated) but usually (corça might mean a female deer or another animal in the same family, for instance) but it’s pretty much how these words are used:
stag – cervo
deer – veado
doe – corça
Throughout the books, Harry’s patronus (something something protector animal something bright something) is described as a “stag”. Additionally, Harry’s father could transform to a stag when he wanted (because something something against the law something). The first time we learn these facts is at the end of the third book, and if you read it in Portuguese, you’ll see the translator used the word “cervo” for stag every time.
In the following books, however, she decided to ditch that word and use “veado” – deer – instead. Because… some reason? I don’t know! If this was just a case of an inconsistent translation it wouldn’t be a big deal – the books are filled with them and it’s common to see magical terms and character names changing from one book to the other, because the translator apparently didn’t keep notes. The issue is, in Brazil, “veado” is Portuguese for “faggot”.
And no, it doesn’t mean “gay” or “homosexual” – it means faggot, as in the word used by homophobic bullies to offend gay people right before they beat them up. You can imagine the kind of jokes we have about Bambi here.
Of course, as an adult reader you go past that, given you’re not an asshole. You know they’re referring to an animal, and no biggie, but still! – these books aim at pre-teens and teens, people who are just learning curse words and think the name “Dick” is funny because tee-hee penis tee-hee-hee. “Tee-hee” is the softest reaction you’d expect from teens when they read Harry can conjure a “faggot” or Harry’s dad becomes a “faggot” to go out with his friends.
This also gave more ammunition to stupid fundamentalist Christians and other bigots to say “Harry Potter defends gay behavior and witchcraft and should be banned” (those assholes think the mere mention of the word “deer” means something has a let’s-turn-kids-into-homosexuals agenda, and they get vocal about it). We could live without that, and it could be easily avoided if the translator had simply used the correct translation – “cervo,” – one without the undertones.
Plus, add this to the muggle word above and you get that scene in the fifth book when Harry releases a faggot in an idiot-populated area – he hehe hehehehe hehe hehehe
Anyway, at least not all weird changes made by the translator were offensive or fuel for hatred. She was actually nice to Harry in the third book, when…
– Harry gets an erection
Unlike the examples above, this one probably won’t be noticed by the kids. Everyone above 11 has “trouxa” meaning “idiot” and “veado” meaning “faggot” as part of their vocabulary. The next example, on the other hand, is pretty obscure.
In the third book Harry meets Cho Chang for the first time, the girl who will be his girlfriend for a brief and terribly awkward moment. It happens in the beginning of a Quidditch match, when he sees her and
he felt a slight lurch in the region of his stomach that he didn’t think had anything to do with nerves.
Isn’t that cute? Harry’s first love, he’s having butterflies in his stomach! Now let’s see the Portuguese version:
o garoto sentiu uma ligeira pulsação na região do baixo ventre que ele achou que não tinha relação alguma com seu nervosismo.
Now, “baixo ventre” isn’t a well-known expression, and it’s barely used anywhere. The only places I’ve ever seen it were in Harry Potter and, you know, soft-core erotic novels.
Because it means “crotch”.
Not stomach. Crotch. The literal translation is “low stomach”, but no. It’s an euphemism. And it’s crotch. As in “she slipped her hands inside his pants and felt his crotch” crotch. It’s too specific to be random: even if she was just going for “stomach”, she wouldn’t use “ventre”, she’d go for “estômago,” the most common word. Add that to her choice to use the term “pulsation” instead of “lurch”, and that sentence means Harry looked at Cho and had a soft pulsating feeling in his crotch. Guys reading this will recognize the feeling.
The translator gave Harry his first erection.
To be honest, I didn’t catch this one at first. The sentence makes so much sense I thought it was there in the original, and that was Rowling’s intention. To this day I’m not sure if the translator was just trying to be poetic and failed miserably or if she did it on purpose while giggling. Because, you know, what kind of translator can resist the temptation to slip in a hard-on in a kid’s book?
The sane kind, probably. Shame we didn’t have one here.