Translating Harry Potter is a difficult task. In a new piece in Entertainment Weekly, Dana Schwartz reports that Harry Potter translators “were tasked not only with translating Rowling’s sentences, but also her playfulness and inventive language.” Schwartz interviewed Gili Bar-Hillel, the Hebrew translator, for the piece.
Bar-Hillel explained, “Translating puns and humor is creative work, and sometimes it’s hard to be inspired when working under tons of pressure and a constant barrage of criticism.”
For example, how do you translate pensieve into Hebrew? (Pensieve is the dish that you can pour your memories into.)
For Bar-Hillel, it took her weeks. She eventually decided on “Hagigit,” a portmanteau of “hagig,” Hebrew for fleeting idea, and “gigit,” a washtub.
And it’s not just language that is difficult, but translating cultural ideas. Bar-Hillel made the decision to change Sirius Black’s Christmas tune about hippogriffs (from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) to one about Hanukkah.
“Most of my readers were probably Jewish, and there’s no standard, recognizable Hebrew translation for Christmas Carols, so I substituted a well-known Hanukkah song,” Bar-Hillel explained.
(There is no Hanukkah in the English books; while there was apparently one Jewish wizard at Hogwarts, J.K. Rowling didn’t acknowledge it until many years after the fact. But let’s save her problematic things for another day, even though she is really good at calling out anti-Semitism.)
“There were fans who ridiculed this and said that I was trying to convert Harry to Judaism, but really the point was just to convey the cheer and festivity of making up words to a holiday song,” Bar-Hillel told Entertainment Weekly. “I don’t think any of the characters come off as obviously Christian, other than in a vague sort of cultural way, so I didn’t feel it was a huge deal if I substituted one seasonal holiday for another!”
Honestly, we love this. Why shouldn’t Sirius Black sing a Hanukkah song?