Learn Spanish By Reading Harry Potter!

by Robbie Fischer

This past week, I read Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal, which happens to be the Spanish version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. Big deal! Millions of Spanish-speaking people can say the same, thanks to the translation by Alicia Dellepiane Rawson, published by Ediciones Salamandra in 2001.

The catch is, I don’t speak Spanish. I kid you not. I live in a highly Hispanic community so close to Mexico, people in my town have been known to cross the border for lunch. There are more Spanish-speaking people within a 50 mile radius of where I live than English-speaking. Yet I do not know Spanish. Not to speak it, anyway. About 15 years ago I took one semester of elementary Spanish in high school. Besides that, and studying several other languages since then, and being smart and good with words, the only help I had was knowing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone practically by heart. Okay, yes, and for about two chapters right in the middle of the book, I tried looking up the words I didn’t know on an on-line Spanish-English dictionary, but that slowed me down so much that I stopped doing it.

For the rest of the book, I just guessed. Or skipped the parts I didn’t know. Or, and this is the really cool part, I figured out what a lot of Spanish words and expressions meant just from the context, which I knew so well. I pencilled a lot of notes into the margins. And by the end of the book, I was cruising along pretty smoothly.

Maybe I’m too smart for my own good. Maybe I’m just a fanatic and I can’t help myself. But I think what I have experienced is an exciting new way to start learning a language. While millions of American kids plod, like stunned yaks, through Spanish-class sloughs of despond, wondering what is the use of a language in which they only know how to talk in the present tense after three whole semesters, the Answer may have arrived. Give them Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal.

It took me a lot longer to read in Spanish than in English, and there was a lot of effort involved. But it was also fun, and I think that’s the key. The story made it interesting, and the fact that I was dealing with all the full-blown complexities of Spanish grammar (including past and future tenses, and so on) meant I didn’t have to wait patiently to take the next baby-step. It was more like being thrown into the ocean and told to swim or drown. But the swimming was great.

In fact, I noticed things I hadn’t noticed the last few times I read the book in English. In some ways, it was like discovering Harry Potter for the first time, all over again. And along with that discovery, I was learning something that may become useful. At least, it will when I start reading Harry Potter y la cámara secreta.

I propose that foreign-language teachers consider handing their brighter students a translation of a thrilling, and to many children already familiar, book like Harry Potter. I think it would move things along a lot faster. It wasn’t hard to motivate me to do my “Spanish homework.” The fun of reading the story kept bringing me back– and it made learning the language fun on its own account. Even without a dictionary, and not (at first) picking up many of the words, the story was still there for me– by underlining the words I didn’t understand, or writing the meanings I had just discovered in the margin, I did what many other language students could do.

Teachers, think about it. Let the kids come back to you with questions, or discussion, about what they have read, and whether they understand this or that word or sentence. It would make the study of any language, including Spanish, a so-much-richer experience.

Fans of Harry, think about it. Am I really the only one who has started watching the movies with the language set on Spanish, just to vary the experience a little? A translation really does reveal facets you may not have noticed before. Among the things I noticed, let me point out for your enjoyment and edification:

1. IMPROVEMENTS IN TRANSLATION. As a special bonus to her readers, señora Rowson touched up some of the “book mistakes” in her translation. For instance, I noticed that in the chapter “Quidditch,” she changed Marcus Flint from a sixth-year student to a fifth-year, making one of the series’ most glaring continuity errors magically disappear.

2. MISTAKES IN TRANSLATION. On the other hand, señora Rowson also provided the inevitable slips that will give Spanish-speaking fans plenty to argue about, world without end. For instance, when Hagrid ticks off the teachers who helped protect the Stone, he refers to el profesor Sprout (which, por supuesta, ought to read la profesora Sprout). Oops! But in English it just says “Professor,” either way. So who would know unless they had already read the second book? And not quite on the level of a translation mistake, there’s the matter of the “Curse of the Bogeys,” which in English could mean two different things. Ms. Rowson went one way (Maledición de los Demonios) but I would have gone in the other (if only I knew the Spanish word for booger).

3. APPRECIATION OF SCHOLASTIC’S BINDING. The pages started coming loose the first time I read through Salamandra’s paperback edition. I can’t help reflecting that, after being read umpty-ump times, the Scholastic paperback that I bought in September of 2002 is still in one piece. Sigh.

4. HELPFUL PHRASES FOR EVERY-DAY USE. Even if you don’t read la piedra filosofal for yourself, perhaps these phrases can come in handy, should any bilingual situation arise. My apologies to the American edition, which I follow loosely below, and to those of you expecting something more profound like “There is no good and evil…” or “To the well organized mind….” These are simply common expressions for your every-day use. I hope you will try some of them, the next time you talk to a Spanish-speaking person…

  • “Te estoy avisando ahora, chico: cualquier cosa rara, lo que sea, y te quedarás en la alacena hasta la Navidad”-I’m warning you now, boy: any funny stuff, any at all, and you’ll stay in the cupboard until Christmas.
  • “Bah, cierra la boca, grandísimo majadero”-Oh, shut up, you great prune.
  • “Voy a romperles la cabeza”-I’m going to bust your heads.
  • “No me hagas preguntas ahora, creo que voy a marearme”-Don’t ask me questions now, I think I’m going to be sick.
  • “Tienes algo en la nariz”-You have something on your nose.
  • “No llores, vamos a enviarte muchas lechuzas…y un inodoro de Hogwarts”-Don’t cry, we’re going to send you lots of owls…and a toilet from Hogwarts.
  • “Ha perdido el juicio”-He’s lost his marbles.
  • “Tú también estás mal de la cabeza”-You are also out of your mind.
  • “¡Mamá nunca te olvidará!”-Mummy will never forget you!
  • “Bien, bien, bien. Tenemos problemas.”-Well, well, well. We are in trouble.
  • “Tendrían que haber pensado en los hombres lobo antes de meterse in líos”-You should have thought about werewolves before you got in trouble.
  • “Nunca traten de obtener una respuesta directa de un centauro”-Never try to get a straight answer from a centaur.
  • “¿Te pareció que era ruido de cascos?”-Did that sound like hooves to you?
  • “Yo me lanzaré contra el que está al acecho en este bosque, con humanos sobre mi lomo si tengo que hacerlo”-I set myself against what is lurking in this forest, with humans on my back if I have to.
  • “A propósito, ¿qué era esa cosa de la que me salvaste?”-By the way, what was that thing you saved me from?
  • “Casi le arroncó la pierna una vez, no va a intentarlo nuevo”-It almost ripped his leg off once, he isn’t going to try it again.
  • “Nunca me pasaré al lado tenebroso”-I will never go over to the dark side.
  • “¡Voy a pelear con ustedes!”-I’m going to fight you!
  • “Oh, vamos a darle una patada, sólo una vez”-Oh, let’s go and give her a kick, just once.
  • “¿Quién anda por ahí?”-Who goes there?
  • “¿Aparecidos, fantasmas o estudiantillos detestables?”-Are you ghoulie or ghostie or wee student beastie?
  • “Ah, bueno, me alegro de que me preguntes eso”-Oh, good, I’m glad you asked me that.
  • “¡Deberían echarme y obligarme a vivir como un muggle!”-They should have sacked me and forced me to live like a muggle!
  • “Tienen que venir y pasar el verano conmigo, los dos. Les enviaré una lechuza.”-You have to come and stay with me this summer, both of you. I’ll send you an owl.