Exclusive Interview: Arun Viswanath on Translating “Harry Potter” into Yiddish
We recently shared the news that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had been translated into Yiddish for the first time, over 20 years after the book first appeared in English. This exciting announcement quickly made the rounds on the Internet, helping the first edition sell out in just two days (don’t worry, you can still order a copy of the second edition here).
Now, the man who made this new edition possible, translator Arun Viswanath, has generously taken the time to answer some of our burning questions about the experience of bringing a new translation to life.
Like most of us, Viswanath first read Harry Potter as a child – but it wasn’t until he was thinking about raising his own that he was first inspired to begin working on a Yiddish translation of Philosopher’s Stone.
Over the years, I occasionally reread a book from the series, but it wasn’t until about 4 years ago when I married my wife Tali, who is constantly rereading the Harry Potter books, that I really got back into it. Translating Harry Potter was actually her idea. As a native speaker of Yiddish, I have always seen myself as raising our children with the language, and she turned to me one Saturday as we were sitting in our living room and said, ‘Are you really planning on raising your children in a world without Harry Potter in Yiddish?’ I started on the project pretty much immediately after that conversation.
“Quidditch.” “Filius Flitwick.” “Crumple-Horned Snorkack.” Besides loving the story of Harry Potter, fans have always been captivated by J.K. Rowling’s quixotic wordplay and charming coinages – but how can some of her more complex expressions be translated into an entirely different language? It’s a task that required some real inspiration. In our interview, Viswanath shared some of his favorite names or terms to translate into Yiddish.
‘Slytherin’ – which has both a ‘th’ sound that doesn’t exist in Yiddish and obviously references the English word ‘slither’ – became ‘Samderin,’ which literally means ‘poison within.’
‘Knut’ became ‘Niksl,’ which can be parsed alternatively as ‘nisl’ (meaning ‘nut’) plus the ‘k’ sound or as ‘niks’ plus a diminutive ‘l,’ meaning ‘a small nothing,’ and brings to mind the English ‘nickel,’ which has already been in the vocabulary of Yiddish-speaking immigrants in the United States for over a century.
‘Golden [S]nitch,’ which to my Yiddish ear felt a bit harsh, became ‘dos goldene flaterl’ [(]i.e., ‘the golden butterfly'[)], which I hoped would convey its airborne elegance. Butterflies also play a role in a lot of Yiddish folksongs I grew up with, so it felt appropriate in that sense as well.
Undertaking any translation project is an enormous amount of work, but it is a kind of labor that can reward you with a super in-depth understanding of the text you’re working so closely with. When we asked Viswanath what that experience was like, he shared how his understanding of the characters was deepened in the process of translation, leading him to a controversial fandom opinion: that Harmony shippers might be onto something.
One of the things that I’ve become increasingly convinced of – and I’m sure I will get a lot of backlash for this from diehard Ron-Hermione shippers – is that from the first book alone, it’s so clear that Harry and Hermione were meant to be together. I mean, why did Ron have to be put out of commission for the mission to bring Norbert up to the Astronomy Tower, thereby also ‘missing out’ on the subsequent detention in the Forbidden Forest? Why was he the first to be taken out of play (no pun intended) in the underground chambers as they are nearing the Philosopher’s Stone, leaving Harry and Hermione alone together? And why does Harry feel so ‘awkward’ when Hermione hugs him? Sure, there will be plenty of people who disagree with me, but that is the beauty of the series: the multiplicity of readings and of possibilities in the HP universe is what allows it to remain relevant, even decades later, for such a broad and diverse readership.
One of the unique obstacles for Viswanath was translating an iconic text not only into another language but also into a completely different cultural context, since Yiddish is a Jewish language. Luckily, he was well equipped to tackle this challenge.
So for me, the challenge was how to make this story, set very much in this classic Christian-European fantasy tradition with non-Jewish characters, seem at home in a language [that] is in many ways intrinsically linked with Jewish culture, history, and religion, without actually ‘converting’ any of the characters to Judaism. One of the ways I tried to accomplish this was by employing the multiplicity of dialects and registers found in the Yiddish language; in other words, I had certain characters talk in ways that readers would recognize as being typical of certain regional dialects or social registers of Yiddish. So Hagrid speaks in a backcountry Polish-Yiddish dialect, Filch in a Lithuanian-Yiddish dialect stereotypically considered to be ‘backward,’ and Dumbledore in a flowery, Hebraic fashion typical for the well-educated Torah scholar, which you can imagine him being, in his own way! This allows characters to come across as natural in a Yiddish context but to retain their essence as they are portrayed in the original.
We also learned that a Yiddish translation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is underway, but the Potter series isn’t the only project Viswanath has been working on. He also let us in on some other fantasy books he’d love to translate one day!
I’ve completed a Yiddish translation of a charming Faroese-language picture book about a puffin expecting a younger sibling – that’ll be coming out at the end of the summer. In terms of a dream book to translate, my wife absolutely loves Neil Gaiman as well as the Narnia books, so I’ve been thinking about those… but for now, they’re taking a back seat to Harry Potter!
Be sure to read the full transcript of our interview below to find out more about Viswanath’s experiences and translating expertise. Thanks so much for chatting with us!