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!

Full Transcript with Arun Viswanath, Wednesday, February 12, 2020

What's your personal relationship with Harry Potter?

I've always been attracted to fantasy, but I've never been a particularly avid reader of the genre; of course, I read the Harry Potter series as a kid, but mostly because that's what my big sister was doing at the time and I insisted on copying her. 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.

Can you tell us a little bit about what the process of translating Harry Potter was like? How do you even begin to undertake such an enormous project?

It was definitely daunting! At first, I was so excited to get moving with it that I didn't even want to "waste" time my re-reading [sic] the first book in its entirely, so I actually just opened up a Google Sheets spreadsheet, copied the English text into one column, and started typing up the Yiddish text in the other. But I realized quickly that it would require significant research and prep work to do the translation properly. Figuring out how to convey J.K. Rowling's voice as well as how to convey the magical world of Harry Potter in a language that, despite having a well-developed world-class literature, obviously lacked certain terms, was only part of the challenge for me; the other part was that I had to simultaneously develop my own voice as a Yiddish writer, since this was really my first major writing project in Yiddish. So at the very beginning stages of translating, I was doing a half-dozen other things: trying to read and absorb as much Yiddish literature as I could, researching Yiddish and Jewish mythology and folklore for material that I could recycle or riff off of, re-reading [sic] the entire Harry Potter series, scouring the Harry Potter Wiki for important details, and checking out how some of the other translations dealt with particular thorny words or passages. Once I felt like I had a solid foundation, I was able to move full-speed ahead, continuously refining my translation with the hard work and support of my two amazing editors, one being my close friend and Yiddish expert Yankl-Peretz Blum, the other being my mother, Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath, whose Comprehensive English-Yiddish dictionary came out a few years ago.

The Harry Potter series is well known for its imaginative names of people, places, and spells. What was it like rendering these names into Yiddish? Do you have a favorite of the names you adapted?

Although my goal was to render the Harry Potter universe into terms familiar to Yiddish language and culture, I didn't want to create a different universe of characters, either, so I mostly kept proper names the same. Additionally, since Yiddish is a Germanic language just like English, a lot of the terms felt quite at home in the language ("vingardium leviosa" sounds like perfectly good Yiddish-Latin gibberish!). That being said, I felt very comfortable translating a name or term into Yiddish when it contained a strong element of wordplay or if the plot otherwise demanded it, and those were a lot of fun! Here are some of the ones I most enjoyed translating:

"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.

Did translating Philosopher's Stone - a process that requires nuanced attention to every detail of the text - change or enrich your understanding of the book?

Absolutely! There were certainly small details which I realized I hadn't understood in my previous readings, either because of the British idioms or because I hadn't read carefully enough the first few times around. But on a broader scale, I started to develop a much deeper connection with the characters, trying to understand their emotions and motivations, and getting a better understanding of various parallel timelines. 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.

What was the most difficult part of taking this iconic text and translating it into not only another language but also a completely different cultural context?

As a Jewish language (among others, including Hebrew, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic and others), Yiddish encodes Jewish concepts and culture into the language itself. In many ways it presupposes a certain worldview. For example, the word "mertseshém," which literally means "if God wills it," can be uttered comfortably by an unobservant Jewish atheist to mean simply "hopefully," without their feeling any cognitive dissonance. But once you're dealing with characters who are not Jewish or otherwise connected to Judaism (I know, I know, except Anthony Goldstein), the Jewish-codedness of Yiddish can create some interesting pragmatic tension. 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.

Did you keep the later Harry Potter books in mind when making decisions for this translation, or did you try to stick solely to what's in Philosopher's Stone?

I'm definitely planning on doing at least Chamber of Secrets, so I did have to be very careful about certain choices that could come back to haunt me later if I wasn't careful. One example was whether I should render the final "t" in "Voldemort"; I had to take into account not only what I thought would sound natural in Yiddish (since J.K. Rowling seems to have endorsed both pronunciations at various points), but also which would best work for the "I Am Lord Voldemort" anagram at the end of Book 2. Another thing that the Harry Potter Wiki was very useful for was cross-referencing the various magical creatures that get mentioned throughout the books and in the wider Potterverse. Since I wanted to maintain maximal differentiation in referring to magical beasts and beings, I had to work out in advance what Yiddish term would map onto words like "pixie," "doxy," and "fairy," or how to distinguish between "ghoul," "ghost," and "boggart."

Sometimes translators work closely with the original authors of the texts they're working on; presumably, J.K. Rowling was not available for consultation on this project. Whom did you talk to or consult with to make sure you were getting the spirit of the text right?

I am lucky to have many friends and family members with a deep knowledge of Harry Potter bordering on the encyclopedic, so if I ever wasn't sure about something, I was able to check with them. Sometimes I consulted other translations to see how they interpreted a particular passage, or even consulted online forums to see the broader fandom's [interpretation] on it! Thankfully, I have quite a few British family members - my mother-in-law and two brothers-in-law - who were able to help me out when I didn't understand a turn of phrase or missed some nuance.

Is there potential for other Potter books to be translated into Yiddish?

I certainly plan to continue with the project, especially given the interest we've seen for the first book - we sold out the first run of 1,000 copies in a matter of days and we've already made a significant dent in the second run! I've begun translating Chamber of Secrets, and I'm optimistic that I'll be able to work on a shorter timeline now that I've had the opportunity to work through a lot of the basic questions and difficulties.

What other translation projects do you currently have underway? What would be another dream book or series to translate into Yiddish?

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!

Do you have a Hogwarts House you feel you belong to?

I always imagined myself as a Gryffindor until I took the quiz on Pottermore and discovered I'm a Ravenclaw. It's taken me a bit to come to terms with this startling revelation, but I've been told that it's very much the right house for me.

Jessica J.

I've been making magic at MuggleNet since 2012, when I first joined the staff as a News intern. I've never wavered from the declaration in my childhood journal, circa October 2000: "I LOVE Harry Potter! If I clean my room, my mom says she'll make me a dinner a wizard would love!" Proud Gryffindor; don't hate.

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