Over 80 Languages and More to Come: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” Translated into Yiddish

The Harry Potter books are a landmark series, to say the very least. The story of the boy wizard has sold over 500 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 80 languages. At that rate, it’s hard to believe that Harry Potter will ever slow down.

The Yiddish language will soon have its own translation of the books as well. In late 2018, Neil Blair, agent to J.K. Rowling, received a request to translate the first book into Yiddish. But the task of translating an entire book to another language requires a – well – translator. Blair enlisted the help of Arun “Arele” Schaechter Viswanath, “an Indian-American Orthodox Jew and a member of the prominent Schaechter family of Yiddish scholars.”

However, before Blair could get approval for the translation, he discovered the rights for a Yiddish version were already given to a Sweedish publisher. Olniansky Tekst Farlag, owned by Nikolaj Olniansky, was granted the rights under certain precedence. The government allocates funds and legislation so that translations are made available for all official minority languages, including Yiddish.

In an effort to collaborate, Blair connected Viswanath and Olnianksy. But there was another snag. Olnianksy already commissioned the work of a different translator, who was already working on the first book in the series – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Both Olnianksy’s translator and Viswanath submitted their own versions of the book for consideration. After reviewing the two copies, the Swedish Institute for Language and Folklore’s expert on Yiddish, Jean Hessel, chose Viswanath’s version for the official translation.

Translating the book from one language into another did come with its own challenges. Names are some of the hardest parts to get right. Take the name Lord Voldemort, for example. In the English version, Tom Marvolo Riddle is an anagram of “I am Lord Voldemort,” which proves to be a major plot point in the second book. Changing the name would change the anagram, thereby losing the meaning of Riddle’s self-chosen title. This came as a challenge to other translators too.

Viswanath points to Quidditch as another prime example.

I could’ve just called it Quidditch [in Yiddish transliteration], but meh, we could do better than that.

He decided to take the Yiddish saying Az Got vil, sheest a bezem, which literally means If God wants, a broom shoots,” as inspiration for the Yiddish word for “Quidditch,” shees-bezem. Pretty cool, huh?

Viswanath also included different dialects and voice registers for specific characters, which lends more authenticity.

I recast some of the characters as certain Jewish archetypes purely on linguistic grounds. I turned Dumbledore into this very lomdish [Jewishly learned] guy who speaks with a lot of loshen koydesh [Hebrew and rabbinic phrases]… McGonagall and Snape, and especially [Argus] Filch, speak in a particularly Litvish [Lithuanian] register, so you can sort of really hear their dialect. The same thing with [Rubeus] Hagrid, who speaks with a very deep back-country Polish register.

Harry Potter un der Filosofisher Shteyn took about a year to completely translate. There were only 1,000 first-edition copies available for preorder before they all sold out just two days after the official announcement was made. Fortunately, preorders for the second edition are now available. Viswanath has already begun work on the second book in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.