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Harry Potter and the reading spell

by Alison Hird

Article published on the 2009-09-14 Latest update 2009-09-15 08:55 TU

Harry Potter in Africaans.(Photo: A Hird)

Harry Potter in Africaans.
(Photo: A Hird)

They’re the most successful children’s books ever: over 400 million copies sold in 150 countries and translated into 67 languages. The Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling are the first truly globalised works of fiction but do they help children to start and keep reading? To mark international literacy day on 8th September, a Unesco-backed inititiative turned Paris’s Institut de France into a Hogwarth’s workshop as scores of wizards from the translating, publishing and academic world pondered the Potter phenomenon.

Culture in France: Harry Potter

14/09/2009 by Alison Hird

“9 years ago statistics show that Thai people read only 7 lines per year” explains Kim Chong Satitwattana from Nanmee publishing house in Thailand.

“Shocking!”, you can almost hear Hermione Granger gasp, before devising some magic literacy potion Thai children might be forced to swallow.

In reality the simple translation of all seven Potter novels into Thai, along with some clever marketing has worked magic of its own.

“Harry Potter has played such an important role in Thailand […] Thai people are now reading up to 5 books a year” continues Satitwattana. “We now have Nanmee book reading clubs with 2 million members and more reading activities in schools”.

Potter has also charmed Brazilian youth into reading more says Lia Wyler who has translated all the Potter books into Portuguese and is now something of a star in her native Brazil.

Harry Potter in dozens of languages.(Photo: A Hird)

Harry Potter in dozens of languages.
(Photo: A Hird)

“6 million copies have been sold which is huge for Brazil. It’s a big country but there are only 2,676 bookshops; that’s 1 per 70,000 inhabitants.

Wyler says the Potter books have helped widen youngsters use of grammar (she’s made an effort to reintroduce more tenses in her translations) and boosted numbers visiting libraries.

And Wyler’s own considerable reader feedback shows Potter fans are from all walks of life, not the usual educated milieu . “A friend’s manicurist was desperately waiting for the next volume to be translated” she laughs, before pointing out the calming effect reading Potter has had on turbulent youth.

“You start talking about Potter and even aggressive teenagers calm down. It’s incredible”.

Gili Bar-Hillel, the translator into Hebrew has also become a star in Israel where the Potter phenomenon is huge. People would read in Hebrew then buy the original English version to “check” her translations. While those who couldn’t wait for the Hebrew translation  would read in English first then check the Hebrew translation. She’s found Potter has radically shaken up reading habits.

“People are convening together to read. There’s a new kind of community building up: families in which three generations are reading together.”

They’re also reading them again and again. “It’s an addiction” she says.

Reading such popular fiction in your own language can restore a sense of pride in that language. Not least if it’s been seen as the language of the oppressor says Kobus Geldenhuys who’s translated the last two HP novels into Afrikaans, one of South Africa’s eleven official languages.

Harry Potter in Georgian translation.(Photo: A Hird)

Harry Potter in Georgian translation.
(Photo: A Hird)

“To connect Afrikaans children with their mother tongue milieu gives them a feeling their language is good enough. Afrikaans was earmarked as the language of the oppresor, but you know it doesn’t belong to an elitist group, Afrikaans is spoken across all social barriers”.

But how do you use this momentum to keep kids interested in reading?

Gili Bar-Hillel uses her notoreity to try and influence publishers to find similar titles that could have an addictive effect. “Because children who read addictively will always have respect for books” she explains.

She also personally tries to “push children to read other stuff too”, telling them there’s more than just Harry Potter out there.

Kim Satitwattana notes that in Thailand Potter has already inspired a lot of new home-grown writing talent, including 24-year old Dr. Pop. “His 14 adventure fantasy stories have sold 250,000; a successful book sells an average of 3,000” she adds. 

But Harry Potter has not bewitched readers all over the world. Ketevan Kanchashvili has translated two of the Potter books into Georgian and says while the Orthodox church has issued no official statement “there were some people banning and burning […] and many teachers were telling kids to burn the books and not to touch it because it was an evil book”.

Being a Potter fan therefore says a lot about who you are: “whether you are very close to being a fundamentally pious person or whether you are western orientated, modern 21st century person” she concludes.

Or a 4th century B.C. person perhaps!

“No ancient Greek was waiting for my book” says Andrew Wilson modestly. His translation of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was the first work of fiction to be translated into ancient Greek for 16 centuries. He struggled more with translating the likes of Mr and Mrs Dursley (only the term “woman” existed at the time) than with religious sensibilities.

Unlike in Japan, Brazil, Thailand and Israel where Harry Potter has regularly made it into the top five on bestseller’s list, the ancient Greek version was never likely to become a best seller, remaining more of a “curiosity for dons and scholars rather than for the children that JK Rowling hoped would be flocking to learn Greek”.

Yet Wilson admits it’s caused a stir:  “I think it’s shown that there’s life in the old languages yet. It’s not all ancient”.

What’s more Harry Potter turns out to have uncanny links with ancient Greece. His story is rooted in Plato’s “Republic” whose ideal state involves a class system based on gold, silver and bronze men which in turn give rise to leaders, soldiers and workers respectively.

“Generally speaking gold people have gold children” explains Wilson. “Every now and then, though, a gold child will be born to bronze parents and Harry is that [misplaced] child.  He has to […] work his way up to his rightful place among the gold. So that’s universal, the story of the misplaced child.”  

Life, and lessons, in the old languages indeed!



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