Three Wonderful French Translations from the Harry Potter Series

This is the third in a series of 3 blog posts by Annie Caley-Renn about the Harry Potter series, which we’re running to coincide with the launch of our newest hunt, THATMuse Harry Potter (you can read the first post here, and the second one here). The THATMuse Harry Potter Launch will take place on Saturday 17th February at 2.30pm.
Last week we asked you the French translation of a “magic wand”. The day I discovered this was (probably) the day I realised I love the French – it’s “une baguette magique” or, even more wonderfully, just “une baguette”. When you look into it a little, it’s not quite as great as it sounds (they’re not actually talking about bread) because a baguette can be used to mean just a stick (and includes lots of things, from conductors’ batons to chopsticks), but I still love it.
Translating the Harry Potter series, with its enormous wealth of invented words, was a huge challenge, but Jean-Francois Ménard, who took on the job, delivered. Here are three more lovely translations (plus one bonus character name which is just fabulous), in celebration of our THATMuse Harry Potter launch, which will be today, Saturday 17th February, at 2.30pm!!

1. Moldu
The word in the original English text for a non-magical person is a muggle. Although J.K. Rowling coined the word, it has been used for centuries with various meanings. The most interesting seems to have come about in New Orleans in the 1920s, and was used to mean marijuana. Consequently, a muggler was someone who smoked marijuana, and you can work out muggle-head out for yourselves. J.K Rowling’s meaning, however, was unrelated to this, and according to her, she wanted a word which “suggested both foolishness and lovability”, and described it as a softened version of the word mug, for someone who’s a bit dim. Similarly, Ménard went for the (invented) word, moldu, inspired by the French expression “mou du bulbe”, meaning something like “soft in the head”. Ah, those cute, dopey muggles – glad I’m not one!

The names of the four Hogwarts houses present a huge challenge for a translator, as each comes with its own connotations, sometimes important to the plot of the books. To the annoyance of some English fans, the mascot of Ravenclaw house is an eagle rather than a raven, which the French version corrects (Ravenclaw in French is Serdaigle, literally raven’s talon/claw). However, by far the cutest house name – in both languages – is Hufflepuff, which Ménard translates as Poufsouffle. His reasoning was that “Hufflepuff” brings to mind the story of the 3 little pigs, and the Big Bad Wolf who “huffed and puffed” to blow down their houses – so he wanted to keep the idea of breath (souffle in French means a breath or a blast of air, as in soufflé). But more importantly, the word is just delightful – say it with me: poufsouffle!


One of the problems with translation is that it’s hard to keep double-meanings and wordplay from the original text, and it’s true that certain bits of this are lost in the French version of the Harry Potter series (for example the double-meaning of the wizarding streets Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley – i.e. diagonally and nocturnally - are lost). But there are also some truly lovely puns which Ménard created just for the French version, such as this one. As any Harry Potter fan knows, first year students at Hogwarts are sorted into their houses by the Sorting Hat, an animate, slightly telepathic piece of clothing who looks inside their minds and works out where they should be (I went to school in England, and I can confirm this is exactly what happens). In the French version however, the Sorting Hat is called the Choixpeau, a charming play on words: it’s a combination of the French words chapeau (hat) and choix (choice). So he’s the “Choice Hat”. Amazing!


OK, Harry Potter fans that spend as much time reading pointless things on the internet as I do probably know this already. But for those of you with real lives, I need to share possibly the most important thing about the French translation of Harry Potter. At the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (and beware, massive spoiler coming up here), there’s a big reveal that Tom Riddle, the character from the past with whom Harry has been communicating through his enchanted diary, is in fact none other than supreme bad-guy, Lord Voldemort. Even as a young boy/old ghost, he has a flare for the dramatic: he drops this massive plot-twist by writing his full name, Tom Marvolo Riddle, in the air with his wand, and then giving it a wave so the letters rearrange themselves to say “I am Lord Voldemort” (let’s not talk about the fact that he’s arbitrarily assigned himself the title of “Lord”... that's not how it works, Voldy).

Well, take a look at this extract from the French version:

-Voldemort, dit Jedusor d’une voix douce, est à la fois mon passé, mon présent et mon avenir, Harry Potter….

Il sortit de sa poche la baguette magique de Harry et écrivit dans l’air en lettres scintillantes :


Puis il fit un mouvement avec la baguette et les lettres de son nom s’assemblèrent dans un ordre diffèrent. A présent, on pouvait lire :


-Tu vois ? Murmura-t-il. C’est un nom que j’utilisais déjà à Poudlard, pour mes amis les plus proches. Tu crois donc que j’allais accepter le « jeu du sort » qui m’avait donné ce nom immonde de « Jedusor », lègue par mon Moldu de père ? Moi, l’héritier par ma mère du sang de Salazar…

Yes, that’s right. To make this plot device work in French, they had to give Voldemort, the most malevolent, terrifying and powerful dark wizard of all time, the middle name “Elvis”. Vive la France.

Thanks for reading these blog posts about the world of Harry Potter. If that’s not enough HP trivia for you, contact us to book a THATMuse Harry Potter for your next birthday party, hen do or event!