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Why American Kids Don't Consider Harry Potter an Insufferable Prig
by Daniel Radosh

By now, it’s possible that the eleven-year-old in your life is on his or her second reading of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” the latest volume in the insanely popular series of British children’s novels, which was published last week. One reason that American kids relates so well to Harry, the adolescent wizard, may be that he speaks their language — literally. The editions of the Harry Potter books sold here have been custom-edited for their Yankee audience.

“I wasn’t trying to, quote, ‘Americanize’ them,” Arthur Levine, the books’ United States editor, said. “What I was trying to do is translate, which I think is different. I wanted to make sure that an American child reading the books would have the same literary experience that a British kid would have. A kid should be confused or challenged when the author wants the kid to be confused or challenged and not because of a difference of language.”

So, whereas British Harry checks a timetable for his wizarding classes, which he loves so much that he dread going on holiday, American Harry consults a schedule and hates vacation. British Harry loves pudding, including jelly. American Harry likes dessert, including jello.

Curiously, American Harry still eats crumpets and chipolatas. “We weren’t trying to make it McDonald’s,” said Levine, who worked closely with the author, J.K. Rowling, to craft a vernacular that would sound authentically British without being “incomprehensible or unnecessarily distracting” to young Americans. For example, “cracking” becomes “spanking good,” which sounds quite British, especially given the books’ boarding-school setting.

There are some peculiar discrepancies. IN the American editions, “wonky” becomes “crooked”; “bobbles” turn into “puff balls”: and “barking mad” translates to “complete lunatic.” “Git,” ‘ickle,” and “nutters,” however, are left as they are. Why does Father Christmas become Santa Claus, and “bogey” become “booger,” but “budge up” not become “move over”?

“I wouldn’t say it was done haphazardly — I’d say that it was not done mechanically,” Levine explained. Consider the sentence “She—er—got a bit shirty with me.” “We talked about ‘shirty’ and we decided that it was fun,” Levine said. “Rather than the world’s being incomprehensible, you’d know from the context what it meant, and it sounded like colorful, slangy language. ‘Shirty’ is a word the author intends you to stop and listen to.” But there was one change in the sentence: “We italicized ‘shirty’ to help you know that it’s not a typographical error.”

As with any translation, some subtleties are inevitably lost. Everyone I the U.K. knows what Sellotape is, but for the sake of American readers the Stateside editions say Scotch tape, even though this means sacrificing a pun. (When a wand used for casting magic spells is broken, it is repaired with Spellotape.)

The books’ fantasy milieu made translating the lingo especially tricky. Levine pointed out that when a candy store is stocked with Fizzing Whizzbees, Pepper Imps, and Cockroach Cluster it’s supposed to sound exotic, and replacing these sweets with M&M’s and Tootsie Rolls would be out of the question. So when he came upon mint “humbugs” in Rowling’s text, he decided to let them be. “’Humbug’ is clearly a magical term,” Levine said. “It’s something that should be imagined.” Except it’s not. It’s a common triangular sucking candy.

This article originally appeared in The New Yorker, Sept. 20, 1999