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Harry Potter Speaks German

Harry Potter fans in Germany couldn’t wait for the just-published fifth book by J.K. Rowling to appear on the German market. So they’ve set about to translate it themselves – over the Internet.


After launching in England in June, German readers are eager for their translation of the fifth Harry Potter book to arrive in bookstores.

Harry Potter fans the world over rejoiced when J.K. Rowling’s fifth book about the clever young wizard finally appeared in June after a three-year hiatus. But Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has only come out in English so far. In Germany, the official translation is not scheduled to arrive on the market until Nov. 8. That’s a long time for those bitten with Potter-mania.

So what are the impatient German readers doing? They’re applying a little bit of magic, a lot of inspiration and some pretty impressive interpretive skills to whip together their own unofficial, non-commercial translation of the book. And it’s all being done on the Internet, where every curious Potter fan can take a peek into the latest round of Harry's adventures.

A bring-your-own Potter Party

At "harry-auf-deutsch.de" German readers with a good understanding of English and a love of the Harry Potter books -- not to mention a good sense of creativity in tackling unusual and at times nonsensical words – can take a stab at translating Rowling’s original English version. So far some 1,000 HP fans, as they call themselves, have worked on the translation of book five in the hopes of soon being able to read the final unofficial version.

But it’s a bring-your-own Potter party. That means the only people who actually get to read the final Internet version have to contribute something to the work itself. Most participate in translation, taking a chapter at a time from a list available on the site. Some offer their editing and proofreading services, and still others help manage the Web page and coordinate emails. As a reward for usable efforts, the contributors receive a copy of all successive chapters per email installment.

Although a few blitz-translators have already put together one finished version of The Order of the Phoenix, the Harry-auf-Deutsch team is still encouraging fans to participate in the collective translation, saying the more people who participate, the better the end result will be. Bernd Koeleman, the Web site’s administrator, stresses in the forum that speed is not everything.

The idea, he writes, is to "encourage as many people as possible to read the original and to inspire communication and fun with translation as well as creating new modes of collective open-content work on the Internet."

What’s a crumple-horned Snorkack?

Based on the dozens of entries in the community forum, the translation project is generating quite a bit of interest from would-be English-German translators. From students just struggling through their third year of school English to professional-like whizzes, participants carry on a lively exchange about correct translation of common English words like "diversion" and "patronize" and the very British "blimey." They also debate accurate punctuation for German quotations and whether or not to leave proper nouns in their original English.

Of course the most extensive exchange gets going when someone starts pondering the best translation for typical HP vocabulary like "squib" (for non-initiated HP readers, that’s someone whose parents are wizards but hasn’t inherited any of the powers) and "extendable ears" (they are what they seem, but conveying that in German is apparently not so easy). And the verdict is still out on how to translate "crumple-horned Snorkack."

A learning process

The whole idea for the Harry-auf-Deutsch translation community first got started when Bernd Koeleman’s 14-year-old daughter picked up a bound copy of the fourth book and together with a few friends began translating it. It was just for fun to pass away a few boring weeks during the summer vacation. But then her father, a computer expert, got involved and started recruiting a few more Potter enthusiasts over the Internet and soon the Web site was born.

The whole process of collective translation on the Internet proved successful in 2001 when the Harry-auf-Deutsch community tried its hand on the fourth Potter book, publishing its efforts on the Internet for anyone to download. In fact, it was so popular that the German publishing house Carlsen Verlag, which was scheduled to bring the book out slightly later than the non-commercial Web site, got worried about copyright violations and ordered the site to be shut down.

After six chapters had already appeared on the Internet, and the appetite was wet for more, the Hamburg-based publisher took legal action against Koeleman, and a court served up an injunction forcing him to remove the amateur translation or face up to two years in jail or a fine of, at that time, DM 500,000 (€255,600).

Dishing out cucumber salad

Koeleman stopped publishing the content on the site and instead began placing what he called Gurkensalat or "Cucumber salad" on the pages for everyone to see. The content was generated from really bad translations supplied by the community’s translators.

It’s still on the site available for anyone to read and snicker over. And it serves as a distinct reminder of the publisher’s suppression of individual creativity and the efforts of a few crazed Potter fans to bring their hero one step closer to their home.

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