I grew up with Harry Potter, who spent the first ten years of his life living with Muggles (non-wizards), unable to explain his special abilities or the strange occurrences that often happened to him. Then, on his eleventh birthday, he received news of his wizarding abilities in an acceptance letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I was reading about his Hogwarts acceptance when I, too, was eleven, and steadfastly kept up with his story until the very end. When I attended the midnight release of the seventh Harry Potter movie in November 2010, I suddenly understood myself as a particle of a much larger, extremely unique phenomenon. There, in the crowded movie theater filled with a remarkable sense of anticipation, the idea for my senior thesis emerged. I knew the global Harry Potter phenomenon was distinct, but like Harry, I did not know exactly how or why.
Through my research, I began to understand what made Harry Potter into the globally recognized “cultural brand” it has become. The distinctiveness of the global Harry Potter phenomenon lies in its ability to transcend, and simultaneously be influenced by national culture. While some countries made significant modifications to their translation of the Harry Potter books, other countries ”” some especially culturally distant from Britain ”” made very few changes in translation.
As the novels were introduced alongside the commercialization of the Internet, their cultural diffusion came to be particularly representative of their time. Additionally, because Harry Potter is, in commercial terms, an “experience,” its popularity is due in part to the universally applicable nature of many themes in the books, including good versus evil, love, death and immortality, and the trials of adolescence. When broken down, individual elements of the Harry Potter phenomenon ”” like translated texts, global Hollywood blockbusters, viral promotion on the Internet, and fan conventions ”” are not unique by themselves. However, these components take on new meaning when examined as a composite, making Harry Potter unique in its amalgamation of distinct cultural processes.
Only the Bible and Mao’s Little Red Book have exceeded Harry Potter in total international book sales. The Harry Potter phenomenon, which has been translated in 70 languages and is prevalent worldwide in so many different realms of culture, could only be possible in today’s digital age of globalization. The ease of communication promotes the exchange of cultural ideas, while still allowing national cultures to flourish. Harry Potter has also paved the way for new book phenomena, like Twilight and The Hunger Games, to develop in a similar fashion, though on a smaller scale. Harry Potter’s breadth of cultural appeal and multi-faceted fan following have made it a sort of “Bible” of globalization ”” it is globally recognized, and yet its interpretation varies by culture.
In France, the translator eliminated many of Rowling’s textual details that clashed with French culture and emphasized the educational elements of the story. The literal translation of the first French book, in English Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is “Harry Potter at the school of wizards.” In China, unauthorized knockoff editions of Harry Potter are widespread, many with completely different storylines that place the characters in a Chinese setting. In Japan, where owls are a well-known cultural symbol for happiness and good fortune, the cover of the first novel features a giant sketch of Harry’s owl Hedwig. This is entirely different from the original British cover, where Harry is shown standing next to the Hogwarts Express train. In order to fully understand the Harry Potter cultural brand, it is essential to look at variations in its receptiveness across the world.
When foreign publishers acquired the rights to Harry Potter, they were faced with the challenge of choosing someone to translate the novels. Translating Harry Potter proved to be an extremely arduous process, requiring much more than a literal translation of the books. Many concepts in the stories, like boarding school and Christmas rituals, are foreign to some cultures and required adaptation. Additionally, many of the character names in Harry Potter have hidden meanings that Rowling chose based on Latin roots. These names often do not have the same effect if translated literally, so Rowling gave foreign translators freedom to change character names. The invented words, abbreviations, and Latin spells that Rowling incorporated into the novels also presented difficulties for translators.
Because of this, some translators sought to make Rowling’s invented words and concepts ”” like Muggle (non-magical being), Quidditch (wizard soccer), and Diagon Alley (a place in London’s magical world) ”” elicit the same feelings for local readers as they do in English. Abbreviations like S.P.E.W. (Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare) and O.W.L.s (Ordinary Wizarding Levels) also proved difficult to translate, since literal translations would not result in the same play on words. Luckily, Rowling provided very few guidelines for translators, allowing them to change the names of people and made-up concepts. She even gave translators the freedom to change the titles of the novels when a literal translation would not make sense in the host language. Rowling and her agent did not need to approve the translation before it was published, but had to approve the book cover if the country chose to commission a new one.
While being a translator is not typically an esteemed profession, foreign translators of the Harry Potter novels quickly became local celebrities. With the magnitude of the phenomenon they received a flood of criticism and acclaim for their work, which turned them into a sort of localized version of J.K. Rowling. Because translators did not have access to the novels until the English version was released, translators had to work quickly in order to prevent eager readers from buying the English books first in countries with a significant amount of English speakers. As a result, translators had about two months to complete each book. Each translator took very different approaches to the books, and examining their choices provides insights on the host culture and the global spread of Harry Potter.
For any book sold in a foreign market, it is common for the country to re-brand the book cover for the local market. According to an article in The Guardian, “Albums are sold across the world inside a universal sleeve, blockbuster films branded in a singular style. But novels, by a convention that nobody in the publishing industry seems fully able to explain, must be re-jacketed from territory to territory.” Of the countries I examined, Denmark and France created original, country-specific book covers, Australia used the original British covers, and Israel, South Africa, and China adapted their titles to the American cover illustrations.
|Country||Approximate Number of Books Sold||Population||Books Sold Per Capita|
|United Kingdom||22,547,594||62,218,761||.36 books|
Using books sold per capita as a proxy for popularity, the books are twice as popular in Australia as they are in the U.S. Approximately 1 in every 10 Americans has purchased a Harry Potter book, compared with 1 in every 5 Australians. While translation was essential to the spread of Harry Potter in many countries, it was not necessary in Australia, where readers accept the novels’ unfamiliar concepts as part of its inherent Britishness. This brings the role of language in cultural receptivity full circle, and demonstrates how common language can bridge the gap between cultural disparities. In Australia, along with Ireland, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa, the British English version of Harry Potter is sold, whereas the United States English edition of the books is edited to account for cultural differences, and different cover illustrations are used.
After their campaign, Warner Bros’ conceded to making the Australian release date the same as that of the UK and US. Because Australia and the UK share a common language, Australia was able to quickly embrace the Harry Potter phenomenon. Australians celebrated the release of each new novel and film alongside the UK with a similar level of enthusiasm. Harry Potter’s popularity in Australia confirms that language does significantly influence the way people perceive culture. Consequently, common language encourages the exchange of cultural goods between two countries.
Denmark has the highest per capita movie sales ($1.67) of Harry Potter of all 58 countries with data available, closely followed by the rest of Scandinavia. In 2000, before the success of Harry Potter was known, Danish publishing company Gyldendal bought the rights to the books and elected Danish children’s book translator Hanna LàÆ’ ¼tzen to translate the series into Danish. In translating the books, LàÆ’ ¼tzen took the view that “translation almost always requires interpretation,” and thought it was important to translate certain concepts into Danish in cases when a literal translation would confuse Danish readers.
For example, LàÆ’ ¼tzen chose to change the name of the egotistical professor Gilderoy Lockhart to Glitterik SmàÆ’ ¸rhàÆ’ ¥r, a name that in Danish “is immediately recognized as that of a cocky and vain personality.” LàÆ’ ¼tzen made it clear that she “only translated names when it served a purpose” and chose not to change any other aspects of the story, thus preserving the British setting of the novels. Looking collectively at her translation, LàÆ’ ¼tzen characterizes her work as a “middle approach on the issue of translating places and names.” She notes that unlike other countries that took more liberty in making changes in their translation, like Norway, Germany, Russia, and Finland, she chose to preserve the books’ English atmosphere.
While Denmark does have boarding schools, they are not comparable to those in Britain and LàÆ’ ¼tzen maintains that “such aspects should not be touched by the translator’s cultural background and nationality.” LàÆ’ ¼tzen also kept the books’ titles the same, as their literal translations are the same as the English titles. In the Danish translation of Harry Potter, therefore, there is a medium degree of change in the translated text. After the first three Harry Potter books were published in Danish, the series became extremely popular in Denmark. In an interview, LàÆ’ ¼tzen explained that no translated Danish work has elicited as intense discussions as it has for Harry Potter. While it is usually only critics who take a position on translated works, LàÆ’ ¼tzen has received a great deal of criticism and feedback on her work from readers, especially children.
The fact that she has received so many responses from readers, LàÆ’ ¼tzen explains, means that many Danes read both the English and Danish version of the stories. Many children have also told LàÆ’ ¼tzen that the books have inspired them to write. In addition to its younger audience, Gyldendal editor Mette Nejmann explained that since Harry Potter has been released in Denmark, the target audience has changed slightly in that more adults are interested in reading the books. LàÆ’ ¼tzen, along with many others, attributes the success of Harry Potter to its ability to appeal to both children and adults.
In translating Harry Potter into Danish, Gyldendal also chose to have Danish illustrator Per JàÆ’ ¸rgensen create new book covers for the Danish audience. His hand drawn depictions differ markedly from the UK and American book covers, with duller colors and cover art featuring multiple scenes from the stories. The UK and US likely used brighter colors than JàÆ’ ¸rgensen because the UK and US book markets are much more competitive than those in mainland Europe, with “all the covers in [English and American] shops shouting: ”˜Buy me!’” JàÆ’ ¸rgensen used one of his relatives as a model for drawing Harry, portraying him as an ordinary child wearing jeans and a t-shirt. This allows children to relate to Harry, rather than thinking of him as entirely “other.”
Simply looking at the stark differences between JàÆ’ ¸rgensen’s covers and those used in the UK, one can sense a uniquely Danish Harry Potter fandom. Danish Harry Potter fans appreciate the distinctively British qualities of the story while at the same time have adapted elements of the story to their local culture. Perhaps its widespread popularity in Denmark can be explained by the country’s extremely high living standards and per capita income. Danes have the time and money to engage with and contribute to the phenomenon, and most Danes are in favor of more interaction with other cultures. In a recent poll, “76% of Danes said globalization was a good thing.” Therefore, the Danes’ strong economy and openness to international culture make it a place where the Harry Potter phenomenon can thrive, by creating a Danish outlet for Harry Potter fandom while maintaining story’s inherent Britishness.