Due to the fact that mostly everyone has either already read this book or seen the movie, I am going to avoid writing any sort of synopsis. If some how, you have been living under a rock and have not read or seen the movie, I recommend you end your hermit lifestyle explore what J.K. Rowling has to say. If this is you, don’t just watch the movie. Pick up the book because it’s better and contains more detail.
Some might be wondering how I came to read Harry Potter. In fact, this is my second time. The first was when I was a child. I consumed this book just as it came out like many kids my age. In due time, the book also became popular amongst adults. I didn’t make it far in the series for various reasons. I did however continue to watch the Hollywood representations that were pumped out annually. J.K. Rowling and her stories took a leave of absence from my life for many, many years. I fell down other literary rabbit holes instead.
The adventures of Harry Potter did not make a resurgence in my life until this year (obviously). Before I left the country for my Peace Corps service, a special friend Whitney gifted me the Spanish translated version. If anyone knows Whitney, they also know she is a huge fan of every Harry Potter novel. In fact, when I met her, she was sitting on a rock in Jackson Falls, IL reading Harry Potter instead of rock climbing. Whitney was well aware that I was trying to reintroduce fictional books back into my repertoire. Having been a graduate student, my life quickly became consumed by journal articles, history and non-fictional essays. I was inundated with social science. Don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff. But at a certain point, it became necessary to balance all that with something light and fun. Whitney, being the good listener she is, picked up on my whining and one day, sent me Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal. She wanted me to revisit my childhood, enjoy fantasy/fiction again, and perhaps, share the translated version with any curious kids that I would soon be working with in Peru.
I was very thankful for the book and quickly began reading it. Like a good student, I began annotating every word in Spanish I did not understand. Despite the target audience primarily being children, my vocabulary in Spanish was lacking. So each time I sat down to read I also brought my dictionary and a pencil. However, this habit was quickly broken. Reading and the translating takes forever. I was averaging a chapter every 4 or 5 days. Tired of being slowed down by my Spanish, I just started reading and filling gaps. Although accuracy was lacking, I began to finish a chapter within one sitting. Choosing to read like this opened my mind to a few interesting thoughts I would like to share:
- The Power of Translators: Having now read the book in two languages and seen the movie, I have become interested in the power that is beholden by the translator. That is for any text, not just Harry Potter. I first became aware of this concept when I learned about the discrepancy over Max Weber’s “iron cage of rationality”(stahlhartes Gehäuse). According to another translator, the idea that as rational humans we are limited is actually the “steel shell of rationality”. To some, the different translations would mean nothing. To others, such as sociologists like myself, the discrepancy between the two is actually quite profound. But that is for another blog post (no promises it gets written). For now, you can do your own research.
The point is that as translator you reproduce knowledge. You take words from one language and transplant them into another. Sometimes with accuracy, sometimes perhaps not. Sometimes informed by your own biases, sometimes completely objective. And sometimes, there just isn’t a perfect translation, so then what do you do? The translator, although beholden to some literary ethics, has the power to create whatever the hell they want. When an author (or artist or sculptor for that matter) publishes something, the work simultaneously exits the private and enters the public realm. It’s no longer the author’s brainchild. It is prone to consumption and interpretation by some sort of audience. This also happens with translation.
For example, the translator of La Piedra Filosofal, Alicia Rawson, is bound somewhat to the story created by J.K. Rowling. At the same time however, she as translator is empowered to essentially rewrite the book, or certain parts of it. The translator decides how the work of art becomes consumed by another audience who speaks and thinks in a different language; by an audience from a different culture. Rawson reproduces the knowledge first crafted by Rawling. The work of translators, I think, is extremely important. In fact, I don’t think they get enough credit. I’m sure there is much more to say on this topic, but I’m over it. Next…
- The Power of the Brain: The entire time I read La Piedra Filosofal I was shocked at my own personal brain power. I know this might sound douchey, but I was genuinely impressed and intrigued. As I said before, I struggled with some of the vocabulary and sentence structure found within the book. I did a lot of translating and rereading. After a certain point however, I gave that strategy up. I just began reading.
When I started just reading, the ability for my brain to fill in the blanks was astounding. Words I didn’t originally know were suddenly part of my vocabulary. I began understanding complex sentence structures and grammatical conventions. This all began because of my brain’s ability for inference. Context clues and educated guesses became more conducive to my reading than attempting to translate words. At some points I wasn’t translating from Spanish to English anymore. I was just reading and understanding. By just reading I began to have thoughts like “So that’s how you say that in Spanish” or “Oh, so that’s how you conjugate that” and “Now I understand how saying one thing in English looks in Spanish”.
All of this is to say that I still do not consider myself fluent in Spanish. Despite the many lightbulb moments and leaps forward in my reading comprehension, there is still a lot from the novel that did not understand. And a lot that I did not care to translate directly. In general, however, It was not a debilitating or demotivating experience. On the contrary, I found reading La Piedra Filosofal to be very enjoyable. The entertaining story, the Spanish comprehension I gained and the ability to revisit my childhood are three reasons why I loved reading Harry Potter again.
The next book on my list is not in Spanish, but I do plan to return to that realm soon. For now, I’ll be cracking open The Story of B, written by Daniel Quinn. Only 325 pages to go.