Let me say publicly that DonBoy’s answer exudes a combination of intuitive genius and confidence that make me think DonBoy is going to do big things in his life. -- Steven D. Levitt (Freakonomics blog)
Tuesday, July 15, 2003
Wie sagt man auf Deutsch "Gryffyndor"?

If you were trying to create a news story that hit on as many geeky interests as possible, you'd have trouble coming up with something as good as this:

Thousands of [German Harry Potter] fans are translating the 766-page British edition themselves — section by section — and swapping finished bits via e-mail.

Let's see: we've got Harry Potter (more contentious as a real geek interest than you might think, by the way); we've got distributed computing, or its analog; we've got language translation.

The key thing I take away from this is that depending on how you look at it, translation is either trivial for someone sufficiently fluent in both languages, or near-impossible. (I say this as someone insufficiently fluent in more than one language.) With 3000 volunteers, and 766 pages, the first pass sounds like it could be done in one hour. Then you have the obvious hard parts, like the Sorting-Hat song. Then you have all the stuff where you have to understand the English, and why certain words were chosen, well enough to even understand the problem. From the story -- what do you do with "peck of owls"? Well, if you don't know that "peck", in English, is both a noun indicating quantity, and what birds do, you won't know you have a problem -- one that might have no solution in German, so don't get hung up. But you'd better know that Delores Umbrage's name should be translated into something appropriate, or you've really missed something.

My favorite book on translation issues is Le Ton Beau De Marot by one-of-my-Top-Five-authors Douglas Hofstadter. Among the things you learn in this book is that a Japanese poet has opined that if he were translating haiku into another language, the famous 5-7-5 business would be the first thing he'd let slip. At the other end of the scale, Hofstader remarks that the French translation of "the door" into "la porte", which is probably in the first chapter of your junior high French book, is iffy, because when he hears "la porte", he thinks of those specifically-French doors with the curved handle.

The book also has, at its end, a section that's both terribly sad in its own right and highly ironic, given what's come before it in the book: Hofstadter's wife collapsed while they were on a family trip to Europe, and died within only a couple of days from a brain tumor. This story appears at the end of a several-hundred-page book structured around dozens of translations of the French poem that gives the book its title; that poem is about waiting by the deathbed of a beloved woman. Those translations had been written by Hofstadter and many of his friends and students over the past decades. Some things you just can't make up.

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