Harry Potter in Chinese, Japanese & Vietnamese Translation

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Harry Potter:
Mistranslations in the Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese versions

 

Is the boa constrictor in 'The Little Prince' different from the one in 'Harry Potter'? (Japanese and Vietnamese versions)

 

Boa constrictors are large snakes which generally squeeze their prey to death. They belong to the Boidae (boa family), which includes the boas and anacondas. The boa family is closely related to the Pythonidae (python family), which includes various kinds of python. In fact, some scientists group the boas and pythons together into one family.

Boa constrictors don't exactly figure very large in most people's lives, but for some reason they occur in two popular works of children's literature: The Little Prince (Le petit prince) by Antoine de Saint Exupéry and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling.

In Chapter One of The Little Prince, the author as a child shows adults a drawing of a boa constrictor (serpent boa in the original French) that has swallowed an elephant. Unimaginative adults think it looks like a hat. The author draws another picture to show the elephant inside the boa constrictor, whereupon adults advise him to concentrate on his schoolwork.

In Chapter Two of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Harry talks to a boa constrictor at the zoo. According to the sign, boa constrictors are from Brazil, although the one on display was born in the zoo. In a moment of confusion, Harry unconsciously lets the snake escape.

Any person who has read both The Little Prince and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone might experience feelings of familiarity, if not outright affection, when coming across this old friend in two different books. How does this look in the CJV translations?

 

Chinese:

There are countless Chinese translations of The Little Prince and most seem to call the serpent boa a 蟒蛇 mǎng-shé ('mang snake') or a 大蟒蛇 dà-mǎngshé ('big mang snake'). This is quite uncontroversial as 蟒蛇 mǎng-shé is the usual Chinese term for large snakes such as pythons and boas.

Turning to Harry Potter, the Mainland Chinese version refers to the boa constrictor throughout as a jù-mǎng ('giant mang'), except in the sign outside his case where he is referred to as 蟒蛇 mǎngshé ('mang snake'). In Book 2, referring back to this episode, the translator uses 大蟒 dà-mǎng ('big mang').

The Taiwanese translation follows the English fairly literally. Where the English says 'boa constrictor' it uses 蟒蛇 mǎngshé ('mang snake'); where the English says 'snake' it uses shé ('snake'). The term jù-mǎng ('giant mang') is also used in one or two places.

The names above illustrate the Chinese tendency to prefer two-character expressions, as in 蟒蛇 mǎngshé, jù-mǎng, and 大蟒 dà mǎng. Even 大蟒蛇 dà-mǎngshé can be interpreted as the word for 'boa' with an adjectival tacked on in front.

Thus, although the names are slightly different, the boa constrictor in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is thus readily identifiable with that in The Little Prince.

Vietnamese:

The Vietnamese word for 'snake' is rắn. However, there is a separate word for pythons and boas, i.e., trăn. While technically pythons and their ilk are a specific kind of rắn (snake), in fact the two terms tend to be distinguished. It makes perfect sense in Vietnamese to say, 'Is that a rắn? No, it's a trăn.' (Is that a snake? No, it's a python/boa).

The Vietnamese translators of The Little Prince use the term trăn for the boa constrictor that swallowed the elephant.1

By contrast, the Vietnamese translator of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone calls the boa constrictor a rắn throughout, except in the sign outside his case and one other place where it is called a Boa Constrictor. In a footnote the translator explains that a boa constrictor is a kind of trăn from South America. Referring back to this episode in Book 2 (Chapter 11), the translator uses the word trăn.

The word rắn in this case appears to be an unthinking direct translation of the English word 'snake'. While not technically incorrect, it would perhaps have been more appropriate to use trăn instead. In any case, it is reasonably clear from the translations that the same kind of snake is involved in The Little Prince and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Japanese:

On the other hand, a person reading the Japanese translations of these two books is unlikely to suspect that the same kind of snake is involved. The reason is quite simple: the translators use different words to translate the name of the snake!

In The Little Prince, 'boa constrictor' (serpent boa) is translated as ウワバミ uwabami, which is a non-scientific Japanese term for giant snakes like the boa.2

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the sign in the zoo translates 'boa constrictor' as ボアコンストリクター boa konsutorikutā, followed by the explanatory オオニシキヘビ ō nishiki hebi ('big brocade snake').

Thereafter, wherever the word 'boa constrictor' occurs in the English text, the translator uses オオニシキヘビ ō nishiki hebi in preference to ボアコンストリクター boa konsutorikutā. Where the word 'snake' occurs in the English, the translator automatically uses ヘビ hebi 'snake'.

While ō nishiki hebi is an easier term for Japanese to relate to than boa konsutorikutā, there is a small hitch: the ō nishiki hebi technically refers to a python, not a boa! In Japanese, the boas are officially known as ボア boa. The pythons are known as ニシキヘビ nishiki-hebi ('brocade snakes') or パイソン paison ('pythons'), depending on the species.

So why has the translator settled on オオニシキヘビ ō nishiki hebi rather than ボア boa or ウワバミ uwabami?

オオニシキヘビ ō nishiki hebi, as an easy term for readers (especially children) to understand, is probably the happiest compromise in the circumstances. Since it is not at all significant to the story, only a pedant could object to the fact that it is slightly inaccurate scientifically.

It is somewhat sad, however, that the small link between the serpent boa in The Little Prince and the 'boa constrictor' in Harry Potter is lost.

Update: Numerous Japanese translations of Le petit prince appeared in 2005-2006, which translate serpent boa and boa as shown in the chart below. The problems posed by the unfamiliarity of most people with a boa, and especially the difficulty of introducing such an unfamiliar name to children, is well illustrated by the different devices resorted to by translators! These include: (1) Rubi, (2) Footnotes/endnotes, (3) Initial introduction in terms of ボアという大蛇 boa to yū daija 'large snake known as a boa', (4) Use of explanatory expansion 大蛇ボア daija boa ('the large snake boa') (5) Avoidance in favour of 大ヘビ ōhebi or 大蛇 daija, both meaning 'large snake', (6) Use without comment, and (7) Use of the original ウワバミ uwabami.

None use オオニシキヘビ ō nishiki hebi, so the connection with the boa constrictor in Harry Potter is still lost in many cases.

The table is divided into columns for 'initial use' (which introduces the boa for the first time), the name used in the book Histoires Vécues (which could be expected to use a more formal or scientific name), and the name used in the author's conversations with adults (which shows how usage is continued thereafter).

Year Translator Initial In book (Histoires Vécues) Thereafter
1953 内藤 濯
Naitō Arō
ウワバミ
uwabami
ウワバミ
uwabami
ウワバミ
uwabami
2005 藤田尊潮
Fujita Sonchō
ボア *
boa * (with footnote)
ボア
boa
ボア
boa
池澤夏樹
Ikezawa Natsuki
ボアという大きなヘビ
boa to yū ōki na hebi
ボア
boa
ボア
boa
石井洋二郎
Ishii Yōjirō
大ヘビ
ōhebi
大ヘビ
ōhebi
大ヘビ
ōhebi
川上勉/廿楽美登利
Kawakami Tsutomu / Tsuzura Midori
大蛇 (ボア)
Written daija, to be read boa
大蛇 (ボア)
daija (boa)
大蛇 (ボア)
daija (boa)
三野博司
Mino Hiroshi
大蛇 (ボア)
Written daija, to be read boa.
大蛇 (ボア)
daija (boa)
大蛇 (ボア)
daija (boa)
辛酸なめ子
Shinsan Nameko
大蛇
daija
大蛇
daija
大蛇
daija
山崎庸一郎
Yamazaki Yōichirō
ボア
boa
(with very long endnote)
ボア
boa
ボア
boa
2006 稲垣直樹
Inagaki Naoki
ボアという種類の大蛇
boa to yū shurui no daija
大蛇ボア
daija boa
大蛇, 大蛇ボア
daija, daija boa
河原康則
Kawahara Yasunori
ボアという大きな大きなヘビ
boa to yū ōki na ōki na hebi
ボア
boa
大ヘビ・ボア, 大ヘビ
ōhebi boa, ōhebi
小島俊明
Kojima Toshiharu
ウワバミ
uwabami
ウワバミ
uwabami
ウワバミ
uwabami
河野万里子
Kōno Mariko
大蛇ボア
daija boa
ボア
boa
大蛇ボア , ボア
daija boa, boa
倉橋由美子
Kurahashi Yumiko
大蛇
daija
大蛇
daija
大蛇
daija
野崎歓
Nozaki Kan
ボア
boa
ボア
boa
ボア
boa
谷川かおる
Tanigawa Kaoru
ボアという大蛇
boa to yū daija
ボア
boa
大蛇
daija

Fujita's footnote:
*ボア=南アメリカに分布する無毒の大ヘビ。ハ虫類オウヘビ科。
* Boa = Minami Amerika ni bunpu suru mudoku no ōhebi. Hachūrui Ōhebi-ka.
* The boa is a large non-venomous snake found in South America. It belongs to the Boidae (?), Reptilia.
(The katakana in オウヘビ科 Ōhebi-ka are unusual. Normally ōhebi would be オオヘビ.)

Notes:

1. Actually, one edition of the Vietnamese translation of The Little Prince by Nguyễn Thành Long rather curiously uses rắn in place of trăn at the very first mention, switching to trăn thereafter.

2. Names of animals and plants are generally given in katakana in Japanese, and can even be found in cases where the name is not an official scientific name.

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