The Translation of 'Owl' in Harry Potter
Translation Fidelity and Consistency
The translation of owl names is not as straightforward as it might seem. A 'faithful' translation of owl names into Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese may turn out to be totally incorrect or inappropriate. Let's have a closer look.
Owl Names in CJV
1) The word for 'owl' itself doesn't present any problems. Owls are found throughout the world and are known to the people of China (including Taiwan), Japan, and Vietnam. They are known as:
Chinese: 貓頭鷹 māotóuyīng ('cat-headed hawk'). In simplified characters, 猫头鹰.
Japanese: フクロウ fukurō (In a narrow sense, fukurō refers to owls without 'ears'.)
Vietnamese: con cú (con is a 'classifier' or 'counter' used for animals, etc.)
2) Problems arise when describing specific types of owl.
The rigorous way of identifying owls is to use the scientific Latin names, eg., Strix aluco, Nyctea scandiaca, etc. Although acceptable to scientists, these names are likely to be out of place in a work of fantasy.
What Rowling mostly uses are the 'common names' -- ordinary English names used to identify species. For instance, the Tawny Owl is the common name for Strix aluco. Snowy Owl is the common English name for Nyctea scandiaca. The common names found in English are relatively close to everyday language.
The common names are not simply random names; they are strictly defined scientifically. The 'Tawny Owl' is not simply a 'tawny-coloured owl'; it refers quite specifically to Strix aluco. 'Snowy Owl' is not a poetic word for a white owl, it's the common name for Nyctea scandiaca. On the other hand, the term 'grey owl' is not used as the common name for any specific kind of owl; it's just a grey-coloured owl. This distinction must always be kept in mind.
As in English, scientists in the CJV languages have strictly defined names for owl species. However, these names do not necessarily share the style or level of acceptance of the English common names. In particular, the Chinese and Vietnamese names tend to be academic rather than everyday in nature.
Chinese: The academic names of most owl species use the word 鴞 xiāo (simplified 鸮), not 貓頭鷹 māotóuyīng. An alternative character, also pronounced xiāo, is 梟 (simplified 枭). Both 鴞 and 梟 are traditional or literary words that have dropped out of everyday speech. Using them involves a certain level of formality.
There are many differences between the Mainland and Taiwanese official names.
Japanese: Japanese scientists use several words for 'owl'. Scientific names are conventionally written in katakana.
* フクロウ fukurō is applied to owls without 'ears', in particular the Ural Owl.
* ズク zuku and ミミズク mimizuku are somewhat less common terms for owls with 'ears', such as various types of Scops owl and the Eagle Owl.
Even in fantasy books there is no problem using the common names, which are fairly close to everyday language.
Vietnamese: Scientific names are not yet well established in Vietnamese and are unfamiliar to ordinary Vietnamese. Some of the names that scientists have come up with (such as hù) are so specialised that they are not even found in ordinary Vietnamese dictionaries! Moreover, most owls mentioned in Harry Potter are not found in Vietnam, making it very difficult to come up with suitable translations.
With this in mind, let's look at how the translators of the Chinese (Mainland and Taiwan), Japanese, and Vietnamese versions of Harry Potter handle specific types of owl.
Specific Types of Owl in Harry Potter (Books One - Four)
The first important mention of specific owl types is on the signboard of the Eeylops Owl Emporium (Book One, 'Diagon Alley'). Five types are mentioned, one of which is not actually a species.
Specific types of owl are also mentioned in later books. For a detailed look at the way owl names have been translated at each specific mention, see the following pages:
A detailed list of all species of owl found in China, Taiwan, Japan, and Vietnam can be found in the Strigidae in China, Strigidae in Japan, and Strigidae in Vietam; and Tytonidae in China, Tytonidae in Japan, and Tytonidae in Vietnam.
For an interesting article on several of the actual owl species that appear in Harry Potter, see Owls and Harry Potter. Also check out Arabella Figg's Hogwarts Express page on owl species and Owl Species Found in the Harry Potter Series.
The Japanese and Taiwanese translations are close to ideal as far as fidelity and consistency are concerned. The two translators generally use the correct official names where called for by the original.
If the Japanese departs from the official names there is generally a good reason, such as unsuitability for the tone of the work (Brown Owl and Great Grey Owl). Screech Owl is translated incorrectly but this is not a major problem, especially since it's not totally clear exactly what kind of Screech Owl the author is referring to.
The Taiwanese translator has also checked up the official names of owls quite thoroughly and uses them most of the time. If anything, she has been almost too zealous, creating plausible-sounding official names even where the original English does not refer to an actual species (e.g. Grey owl).
The Japanese and Taiwanese versions also score high points for consistency, generally adopting a name and using it throughout. The Japanese translator does fall down on one measure of consistency, by using katakana for bird names in some places and hiragana in others.
By contrast, the Mainland Chinese version is sadly lacking in both fidelity and consistency. The only place in the translation where the Mainland translation is reasonably conscientious is at the Eeylops sign. There are grounds for suspecting that the Mainland translators cribbed them from the Taiwanese translation. Reasons include:
1) The Mainland version appears to have borrowed material and ideas from the Taiwanese version at many places in Book One, including direct speech and many proper nouns.
2) Owl names in the Taiwanese version are consistent throughout, unlike the Mainland version. The Eeylops list in the Mainland version is therefore somewhat exceptional.
3) As circumstantial evidence, the Taiwanese version appeared several months before the Mainland version.
In other places the use of official names is quite slapdash. The Chinese translators concoct fake or dubious official names at a number of places (Eagle Owl, Barn Owl, Tawny Owl). At others they make ludicrous mistakes such as the mistranslation of Scops Owl. In many cases the translators have not even bothered to try and find the correct species name, simply using the word 'owl'.
Consistency is also very poor. This is partly due to the use of three different translators to work on the four books in Harry Potter, but given that poor consistency can even be found within books, this is obviously not the only factor.
The Vietnamese translation is the poorest of the four versions. At the Eeylops signboard the translator fails to translate species names into Vietnamese, using the English names instead. A variety of dubious translations is found at other places (Great Grey, Barn Owl). The translation of Eagle Owl as 'eagle' at Book One Chapter 9 'The Midnight Duel' is either a brilliant improvement or a careless misunderstanding of the English - the choice is yours!
There is also a lack of consistency between different books and even within the same book. This is probably a result of the fact that the Vietnamese translation was issued not as four books, but as 39 separate instalments.
In defence of the Vietnamese version, it must be pointed out that Vietnamese names do not exist for most of the owl species mentioned, including the Snowy Owl, the Screech Owl, the Eagle Owl, the Great Grey Owl, and the Brown Owl. Even where an official name exists, it may be completely unknown and far removed from ordinary linguistic usage (Tawny Owl).