Harry Potter in Chinese, Japanese & Vietnamese Translation

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Treatment of Puns and Word Play in Translating Harry Potter
(Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese)


The 'M' in Stalagmite


As Harry and Hagrid hurtle through the passages under Gringotts (Book One, Chapter 5), Harry spots an underground lake where huge stalactites and stalagmites grow from the ceiling and floor. It's then that Harry pops the eternal question:

This particular problem arises from the similarity between the two words in pronunciation and meaning. The only difference is that one hangs from the ceiling, the other grows up from the floor. Generations of schoolkids have struggled to remember which is which. (For a brief explanation, see this site)

Hagrid, however, is not feeling up to discussing the niceties of usage, dismissing Harry's question with:

Not all languages have the same problem with stalactites and stalagmites that English has. Let's have a look at the word for stalactite and stalagmite in the CJV languages, as used in the Harry Potter translations (there may, in fact, be other words that can be used for 'stalactite' and 'stalagmite', but we won't worry about them here).

Chinese (simplified characters)
Chinese (traditional characters)
Stalactite 钟乳石
'hanging-bell nipple rock'
'hanging-bell nipple rock'
'hanging-bell nipple rock'
vú đá
'rock milk' (= 'milk rock')
Stalagmite 石笋
'rock bamboo-shoot'
'rock bamboo-shoot'
'rock bamboo-shoot'
măng đá
'rock bamboo-shoot' (= 'bamboo-shoot rock')

The word for 'stalactite' in Chinese and Japanese appears to be derived from an ancient Chinese musical instrument, the hanging bell, which had protrusions -- actually rather longish spikes -- on the outside that were known as 'nipples' ( ). For a photo, see here. The stalactite became known as 'bell nipple rock' due to its likeness to the spikes on the ancient bells. This is possibly also the origin of the Vietnamese name. (You will note that the first character in the Japanese word shōnyū-seki is , not . In fact, was originally just a variant of . Owing to certain pedantic tendencies, is now regarded as 'correct' in this particular usage and is stigmatised as 'incorrect'.)

For 'stalagmite', the image of a 'rock bamboo-shoot' is common to all three languages.

So how did Hagrid answer Harry's question in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese?

Chinese (Taiwanese version): '鐘乳石 zhōngrǔ-shí is made up of three characters.'

Japanese version: 'One's got three characters, the other's got two.'

Vietnamese version: 'Măng is longer than .'

Chinese (Mainland version): 'There's an "M" in the word 钟乳石 zhōngrǔ-shí.'

Thanks to Jeff who posted about this issue at The Chocolate Interrobang for calling my attention to questions about the Mainland translation.

Information about the etymology of 钟乳石 / 鍾乳石 has been drawn from goo answers.

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