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Professor Raptor and Madama Chips: How Harry Potter became Italian

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Professor Raptor and Madama Chips: How Harry Potter became Italian
A costume used for Albus Dumbledore - or Albus Silente to Italian fans - in the Warner Bros studios. Photo: Chris Street/Flickr
10:26 CET+01:00
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first Harry Potter novels' publication, we take a look at how the Italian translation changed the franchise as we know it - perhaps not always intentionally.

The series about the boy with the scar is published in 68 languages, but achieving this was no easy feat.

For one thing, the books are so beloved that there was a huge amount of pressure on translators - in Italy, fans deluged publisher Salani with feathers (like the quills used at Hogwarts, or the feathers of the messenger owls in the books) in an attempt to hurry the publication of the Italian edition.

Then there's the fact that many words are made up, or hold a linguistic significance which in some cases may not become clear until several books later. Author J.K. Rowling has a personal interest in linguistics, having studied French and Classics at University, and has spoken several times about the effort she put in to finding suitable names for characters or other aspects of the magical universe.

Anagrams, wordplay and (Tom) riddles also feature heavily in the books, to the delight of fans and probable chagrin of those tasked with their translation.

So when it came to rendering the books in Italian, how exactly did the translators go about it? 

The pesky letter 'h'

Even the most multilingual Italians often struggle to pronounce 'h' at the start of words - and it crops up a lot in the Potter books.

Protagonists Harry and Hermione both got to keep their first initial in Italian versions, but if you ever discuss the series with Italian friends, be prepared to hear a lot about 'Arry Potter' and 'Air-me-oh-nee'. The pronunciation of the heroine's name proved so problematic for international fans that Rowling eventually wrote in a scene where Hermione teaches Bulgarian wizard Viktor Krum how to say it correctly, putting the question to rest once and for all. 

The names of Hagrid and Hogwarts both remained unchanged too, but Harry's trusty owl Hedwig was renamed Edvige for ease of pronunciation, and Helga Hufflepuff, founder of one of Hogwarts School's four houses, got a total rebrand to Tosca Tassorosso.

Another name which was changed for linguistic ease was that of Grawp, Hagrid's giant half-brother. 'W' doesn't exist in the Italian alphabet, appearing only in loan words, so the giant was renamed Grop. And deputy head Minerva McGonagall had her surname changed to McGranitt, a name which is easier for Italians to pronounce but also hints at the Transfiguration teacher's sternness.

Hogwarts houses

Every Potterhead knows which of the school's houses they'd be sorted into and associates each house with certain personality traits, but to someone who isn't a fan, the names Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin don't really mean anything. The Italians, on the other hand, aren't ones for beating about the bush, so the translators went a bit more literal.

Tassorosso (Hufflepuff) means 'red badger' in a reference to the house's animal mascot. Confusingly, red is one of Gryffindor's house colours, while Hufflepuff is associated with yellow and black.

As well as the Red Badgers, Italian Hogwarts is made up of the Golden Griffins (Grifondoro), Black Sheep/Ravens (The initial translation for Ravenclaw house, Pecoranera, was replaced by Corvonero from the fourth book onwards - one of many revisions made after Italian Potter enthusiasts complained about the translation quality) and the Green Snakes (Serpeverde). 

Key characters

The unlikely hero of the books, Neville Longbottom, is Neville Paciock in Italian. His surname comes from the word 'pacioccone' which means 'chubby', but the Italian translations reverted to the English name in later editions once the character's evolution (into the leader of resistance movement Dumbledore's Army) became clear.

Heartthrob Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart loses the romantic connotations of his English surname (which alludes to both 'locket' and 'loveheart') in the Italian translation: Allock. However, the new name still gives some insight into his character, from the link to the Italian word 'allocco', which means both 'tawny owl' and 'idiot'. As with Longbottom, the final 'k' has been used here to give an English feel to the name - it's another foreign letter in Italian.

But perhaps the most bizarre Italian translation is Professor Raptor.

This isn't a Jurassic Park-Harry Potter hybrid, but the new name for the Hogwarts teacher we know as Professor Quirrell (again, it was later changed back to the original English). This might come from the Italian word 'raptus' which refers to a fit of madness - quite apt for the character known for his nervous disposition.

Sometimes, the Italian translations are especially fitting, with new opportunities for wordplay and cultural context opened up by using a different language.

Divination teacher Professor Sybill Trelawney gets a complete makeover to become Sibilla Cooman. As in the English, her first name literally means 'sybil' or 'seer', alluding to her supposed prophetic abilities, but Italian speakers would also pick up on the link to Sibilla Cumana (in English, Cumaen Sibyl), a famous prophetess. While Sibilla is the Italian form of the name Sybill, 'Cooman' is an Anglicization of Cumana.

Alistair 'Mad-Eye' Moody, a wizard known for his magical glass eye, becomes Alistair 'Malocchio' Moody. This works well thanks to the double meaning of 'malocchio', meaning both 'curse' and 'bad eye'.

On other occasions though, inventive translations go slightly awry. Vincent Crabbe, nemesis of Harry and sidekick of Draco Malfoy, is not a particularly strong or independent character, but in early Italian editions he took on the ferocious name Vincent Tiger. 

The animals

As well as the teachers and pupils of Hogwarts school, the series is full of non-human characters, whose Italian names range from the sensible to the ridiculous.

Mrs Norris, the faithful feline companion of Hogwarts' caretaker, got her original name from an antagonist in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, but in Italian she has the much sillier moniker Mrs Purr. Hagrid's pet dog Fang meanwhile was made to sound even more intimidating, renamed 'Thor' after the Nordic God.

Firenze the centaur also gets a makeover. Since Firenze is the Italian name for the city of Florence, it might have been confusing, so he becomes Fiorenzo. The link to Florence is retained due to the similarity with the word 'Fiorentino' (Florentine) but also links to Italian verb 'fiorire', meaning to bloom or prosper - very apt for the wise centaur who later becomes Professor of Divination.

But it's Dumbledore's animal sidekick whose name will really get Anglophone fans tittering. Fawkes the phoenix, who saves Harry's life in the second book of the series, was called Fanny in the original Italian translations. In English, this is a slightly old-fashioned girls' name - which is odd since Fawkes is male - but is also a slang term for female genitalia.

Literal translations

A lot of the time, the Italian translators (Marina Astrologo for the first two books, and later Beatrice Masini) plumped for word-for-word translations.

In some cases this works well: Dementors, the soul-sucking creatures who guard the wizarding prison, become Dissenatori (the word literally means 'one which will make you go mad'), Death Eaters become the wonderfully alliterative Mangiamorte (from 'mangiare' - to eat, and 'morte' - death), while Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge is renamed Cornelius Caramell ('caramella' = 'sweet'), a name which rolls off the tongue and perfectly suits the bumbling politician.

In other places, we get very literal translations where they don't seem necessary. Colin Creevey, a young Hogwarts student with a passion for photography, is re-christened Colin Canon after the camera brand, and peripheral character Susan Bones was called Susan Hossas (from 'ossa', the Italian plural of 'bones') in the first book, before returning to her original name later in the series. Severus Snape, the Hogwarts potions master, is renamed Severus Piton, presumably due to the similarity between his English name and the word 'snake', as well as the fact that he is head of Slytherin house.

Too-literal translations

One of the biggest surprises to fans of the original books will be Professor Dumbledore's Italian name: Albus Silente. Given that the Hogwarts headmaster is rarely silent, often giving Harry and readers food for thought with his enigmatic speeches, it's not particularly appropriate. 'Dumbledore' is an old English word meaning 'bumble bee', but the Italian translator may have picked up on the word 'dumb' instead. However, as Italian Potterhead Daniele Campisano explains, more thought may have gone into the decision than that: 'silente' doesn't mean 'silent' - that would be 'silenzioso'.

"'Silente' is used to describe taciturn, reserved people, and not for people that don't talk at all. It's usually used for landscapes or objects ('notte silente' - silent night), but what the Italian translator wanted to convey was Dumbledore's majesty. He's pensive, thoughtful, and talks only when it's needed," explains Campisano. 

We're still not sure it's the perfect description for the headteacher whose start-of-term speech was once the words "Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!", but the difference in nuance certainly gives extra insight into the difficulty of translating the series.

Meanwhile, early versions saw no-nonsense nurse Madame Pomfrey named Madama Chips, most likely because of the linguistic similarity to the French term for chips, 'pommes frites'. The overworked matron resumed her English name in later editions.

And Borkin and Burke, a shop specializing in dark magic, loses any ambiguity with the new name Magie Sinister (literally: Sinister Magic). 

Anagrams and acronyms

One of the most dramatic scenes in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone sees Tom Riddle reveal his identity as dark wizard Voldemort. He chooses to demonstrate his evil nature through the medium of an anagram, rearranging the letters of his full name, Tom Marvolo Riddle, to spell out the phrase: 'I am Lord Voldemort'. The puzzle proved difficult to reproduce in other languages; the French version, for example, had to give him the not-very-evil-sounding middle name 'Elvis' to make it work.

In the first Italian edition, Voldemort kept his English name and simply translated the anagram into Italian for Harry, somewhat diluting the drama of the moment. In later editions, a new middle name 'Orvoloson' meant the wordplay worked in Italian too.

When it comes to the wizarding exams, OWLs (Ordinary Wizarding Levels) and NEWTs (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests), some of the humour is lost in the Italian version. They are branded as GUFO (owl), standing for Giudizio Unico Fattucchiere Ordinario (Single Judgement for Ordinary Warlocks) and MAGO (wizard) which stands for Magia Avanzata Grado Ottimale (Optimal-Grade Advanced Magic) and gives no hint of just how tough these tests are supposed to be.

Italian cultural references

While some of Rowling's original layers of meaning might be lost on a non-Anglophone audience, the Italian translators often bring in new Italian cultural references to great effect.

The Mirror of Erised (read backwards: Desire) is called the Specchio delle Brame (Mirror of Yearning) in Italian. Any mystery as to its power is lost with this name, so editors later changed it to 'Specchio delle Emarb', but it's also a reference to the Snow White fairytale, the Italian version of which sees Snow White's stepmother looking into the Specchio delle Brame to find out who the most beautiful person in the kingdom is.

Because of this literary allusion, both the mirror's great power and its potential for obsession and destruction are immediately clear to Italian readers.

Another clever change is the invention of Snobkin, the new name for the school Harry's cousin Dudley attends - Smeltings.

Snobkin still sounds distinctly English to Italian ears, but the average Italian reader might not be familiar with the verb 'to smelt', which refers to the extraction of metal through heating and gives an idea of how the school 'moulds' the young boys into men in an intense environment. On the other hand, the word 'snob' has been adopted into the Italian language (where it is usually used as a verb) so that fans can get a feel for what the school might be like.

Finally, the caretaker Argus Filch is renamed Argus Gazza, one of the series' most creative translations. 'Gazza' means 'magpie' in Italian, so not only is this apt for the caretaker who obsessively hoards the items he confiscates from Hogwarts pupils, but it may also be a subtle reference to Rossini opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie). In the opera, a a woman is sentenced for death for stealing a silver spoon which it turns out was taken by a magpie - a fitting reference for the man who delights in punishing students severely, paying little attention to whether they are actually guilty.

After all, as Dumbledore -- or Professore Silente -- once said: "Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open." So tackling Harry Potter in translation could be the perfect way to improve your Italian.

This article was first published in November 2016.

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