28 July 2007

Should You Address Prof. Snape with Respect?

From Geek of All Trades I learned about this Times of India profile of Sudhir Dixit, the literature professor who translates J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books into Hindi.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone wasn't published in Hindi until after the movie adaptation had become a hit in translation. Before then, it appears, publishers thought Indian readers were satisfied with the English-language book. (The latest title in English has already sold well in India, both officially and in pirated editions.) Curiously, the article suggests that Prof. Dixit's best-selling translation job is not HP1, but Who Moved My Cheese?

As the professor notes, most of the Potter books' spells have Latin roots. He chose to seek Sanskrit equivalents since that ancient language has similar connotations in Indian culture. (Ironically, the professor's own surname would translate from the Latin as "he says.") Another way that choice is easy: since the spells don't actually have to work (SPOILER!), they could be written any way an author or translator chooses.

The article offered this cross-cultural snapshot:

What bothered him more was the moral and literary dilemma within him. For instance, in Hindi, unlike in English, expression of respect is unambiguous. So, Dixit had to decide if the character of Snape had to be addressed with respect or with disdain. Dixit would take a long time to decide between 'kar raha tha' and 'kar rahe the'. He eventually decided to treat Snape with respect, "because, he is after all a professor".
And so is the translator, who would not like to be disdained.

Choosing how to refer to Snape or other characters isn't just a matter of how his students or colleagues address him. Hindi has three second-person pronouns for different levels of intimacy or respect (standard English has one choice of second-person pronoun; French and Southern American English have two, but only the French forms can also imply intimacy or respect). Furthermore, respect can also inflect third-person forms. Therefore, it was necessary for Rowling's generally detached narration to become a voice that expresses some value judgment about each character.

Dixit's work and background have given him an unusual perspective on Rowling's storytelling:
"I don't think she intended Harry Potter to be a children's series. It's much too advanced and dark. Children pick it up because she makes them feel like adults. The way she writes about love and death in her books is amazing."
Also, Dixit says, "Everything an author has, he or she uses in the first book best."


Lee said...

Does SAE use y'all as second person plural or also as second person singular formal (as in one of the several French usages)?

J. L. Bell said...

Just as second person plural—I didn't phrase myself well above.

We English speakers don't have a way to boil down respect into a pronoun, so we have to resort to add-ons like "you guys."

Amy at Woza Books said...

I can't help but comment that I disagree with Dixit about an author using their best in their first book. Sometimes it takes an author time to fully develop his or her talent. Often the first book needs to be abandoned completely and it's a later work that is the quintessential work. Many great authors with a body of work produce their best in the middle somewhere. For example, Tolstoy's War and Peace was not his first book, nor Joyce's Ulysses or V. Woolf's To the Lighthouse. I think the most mature and best written work is often produced after some previous good but not best work. As for JK -- which of her books do you think were the best? I vote for Prisoner of Azkaban, Goblet of Fire, and the final HP7.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that Dixit's observation about an author's first book doesn't hold water. I think Rowling's first is better than her others (so far) in some qualities of writing, but the characterizations and plotting are relatively simple, proportionate to the heroes'/readers' age.

It might be interesting to consider whether an author's first book always displays their strongest qualities (and perhaps abiding concerns), while in later books they develop other strengths or experiment.

Anonymous said...

I don't have my copy of the Japanese edition of the HP books with me, but I do know that the context of respect is everything when you address someone in Japanese. Hagrid, for instance, speaks of Dumbledore as 'Dumbledore-sensei-sama', which roughly translates to 'Highly Revered Professor Dumbledore' -- it's significantly more respectful than 'Dumbledore-sensei', which in itself is an honourific title. I don't think that Harry always uses the sensei title when speaking of Snape...and that, in itself, shows a serious lack of respect for an adult authority figure.

Jennie said...

Yes, but in the English edition, Harry rarely refers to Snape as Prof. Snape, something the adults in his life are constantly correcting him for. Harry has very little respect for Prof. Snape in the series and voices it in many different ways.