The lost Nepali translation of Harry Potter
With 1,084,170 words, 198 chapters, seven books, one play and a billion-dollar franchise, the Harry Potter series revived the reading habit of millennials everywhere. Twenty-five years after the first book came out, it is still the bestselling book series in history, translated into 80 languages – including Nepali.
Few know that in 2008 Sunbird Publishing House in Kathmandu secured the copyright from J K Rowling to officially translate Philosopher’s Stone into Nepali. This was part of Sunbird’s aim to publish more books in Nepali for rural children at a time when the Maoist insurgency had destroyed schools, disrupting education.
The book was released as ह्यारी पोटर र पारसमणि (Harry Potter ra Parasmani) translated by Shlesha Thapaliya and Bijaya Adhikari, and edited by Kedar Sharma.
Having grown up reading Harry Potter books, Thapaliya remembers being thrilled when Helen Sherpa of Sunbird reached out to ask if she would be interested in translating it.
“Helen asked if I could translate the first chapter as a sample, and they were happy with my work,” she recalls. It took Thapaliya a year to complete the draft, during which time Bijaya Adhikari also joined.
Adhikari first read the books in 1998 when Chamber of Secrets had just come out, and only the British Council Library had copies. He was also familiar with Nepali Unicode, which came in handy during the translation process.
It was also the time of loadshedding in Nepal. “I used to sit with the book and translate by the candlelight,” Adhikari remembers.
Power cuts were only part of the challenge. The real Forbidden Forest, so to speak, was to correctly translate many specific terminologies, such as muggles or quidditch.
“We weren’t sure at first how Nepali children reading it, especially in the rural areas, without exposure to the British context would relate to the story,” says Thapaliya.
Spells, Adhikari adds, posed a particular challenge. Rowling uses a modified version of Latin to create incantations in the original series, often a play on their desired effect: levicorpus, for example, to hoist the victim by their ankles, has roots in levare ‘to lift’ and corpus ‘body’.
The same reasoning and effects were difficult to contextualise for Nepali audience. Even the words ‘witch’ and ‘wizard’ had to be reconsidered, as बोक्सी (boksi) and बोक्सा (boksa), which carry a negative connotation in Nepali society. So, the translators used जादूगर्नी (jadugarni) and जादूगर (jadugar) which more closely mean 'magician'.
Proper names had diphthongs with no Nepali equivalent (for instance the vowel sound in ‘Harry’ – not quite the strong ह्या, nor the long हा. Food items were uniquely European, as were the festivals and holidays.
“We decided that we couldn’t obviously change the context of the book by Nepalifying everything,” Thapaliya says, “as reading is supposed to strike one’s imagination and teach new things.”
So, instead of a literal, direct translation, Adhikari came up with the formula to rather try and translate the meaning and the feelings. The editing process was equally rigorous, as he sat with his cousin, Aditi Adhikari, and her father Kedar Sharma to go through the text from cover to cover.
“As the cultures of Nepal and the UK do not align exactly, we would often end up adding two or three words to explain the terms that were confusing or unfamiliar,” he says, “We were constantly asking ourselves if the translation was making sense to the children in Ilam or Rukum who are not familiar with western folklore.”
The translation did not get much hype upon release, even as Helen Sherpa wanted to take the book to different parts of the country and share with children there, and its distribution was limited among a handful of Potterheads.
Adhikari adds, “The cultural relevance of Harry Potter is significant to people who have been exposed to Western media and literature.” Consequently, the planned translation of the second book did not pan out. Even ह्यारी पोटर र पारसमणि is now difficult to find.
Its rarity is comparable to the first edition of Philosopher’s Stone of which only 500 copies were printed. One was sold for a smashing $471,000 in the United States on 9 December, setting the record price for a 2Oth century work of fiction.
The global cultural impact of Harry Potter is a result of its universal themes of love, friendship and discovering oneself, while combatting the dangers of authoritarianism and propaganda. And J K Rowling managed to make school fun and thrilling, where one can expect adventure and room for growth in every corridor, instead of only homework and punishment.
But will the series sustain its relevance as attitudes change owing to Rowling’s controversial politics? Many fans, organisations, and even the cast of the film adaptations have distanced themselves from Rowling because of her trans-exclusionary feminism.
“We should have seen it coming,” adds Soph Levinas, a 22-year-old non binary Nepali: “Growing up, we never saw the problematic aspects of the books because we didn't have the context for it. Now, it is difficult for me to gloss over the stereotypical portrayals of many characters.”
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone first came out in 1997 at a time when Nepali children would be playing cricket, tag or hide-and-seek in the streets. The internet and mobile phones were a novelty. Whatever time remained, children did homework or read the Nagraj comics.
Harry Potter took his sweet time aboard the Hogwarts Express to find his way to Nepal. It was not until the mid-2000s that Pottermania finally caught on, and even then it was a such a different world and culture that it did not have much of a readership.
English folklore, tales of vampires, werewolves and dragons were not so familiar to Nepali youngsters. But at a time when there were not enough books either in Nepali or English targeted especially for young adults, Harry Potter appealed to a niche readership.
Anjan Shrestha of Educational Book House in Jamal, one of the first bookstores in Kathmandu to introduce the series, recalls that Harry Potter was slow to pick up momentum here. “We brought the books in 2001, but it took another two years before there was a decent fanbase,” he says.
But by the time Half-Blood Prince, the sixth in the seven-book series, was published in 2005, self-proclaimed Potterheads were sharing the bulky hardbacks among friends, discussing plot lines and theories, turning twigs into wands, and re-reading while they waited for the next book.
In subsequent years, the appetite for the wizarding world only grew. It is a different world today, of course, and whether Harry Potter remains popular among children born today is a question to ask in another 25 years – half a century after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published.