Harry Potter and the Flexible Title

The Deathly Hallows

by JK Rowling


Whilst I read most of the Harry Potter novels shortly after they were published – my daughter had a collection – I didn’t get round to reading the final volume until a few weeks ago. I knew the story of course, having seen both the movies. However, so often, movies take away rather than add to a novel, and I knew I just had to read The Deathly Hallows for the bigger picture.

I’m not going to bore you with a detailed summary of the plot; it’s too well known for that. Briefly, Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron are searching for Horcruxes, pieces of Voldermort’s soul concealed in diaries, necklaces etc and in one very scary snake. The one possibility they have overlooked, and which leads to the nail-biting climax, is that part of He Who Must Not Be Named is hidden in Harry himself. So one of them has to die! The climac is an epic battle at Hogwarts where good faces evil for the grand prize – Immortality.

Needless to say, for the benefit of anyone who has been living alone in the jungle (and eating magic mushrooms) for the past twenty years, it is Harry who, by a clever literary twist, survives and goes on to have a happy wizard family.

Instead of all that, I’m turning to something else.

From the very first volume, what fascinated me about the series were the titles of the novels. Published in Great Britain as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the North America edition of this story substituted the word Sorcerer for Philosopher. I wondered why; after all, The Philosopher’s Stone is a well-known historical and scientific concept.

So I did some research and came up with this:(sourced from http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/harry-potter/articles/4309/title/difference-between-american-british-versions-harry-potter-series)

. . . [the] decision should not have been made [and] the reasons are –
1) J.K. Rowling said so, therefore it must be true. She says that if she was in a better position, she would have disagreed at the time.
2) It belittles Americans, making it seem as if they do not understand what the word “philosopher” means. Americans are smarter than that.
3) Sorcerer is unspecific. The stone could have belonged to anybody with magical powers in the book. But the British name defines who the stone belongs to and gives the name an entirely different meaning. Sorcerer is a very different word to philosopher.
4) The stone is referred to as the “Philosopher’s Stone” throughout J.K. Rowling’s original version, never the “Sorcerer’s Stone”, so why should the most central object of the book be labelled something completely different in the book title, even if its just being published in a different place?
5) How is the word “philosopher” in Britain different from the word “sorcerer” in America?
6) Philosopher’s Stone is actually a historical object that people used to search for, while the Sorcerer’s Stone has no factual background in real life.

Fascinating, no?

The second book provides us with an equally interesting substitution. The German edition (translation) gives us Harry Potter und der Kammer des Schreckens. Now, to English speakers, Kammer des Schreckens is Chamber of Horror/Terror. Though conceding that Chamber of Secrets might not translate too well into German, and that a book with terror might sell more copies [QED?], here one ought to apply the same kind of argument as to Volume One, viz

‘J.K. Rowling said so, therefore it must be true.’

Anyway to the British, especially those living around London, the Chamber of Horrors – in the plural – has (like the Philosopher’s Stone) a very specific meaning.


With The Deathly Hallows, we encounter the same dilemma. I can’t imagine trying to translate deathly hallows into German; I’m not even sure what that combination of words means except in the context of Ms Rowling’s novel. But here, I think her German publisher, Carlsen Verlag, got it absolutely right. Harry Potter und die Heiligtümer des Todes (as I would translate it) conveys so much more of the darkness of the book.

The Relics of Death seems to cover not only the Elder Wand, the Cloak of Invisibility and the Stone of Recall but the Horcruxes themselves !



11 thoughts on “Harry Potter and the Flexible Title

  1. That isfascinating! The latter one would’ve been ‘Die tödlichen Heiligen’, but it wouldn’t sound appealing to the German reader at all! The Dutch version happens to be ‘Harry Potter en de Relieken van de Dood’ (the relics of death) as well and I think this is one of the rare translations that isn’t fudged up. All of the Harry Potter titles have been translated pretty well come to think of it. The Chamber of Secrets is called The Secret Chamber, however, which applies to the actual chamber, yet means something entirely different!


  2. Interesting differences, losses in translation even to American lol.
    I stopped reading after the first two books, and watched the films instead if anything. Still amazing JK had trouble getting a publisher initially.


  3. Didn’t know that about German translation, it’s very interesting how it’s chamber of horrors:D Finnish titles were very loyal to English ones. Russian ones also but there was the same problem with the word ‘hallows’ so it was called something like “Harry Potter and the gifts of Death”


  4. Now that I think about it, in Polish version, it’s also closer to Relics of Death rather than the original. I’m so used to the “wrong” translations of titles that I haven’t even though it might actually make sense.


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