Tuesday, April 26, 2016

From love interests to mother figures to school marms

I have to tread carefully here. I don't want to stir up a hornet's nest. As all of the other 300 or so posts on this blog will prove, I have a great deal of admiration and respect for J.K. Rowling and I don't want anything I say here to suggest otherwise.

But... I can't help but feeling that her portrayal of female characters in The Goblet of Fire is somewhat problematic.

There, I said it. Sorry.

Hear me out on this. I think we can all agree that the Harry Potter series is overwhelming male in its main characters. Two out of three of the central child characters are male. The main mentor characters for Harry are all male (Albus Dumbledore, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, Rubeus Hagrid among them). The central villains are all male: from Dudley and Draco, to Quirrell and Lucius, to Voldemort, Snape and Peter Pettigrew.

Yes, there is Hermione... but, in Goblet, Harry admits that having Hermione as a friend is fine but is nothing compared to having Ron at his side. Read the passage that follows immediately upon Harry's successful completion of the first task of the Tri-Wizard Tournament. Though Hermione has stood staunchly by him through the trying past several months (while Ron has abandoned him in a fit of jealousy), Harry only has eyes for Ron when their relationship is suddenly repaired. In fact, Rowling herself completely writes Hermione out of the next several scenes.

Yes, there is McGonagall. But her role is almost always secondary to Dumbledore's role. In many cases, she is reduced to playing the stern school marm.

Yes, there is Mrs. Weasley. But her role is almost always secondary to that of Mr. Weasley and her boys. In almost all cases, she is reduced to playing the doting mother.

Yes, there is Bellatrix Lestrange. But she is never anything more than a lieutenant in Voldemort's army, overshadowed at first by Lucius Malfoy.

Cho Chang and Ginny Weasley are love interests and little more.

When you think about it, the three women who stand out most strongly as individuals in the entire series are Petunia Dursley, Luna Lovegood and Dolores Umbridge. And each of them plays a limited role overall.

If that's the background, let's look more closely at the depiction of women in The Goblet. Hermione plays a major role in preparing Harry for the first task but is then basically cast aside when Ron returns to the table. Hermione is left pursuing the house-elf rights subplot while Ron, Harry, Cedric, Mad-Eye, Crouch, Dumbledore, et al continue with the Tournament.

Even though she proves key to taming Rita Skeeter, the focus of the book with regard to Hermione is much more on her appearance (isn't she pretty now that she's shrunk her front teeth and put on a dress!), her romantic life and whether or not she is loyal to the boys. Even Mrs. Weasley turns on her in reaction to Rita Skeeter's fabricated article suggesting that Hermione has thrown over Harry in favour of Viktor. What ever happened to the strong relationship Hermione had developed with the Weasley family and the many instances in which she has proven herself to be a smart, capable and loyal friend to all?

The one female champion, Fleur, is a real disappointment in this book. She is portrayed as haughty and stuck up, known more for her looks than for her skills. Her performance in the first task is given short shrift while she fails to complete either the second or third tasks. Instead of coming across as a real threat to win the tournament, she is presented instead as a vain girl of limited talents who frets over her sister more than her own performance.

The fact that Hermione delights in Fleur's failures, going so far as to make fun of her for failing to get past the Grindylows, makes this portrayal all the more problematic.

Rita Skeeter is portrayed as a scheming, lying, deceitful abomination who will do anything to attract readers.

And don't even get me started on depiction of the idol-worshipping way the girls at Hogwarts react first toward Viktor Krum, then toward Cedric and finally to Harry when he proves himself in the first task.

The fact of the matter is that the female characters in this book gain their identities almost entirely as a result of their relationships with the male characters (they are loyal friends, love interests, mother figures, school marms) rather than as independent beings. This is not true of all of the Harry Potter novels but comes through very strongly, and disappointingly, in The Goblet.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Lost in Translation: on horses, hares and hairs

Hey, remember that scene in The Goblet of Fire where Madame Maxime, having just arrived at Hogwarts with her students, tells Dumbledore she wants to make sure her horses are okay and Dumbledore assures her that her hair is coiffed to perfection?  Remember how funny that was?


You don't remember that scene at all?

Well, maybe that's because it never happened. Not in the original novel. Not in the film made of that novel.

Unless you read Harry Potter in the French translation.

Then it happens.

The French words for "horses" and "hair" are very similar: "chevaux" and "cheveux", I believe. And, in an attempt to capture the fact that Madame Maxime speaks English with a heavy accent in the original novel, the French translator, Jean-Francois Menard, has her speak French with a thick accent in the French translation of the novel.

That accent involves the addition of a number of Es and Us to many of her words, which means, when she wants to refer to the massive horses that pulled the Beauxbatons carriage to Hogwarts, she uses the word "cheveux" rather than "chevaux".

Hence, Dumbledore's confusion.

It's only the second time, as I read the Potter novels in Menard's wonderful translations, that a section has jumped out at me as being quite clearly new, not in the original. And that's because the cheveux/chevaux pun could only exist in the French translation: "horse" and "hair" don't sound similar in English (though it raises the interesting prospect of the Beauxbatons carriage being drawn by massive hares, which may have led Rowling to introduce Dumbledore's confusion in the original English novel but would, ironically, not have permitted Menard to use it in the French).

Two things pop out at me, however, as a result of Madame Maxime's thick accent in French in general and the cheveux/chevaux pun in particular:
  1. Since I am reading these books, which I know so well in English, in the French translation to help me improve my French comprehension, the introduction of Madame Maxime's accent is NOT HELPING! I am already having to look up numerous terms in the French dictionary as it is, and I am already struggling to recognise when a word is a made up magic word and won't actually appear in any dictionary, so it doesn't help me one bit when the only significant character in the book who ACTUALLY SPEAKS FRENCH speaks it poorly. Arghhhhh!!!!
  2. I wonder how often Mr Menard indulges himself in this way, adding his own little jokes and comments into the French translation. I think I mentioned in an earlier post that Menard had added some dialogue among the Beauxbatons students in the darkened wood at the Quidditch World Cup -- now he's adding little jokes of his own later in the same book. Hmmm.... If I am a French-speaking Harry Potter fan, who reads the books solely (or primarily) in French, would these little additions of Menard's be considered canonical? Also, does this mean I have to read the books in all the other languages into which it has been translated, just to make sure I have read all of Potter? What does J.K. Rowling think of these kinds of translationary indulgences?
On a final note, I have to admit, this situation I find myself in where English speaking characters speak French in the French translation of the novel and French speaking characters speak French in the French translation of the book and yet they don't understand each other and then some French speaking characters speak French with a strong accent such that they are difficult to understand....

Wait a minute. Characters who speak English in the original speak French in the translation. Characters who speak French in the original speak French in the translation. Yet the first set of characters cannot understand the second set of characters and vice versa. At times, however, the second set of characters actually speak accented English in the original, which, in the translation, becomes accented French such that the first set of characters understand them better than when they are speaking normal French but not perfectly.

I am beginning to think that French readers of Harry Potter must be a heck of a lot smarter than I am in order to figure all this out.

All of that being said, Menard does a wonderful job on this translation. I found the "Unforgivable Curses" ("des Sortileges Impardonnables") scene with Moody and the fourth year class even more gripping in translation than I did in the original... and that's saying something.