November 17, 2005

Translation of Wordplay in Harry Potter: The Mirror Of Erised in Chinese

I recently came across a fascinating web site dedicated to Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages. A large part of the site details the translation of Harry Potter into these languages. Although I have not read Harry Potter, I was interested enough in one of the translation problems to try to work out a solution. The problem is the wordplay concerning the Mirror Of Erised. In the original text, the mirror is carved with the words "Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi." At first glance, this appears to be a foreign language or a magical incantation, but by reading it from the right to the left and rearranging the spacing, it becomes "I show not your face but your heart's desire." The author could have made the inscription a simple reversal of the hidden message, "Erised straeh ruoy tub ecaf ruoy ton wohs I," but this code is, perhaps, too easy to crack, and it looks less like an actual foreign language.

In the Chinese translation found in Taiwan, the mirror's inscription reads "意若思,思特拉,厄魯,歐特,烏比,卡佛魯,歐特,昂,烏西." This is a phonetic transliteration, which in Hanyu Pinyin reads, "Yiruosi, yitela, elu, oute, wubi, kafolu, oute, ang, wuxi." The author of this page points out that the first three characters "意若思," from which the mirror takes its Chinese name (意若思鏡, the Yiruosi Mirror), also hint at the function of the mirror, because they can be interpreted as "wish seems like thought" or "desire is what you think." Although this is better than a complete lack of meaning, the hidden message of the English version is missing.

Because this is an interesting word problem, I decided to come up with a Chinese translation that is more faithful and more fun. Here is what I came up with: "望慾的忠欣擬士而巷形的擬菲病的兆硬我." Here, you can take a few seconds and see if you are able to crack the code and find the hidden meaning. (It should not be too difficult, knowing how the English message was written.) Solution: The secret message is written from right to left with many homophonous characters written in place of the correct characters. This inscription appears to be nonsense when read from left to right or right to left, but when read aloud from left to right, the pronunciation is "Wo ying zhao de bing fei ni de xing xiang er shi ni xin zhong de yu wang." Translated back into the proper characters in Chinese, this hidden message is revealed as, "我映照的並非你的形象,而是你心中的慾望." (I reflect not your image, but your heart's desire.) The name of the mirror should come from the first two characters of the inscription, making it the "望慾鏡" (Wangyu Mirror). "Wangyu" means "to look at desires," and when read in reverse means "desire," as Erised does.

The major shortcoming of this translation is that it does not look like it is a foreign language; it looks like it is a mess of Chinese characters. I originally hoped that I could make it look like a foreign language by using the Chinese characters commonly used for the transliteration of foreign languages. I was unsuccessful, leading me to believe that the primary reason that a transliteration looks like a transliteration is because of the sound of it, not just because of the characters.

The major strength of this translation is that it contains a puzzle. I tried to make the puzzle neither too difficult nor too easy. The Chinese message must introduce some element to make the reading more difficult, because Chinese is no more difficult to read from left to right than right to left, and spaces do not play a part in forming words. I should theoretically test a few people on their ability to find the message to see how successful it is. If it is too simple, then it could be made more difficult by using more unusual characters in the coded message, or even better, to make the coded message classical Chinese. By writing in classical Chinese, the sounds "wo" and "ni," which are obvious clues for "I" and "you," could be removed.

The second major strength is the clever name for the mirror. The name can be interpreted as "look at desire mirror." Although this points to the mirror's function much more overtly than the English name, I like it because it also means "desire" in reverse.

Note: I got the Chinese translation, "我映照的並非你的形象,而是你心中的慾望," by summoning the power of the Mirror of Google, which showed me this. I'm not sure whether "慾望'" is more appropriate than "欲望," so I trusted the Chinese writer on this one. Some other translations I found were, "我显示的不是你的脸,而是你内心的渴望" and "我不僅顯示你的臉,而且是顯出你內心的慾望."


  • Wow good work. I found this message but doubt I could make any complicated translation as you have. It's sad after 3 years nobody has even commented lol.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at September 16, 2008 6:36 AM  

  • not bad at all, definitely a tricky one to translate.

    By Blogger Zak, at February 15, 2009 9:34 PM  

  • It is very hard to tell the difference between 欲望and 慾望. But usually the definition of 欲望 is broader than 慾望, and 慾望 is usually related to sex...Besides in this case 欲望 is better than 渴望

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at June 14, 2010 10:14 AM  

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