Books Culture Teicóg (Geek Culture)

The Not So-Friendly World Of Harry Potter

English: , translator of Harry Potter, keynote...
Gili Bar-Hillel, Israeli translator of the Harry Potter books

Fascinating article by the Israeli translator Gili Bar-Hillel and her experiences of translating J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books into Hebrew.

“It was my great privilege to translate the Harry Potter books into Hebrew, a life-altering career-building occupation that brought me uncountable benefits and joys, but that also entailed on more than one occasion being rather painfully forced to swallow my pride. I know this to be true not only of myself but of many of the international translators of the Harry Potter books. When two-dozen of us convened in Paris in a closed session, a running theme was that of insult, hurt and rage directed towards the Harry Potter machine – the wall of lawyers surrounding J.K.Rowling, her agents and Warner Bros. – who had gone out of their way to disenfranchise translators of their intellectual and moral rights. The tactics used were impersonal and bullying, even humiliating. There was no debate, no discussion of gray areas in international copyright laws and the status of translators: there was simply the assertion that Harry Potter translators must waive their rights or they will be discarded. Those who refused to waive their rights, like Catalan translator Laura Escorihuela, were dropped without apology.

Though I was not employed by Warner Bros. and not contractually obligated towards them, such was the power of this company that they were able to threaten me by proxy. As far as I was able to figure out, Warner Bros. bullied the Christopher Little Agency into bullying the various international publishers to bully their translators into retroactively waiving all rights to their translations, under the threat that otherwise the publishers would not be sold translation rights to future books in the series. This is how it happened to me: I was invited to a chat with  the Israeli publisher after I had already translated the first three books in a series. He met me in a café and required me to sign a memo, which I was not allowed to read in advance or show to anyone else, and of which I was not allowed to retain a copy. I was told I must sign on the spot or the job of translating future Harry Potter books would be given to another translator. As far as I was able to understand, the memo was a promise to Warner Bros. that I would not claim trademark on any of the translated terms I had invented. I could sign or be cut off from Harry Potter forever. I signed.

It later became apparent that to Warner Bros. this memo was tantamount to a complete waiver of any and all intellectual rights I may have thought to lay claim to. When the Harry Potter films were distributed in Israel, my translation served as the basis for the subtitles and dubbing scripts of the film, without my permission or that of the Israeli publisher. I never received any compensation for this. I was never thanked or credited. In fact, the translator who was responsible for the Hebrew titles complained that her contract from Warner Bros. obliged her to use my translation.

I was independently approached by the director of the Hebrew dubbing of the film and asked to serve as consultant to the dubbing script, for which I was to receive a small sum of money from her local business. After I had completed and submitted the work but before I was paid, I was unexpectedly required to sign a contract with Warner Bros. waiving all and any rights to which I might lay over the translation. I felt very uncomfortable signing this contract, so I added a sentence in my own handwriting: “except the rights to which I am entitled as translator of the Harry Potter books”. A few days later I was approached by the studio and told that a Warner Bros. lawyer had demanded that we “remove the language” from this contract, and were holding up all payments to the Israeli studio until I did so. In other words, if I did not sign the form as it stood, not only would I not be paid for my work, but neither would any other Israelis who had worked on the dubbing of the film be paid – including the cute little child actors – and it would be ALL MY FAULT. I signed.

I signed a third waiver under similar pressure, after I had translated and submitted “The Tales of Beedle the Bard”. Again, I was told that not only would I not be paid if I did not sign, but the entire Hebrew edition would have to be scrapped and retranslated, and the readers would be told that the delay in publication was ALL MY FAULT.”


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