Why do the French change all the names?
When I first arrived in France, hell-bent on learning the French language in as little time as possible, I decided to read a French translation of Harry Potter. This was during a time when I was struggling to simultaneously navigate a new job, a new country and a new language. Naturally I was feeling rather defeated and fatigued, and therefore the idea of being able to improve my French within my cherished Harry Potter world was a comforting thought.
As usual, however, France had other ideas. For one thing, the book had been translated into this stupid literary tense whose only purpose seems to be to plague foreign students (French people, talk to me: does it piss you off too? What is the purpose of a tense that isn’t ever actually spoken? Don’t you already have enough tenses??). But given that this seems to be standard-issue across all French literature I figured I was going to have to roll with it. What I couldn’t get over, on the other hand, was the character names that the French were changing with wilful and disrespectful abandon.
With a flurry of the French translator’s keyboard “Hogwarts” became “Poudlard”; “Severus Snape” became “Severus Rogue”; “Hufflepuff” became “Poufsouffle” and “Neville Longbottom" became “Neville Longdubat”* (and this is just the tip of the iceberg — for an exhaustive list of Harry Potter translations in French, head to the following wiki). The French language had already rendered me a quasi-mute half-wit at work — did it really need to ruin Harry Potter too?
As time went on, I discovered that this translation vandalism was not confined to Harry Potter. It would appear that no character name or film title was safe from the creative license of French translators. But why? Was it to help French people understand? Was it to make it easier for them to pronounce it? (As someone who has witnessed French people painfully trying to pronounce the word “hungry” this would perhaps not be 100% inadvisable) Or was it just to mess with us?
Sometimes I get the feeling it is just because the French think they can make it sound better. And I get it — the humble “Hobitton" becomes ten times more sophisticated when it is translated into “Hobbitbourg”; as does “Samwise Gamgee” when he is translated into “Samsagase Gamegie" (or does he just become ten times more camp? The jury’s still out...) Sometimes I feel the French are just being pedantic, as with the somewhat accusatory translation of “Sesame Street” into “1 rue Sesame”. Sometimes it’s just plain laziness, as in the translation of Monsters Inc’s “Mike Wizowski” to “Bob” (Was this during a strike of the French translators guild perhaps?).
When it comes to film titles, sometimes the translators want to retain the cool-factor of English, yet they just don’t have faith in their compatriots to follow along. As such, “The Hangover” gets dumbed-down to “Very Bad Trip”; and “Silver Linings Playbook” is simplified to “Happiness Therapy”.
Sometimes, French translators simply don’t have faith in their compatriots to go to the movies without the promise of sex. This has spawned several movie title translations which have really honed in on the sex-related aspect of the film. “No Strings Attached” famously became the more to-the-point “Sex Friends”; the dance-themed film “Step Up” rather hilariously became “Sexy Dance”; and the translators of “Eurotrip” didn’t beat around the bush when they chose the translation “Sex trip”. Although it must be said that the French translators really did a good job of making “Love, Honour and Obey” more appealing in calling it “Gangsters, Sex and Karaoke”. Now that’s a movie I would like to see!
It’s true that French translators are pushing boundaries. But as in most cases with the French and their peculiarities, I imagine the real reason behind this is an immense pride in their language and their “art” - in this instance as translators. I can get behind this. Besides, as far as I’m concerned the French language is and always will be the most beautiful in the world, so they can basically do what they like. Although I do wish they could have left Harry Potter alone, it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make in order to gain entry into French (whenever that day may come :))
* Although I love to poke fun at the French, I do understand that a lot of these names were changed in order to keep the subtextual meaning, or clever jokes, that J.K Rowling built into the nomenclature of her books. In fact the translation of the Harry Potter series into French was a momentous undertaking for several reasons, and if you are interested in the topic I highly recommend this article: The challenge of translating Harry Potter into French.