As It Happens

'Harry — ye're a warlock': Meet the novelist who translated Harry Potter into Scots

Matthew Fitt was struck with a belt at school for speaking Scots. Now he's translated one of the world's most beloved children's novels into his native language.
Matthew Fit translated Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone into Scots. (Black and White Publishing )

Story transcript

When Matthew Fitt was a school boy, his teachers would strike him with a belt for speaking Scots. Now he has translated one of the most beloved children's novels of all time into his native language.

The Scots edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is the 80th official translation of the 1997 novel that kicked off the world-famous book series and powerhouse movie franchise.

"I think there's kind of a full circle in this because J.K. Rowling wrote the book largely in Edinburgh, famously in a café, The Elephant House," Fitt told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

"When she was writing this in Edinburgh, there would have been Scots language all around."

Buzzumbaw and blithering bonnets

It proved a challenge to translate a book that's already famous for its unique and whimsical terminology.

Quidditch, the wizard sport played on flying broomsticks, becomes "Buzzumbaw"— a combination of the Scots words for "broom" and "ball."

The Sorting Hat, a magical garment that assigns students to their school houses, becomes "the Blithering bonnet."

Diagon Alley, a secret wizard neighbourhood in London, is "Squinty Gate."

And Dumbledore, the bearded wizard and beloved school headmaster, is renamed Dumbiedykes — a reference to a famous area of Edinburgh.

"For me Dumbledore was infinitely Dumbiedykes," Fitt said. "It has the overlay of the name, but it has a Scottish twist."

Hagrid of Dundee

Then there's the matter of how to translate dialects.

For example, Hagrid, the half-giant groundskeeper who first informs Harry about his magical heritage, speaks with a with a different English accent than the other characters in the book.

"I couldn't have Hagrid speak in the same narrative voice as the other characters," Fitt said. "It had to be different."

Hagrid, portrayed by Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane in the films, presented a special challenge for Fitt. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

So he made Hagrid speak Dundonian, a dialect originating in Fitt's hometown of Dundee.

"I knew it the best, and also Dundonian doesn't get enough coverage and so I went ahead and put it in my own dialect," he said. "That's my language."

'Raise the status of the language'

But Hagrid isn't the only reason this project was deeply personal for Fitt.

"I was belted. I received corporal punishment for using Scots in the classroom in the 1970s," he said.

"I was talking to some children today and ... they are not physically beaten, but they are often reprimanded and told in no uncertain terms that they should not use these words. There's fewer and fewer children who are being told this, but there is still a residual resentment or an antagonism towards the Scots language."

It can only add to the esteem of the language and hopefully add to the esteem that children feel about themselves.- Matthew Fitt, Scots translator 

To translate a book as iconic as Harry Potter, he said, is a major step forward to changing the perception of a language that — according to the 2011 census — more than 1.5 million Scots speak.

"If we're trying to raise the status of the language that children speak and adults speak in Scotland, there's no better way than to represent the language in a book like Harry Potter and the Philosophers' Stone," he said.

"This is not just a U.K. novel; this is a global novel. And for it to be in Scots as well, it can only add to the esteem of the language and hopefully add to the esteem that children feel about themselves who are Scots speakers in that country."

The cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Scots Edition. (Black and White Publishing )


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