Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Harry in Hebrew

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 23 December 2003.

After months of waiting, Israeli children are finally able to get their Harry fix. The Hebrew version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released on 11 December - just in time for Chanukah.

When I returned from a brief trip to America this past June, I had my copy of the fifth Harry Potter book in tow. As soon as the Israeli kids I know discovered that I had the book, they begged me to read it to them. Some of these kids were as young as eight, others were eleven and a bit older. Although Rowling's style was too complex for most of the children, they were desperate to know what happens next to everyone's favorite young wizard.

J.K. Rowling's popular series has been a huge hit here from the beginning. Over 500,000 copies of the Hebrew translations of the first four books have been sold so far. In the first three days after the release of book 5, the first printing of 120,000 books was sold out. Just like in the U.S., even kids who don't normally like to read are to be found with their noses in a book - as long as it's about Harry. There are several Harry Potter websites in Hebrew. The children at my daughters' school have put on Harry Potter "shows" during the weekly morning assembly. At the school Purim* celebration in 2002, there were more Potter character costumes than any other one costume. And of course, practically every kid in the school has seen the movies, at least once.

I wondered what makes Harry Potter so popular to Israeli kids. After all, these youngsters live in a highly pragmatic society not often given to flights of fancy or romanticism. The kids I talked to said that the books are "special" and always leave them wondering what is happening next. As Kfir, age 11, told me, "Even when you're so tired that you just can't keep reading, you close the book and think about what might happen next. They're the kind of books that stay on your mind." One girl commented that the characters who inhabit the magical world of the Potter books are like Israelis: they are isolated from the rest of the world. But, she added, they also have something special about them, "like us." It seems to me that another factor in the books' popularity here in Israel is the escape factor. There is nothing like immersing yourself in "another world," as my young friend Kfir put it. My daughter Liat, also age 11, thinks that the combination of fantasy and coming of age make the plots attractive to kids.

But what about the differences between the English and Hebrew versions? We all know by now that the American version is different from the British ("trash can" instead of "dust bin", "bag of chips" instead of "packet of crisps"). Sometimes, though, cultural differences are so great that translators decide to change things completely, the better to speak to their audience. Gili Bar-Hillel, the woman who has translated all five of the Potter books to Hebrew, was criticized for some of the changes she chose to make. Take for example Dumbledore's preferred sweet. In the British edition, it is "sherbet lemon", changed to "lemon drop" in American English. Bar-Hillel decided to substitute something else entirely: Krembo. This chocolate covered marshmallow-on-a-cookie treat is immensely popular in Israel, and is something everyone can identify with.

I asked Liat, the only person I know who has read the books in both Hebrew and English, how she would describe the differences between the two versions. She told me that the language in the Hebrew version is alot simpler, and therefore easier to understand. "I enjoyed being able to read the Hebrew editions on my own, without having to ask what something meant all the time." However, she also felt that was a short-coming with the Hebrew version. "I thought the English versions were better, more authentic," she told me.

In the end, the important and wonderful thing is that the books have been translated into Hebrew, and that kids are reading them! In Israel, like in the rest of the world, television and the Internet tend to demand a great deal of a child's attention. It is very exciting to see kids so enthusiastic about reading. As those of us who love reading know, books can open up whole new worlds to us, and can help us understand our own world better. As Danielle, age 11, put it in an interview I read on-line, "These books are special. They teach us that everyone has something special about them. But also, they speak to us and our inner wishes. Every child wants to be able to do magic and be famous."

And after all, isn't finding the common ground in all of us a form of magic?

*Purim is the holiday that celebrates the Jews' deliverance from the evil Haman, as told in the Book of Esther. Children dress in costumes and exchange plates of goodies, including candy and hamantaschen (a triangluar-shaped pastry).

(c) Amy Samin

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