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Too many cooks make light work?

When the final book of JK Rowling’s world renowned Harry Potter books was released in 2007, it had built a following of millions around the world – a great success by any standard.  The seventh volume of the saga was the fastest selling book in history, with about 11 million English-language copies sold in the first 24 hours.

But with this success there came an interesting problem: non-English fluent readers, desperate to read the books in their own language.  Official translations of even the most popular books can take months, with a single translator carefully mining the text to preserve as much nuance as possible in the target language.

However, some bilingual fans could not wait, and went so far as to create their own bootleg translations – the Chinese version of the book taking only two days, with over 60 volunteer translators organised online by a high school student.  In France, a 16-year-old was arrested for organising a similar scheme, printing an unauthorised version weeks ahead of the official book.

The fans’ approach seems like a no-brainer: why wait months for one person to slog through the whole book, page by page, when a team could create a localised text in half the time?

There’s a saying that it takes one woman nine months to make a baby: with the best will in the world, for quality and consistency, the dedicated attentions of one translator will always trump the ‘production line’ approach.  Especially where there are unique phrases and concepts which need to be interpreted the same way throughout a text (like Rowling’s many neologisms), many hands spoil the broth.

An editor might catch basic inconsistencies like calling the protagonist Harry Potter in one chapter and Przeszkadzać Garncarzowi in the next (except in Russia, where the official translations used different House names in each book!).  However, it would be very time consuming to maintain the same ‘voice’ throughout.

Texts like the ancient poem Beowulf have many published translations, but a reader familiar with one might find themselves totally disoriented by another; to mash the two together would be very confusing.

Although it might sometimes be necessary to split a localisation project where time is a priority, a single translator should always be the preferred option.

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