Wandering minstrel owls? (Mainland Chinese version)

Weird and wonderful is the world of Harry Potter, with three-headed dogs, dragons, grindylows, hippogriffs, merpeople, giant spiders, basilisks, and many other strange creatures.

But the Mainland Chinese translation has one fantastic creature that is found nowhere else. This is the 小吟游诗人猫头鹰 xiǎo yín-yóu shīrén māotóuyīng, the 'small reciting wandering poet owl'. This delightful name conjures up visions of small owls roaming from village to village, reciting their poetry to the applause of admiring local inhabitants. Or perhaps owls that exclusively carry poetic messages and recite them aloud to the addressee. It is indeed a magical image perfectly in fitting with Harry's world.

Alas, the 'small reciting wandering poet owl' does not exist; it is simply a hilarious mistake in translation. The owl in question is none other than the scops owl, one of the owl species belonging to the genus Otus. The word 'scops' comes from the Ancient Greek word for owls generally.

I had been scratching my head over the origin of this 'wandering reciting poet owl' when I receieved an email from Mr Brian Hughes of the US which cleared it up completely.

What happened is that the translator appears to have looked up 'scops owl' and been unable to find it in the dictionary. This is one of those words that some lexicographers apparently consider too 'difficult', 'specialised', or 'technical' to include in a dictionary. Instead, the translator found the equally obscure word 'scop' (pronounced 'shope', 'scope', or 'scop'). A 'scop' is 'an old English poet or bard'. Based on this, our 'scops owl' was magically transformed into a 'wandering reciting poet owl'! The lesson to be drawn from this is that it is wise to check as many dictionaries as you can, especially if you are a translator.

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