Shame, disgrace, vexation, carelessness (Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, and Japanese versions)

When Hagrid is sent to get Harry from the tiny island where he's been taken by the paranoid Vernon Dursley, he's authorised to use magic until he has Harry safely in his hands. After that he has to revert to mortal methods of getting things done. Getting to the island was easy -- Hagrid just flew through the air. Going back, he has to use Uncle Vernon's boat, which has a lot of water in the bottom.

At this point, Hagrid says: 'Seems a shame ter row, though,' and proposes using magic on the sly to speed things up.

'Seems a shame'. What a simple everyday expression! And what a trap to translate it into other languages!

What does 'Seems a shame' really mean? First, we need to make clear what it doesn't mean. Contrary to appearances, 'seems a shame' doesn't have anything to do with shame, bashfulness, or embarrassment.

'Seems a shame' is related to the expression 'It's a shame'.

'It's a shame' it's used where a desirable outcome cannot or could not be achieved, whether due to bad luck or bad management. It expresses a strong sense of regret or disappointment that things couldn't have turned out better.

    'It's a shame you couldn't make it' (it would have been wonderful if you could have come, but something stopped you).

    'After all that study, it's a shame you didn't pass the exam' (a lot of effort was put in, but it didn't come off).

'Seems a shame' is subtly different. It's often used when the speaker is thinking that the situation might be retrieved. The implication is that a better outcome might still be attainable.

    'Seems a shame to waste it' (there's food to be eaten, but it's about to be thrown away -- why don't we put some in a doggy bag and take it with us?)

    'Seems a shame that you've passed your exams but you're not going on to university' (you have the opportunity - do you really need to waste it?)

In this case, Hagrid is saying that rowing the boat back to the mainland is an awful lot of effort when we've got magic powers that could help us on our way -- why not just use them?

How is this handled in translation?

Both the Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese versions take 'shame' quite literally. The Mainland version uses 丢人 diū-rén ('lose person'). The Taiwanese version uses 丟臉 diū-liǎn ('lose face'). Both mean 'to lose face' or 'to be disgraced'. To put it in milder terms, Hagrid feels embarrassed to have to row the boat back.

Needless to say, this misses the point. When proposing to use magic, Hagrid's motive is to save himself some effort, not keep up appearances.

The Vietnamese uses an even more incomprehensible expression, bôi bác ('do carelessly', 'sloppy', 'slipshod'). Hagrid seems to be saying: 'To have to row the boat by hand is really slipshod/careless'.

Unfortunately, the Vietnamese translation is marred by other mistakes. A couple of paragraphs back, the English version says: 'The boat Uncle Vernon hired was still there, with a lot of water in the bottom after the storm'. The Vietnamese version says: 'The boat that Uncle Vernon hired was still bobbing on the waves after the storm'. The word used for 'boat' is xuồng, which normally means a motor boat. So instead of a rowing boat with water lying in the bottom, Hagrid finds a motor boat bobbing on the waves! Hardly seems worth using magic. In suggesting a little magic, Hagrid in the original version gives Harry a sideways glance, the sign of a conspiratorial tone. The Vietnamese version has Hagrid avoiding Harry's glance, more suggestive of embarrassment than complicity.

These subtle touches are not very important in the context of the entire book, but they add up. In this case, the whole scene, including the reason for Hagrid's suggestion and the way he makes it, doesn't hang together very well.

The only version that approaches the English original is the Japanese. The translator uses the word しゃく shaku, which has a broad range of meanings covering 'anger', 'exasperation', 'vexation', 'irritation', 'offence', and 'spite'. In other words, Hagrid is expressing annoyance that he has to row the boat by hand. While this is a departure from the meaning of the English, it's a deliberate departure that doesn't misrepresent Hagrid's motive.

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