Let Your Hair Down

Prim and proper Professor McGonagall informs her students in The Unexpected Task (Book 4 Chapter 22) of the approaching Yule Ball, a traditional part of the Triwizard Tournament which provides an opportunity to socialise with the foreign guests. The ball is open only to fourth years and above but participants may invite a younger partner to go with them. This is the cause of much giggling among the female members of the class. Professor then gives details of the time and dress code, followed by this passage:

    Professor McGonagall stared deliberately around the class.

    'The Yule Ball is of course a chance for us all to - er - let our hair down,' she said, in a disapproving voice.

    Lavender giggled harder than ever, with her hand pressed hard against her mouth to stifle the sound. Harry could see what was funny this time: Professor McGonagall, with her hair in a tight bun, looked as though she'd never let her hair down in any sense.

The incongruity here is between Professor McGonagall with her hair in a tight bun -- a sign of extreme properness -- and her suggestion of 'letting their hair down'. In English, 'let one's hair down' means 'to cast off usual restraints, relax, and have fun'. This is why Rowling uses 'looked as though she'd never let her hair down in any sense' -- whether the literal sense of untying her tight bun, or the figurative sense of relaxing and having fun.

In this case, the author has taken advantage of the dual meaning of 'let one's hair down'. The CJV languages do not have equivalent expressions to 'let one's hair down' that also mean 'to forget usual restraints and have fun'. However, the meaning is fairly obvious from the context and the concept should travel relatively easily to other languages. Let's see how the translators have handled it. I have taken only two sentences from the passage for the purpose of comparison:

    'The Yule Ball is of course a chance for us all to - er - let our hair down.'

    Professor McGonagall, with her hair in a tight bun, looked as though she'd never let her hair down in any sense.


Simplified Chinese (China)

圣诞舞会无疑使我们有机会 - 嗯 -散开头发,放松自己。
Shèngdàn Wǔhuì wúyí shǐ wǒmen yǒu jīhuì - ǹ - sànkāi tóufa, fàngsōng zìjǐ.

Màigé jiàoshòu de tóufa zǒngshì wǎnchéng jǐnjǐn de xiǎo yuánjì, tā sìhū cónglái méi yǒu bǎ tóufa sànkāi-guo.

The Christmas Ball will no doubt give us the opportunity - er - to let our hair hang loose, to relax.

Professor McGonagall's hair was always rolled up into a tight small bun; she looked as though she had never let her hair hang loose.

The Mainland Chinese version handles this by amplifying the phrase 散开头发 sànkāi tóufa 'let hair hang loose' with an explanatory expression, 放松自己 fàngsōng zìjǐ 'to relax (oneself)'. This explains the meaning in a natural way.

Traditional Chinese (Taiwan)

耶誕舞會當然是讓我們大家可以有幾會 ﹣ 呃 ﹣ 把我們的頭髮放下來。
Yēdàn Wǔhuìdangran shì ràng wǒmen dàjiā kěyǐ yǒu jīhuì - è - bǎ wǒmen de tóufa fàng-xiàlái.

Shū-zhe yánzhěng fàjì de Mài jiàoshòu, lòuchū yìliǎn shéi yě xiū xiǎng yào tā bǎ tóufa fàng-xiàlái de jiānyì-jīngshén.
The Christmas Ball will of course give us all an opportunity to - er - let our hair down.

Professor McGonagall, whose hair was combed severely into a bun, displayed a staunch and determined spirit that would stop anyone from even dreaming of wanting to have her hair hang down.

The Taiwanese version changes the meaning a little in order to carry the translation off. The first sentence literally says 把我們的頭髮放下來 bǎ wǒmen de tóufa fàng-xiàlái 'let our hair down', without any explanation of the figurative meaning in English.

The bare bones of the second sentence are: 麥教授露出一臉堅毅經神 Mài jiàoshòu lòuchū yìliǎn jiānyì-jīngshén 'Professor McGonagall displayed a staunch and determined spirit'. 'Professor McGonagall' and 'firm and resolute spirit' are then modified with clauses, as follows: Professor McGonagall (whose hair was combed severely into a bun) displayed a firm and resolute spirit (that would stop anyone from even dreaming of wanting to have her hair hang down)'.

It is these two clauses that express the desired meaning. The first clause draws attention to Professor McGonagall's severe bun. The second clause makes it clear that the 'staunch and determined spirit' is in opposition to any letting down of hair.

While it is nowhere explicitly stated that 'letting down the hair' means 'relax and have fun', the meaning is adequately implied by the translation. In adopting this expedient, however, the Taiwanese translator changes the meaning somewhat. Instead of saying that Professor McGonagall did not look as though she had ever let her hair down, the Chinese implies that she has a forbidding expression that prevents anyone from even entertaining the idea.


クリスマス・ダンスパーティは私たち全員にとって、もちろん ー コホン ー 髪を解き放ち、羽目を外すチャンスです。
Kurisumasu dansupātii wa watashi-tachi zen'in ni totte, mochiron -- kohon -- kami o toki-hanachi, hame o hazusu chansu desu.

Makugonagaru sensei no kami wa kitchiri shita mage ni yui-agete ari, donna toki demo kami o toki-hanatta koto nado ichido mo nai yō ni mieta.
The Christmas Dance Party is for all of us, of course - cough - a chance to let our hair loose, to act free of restraint.

Professor McGonagall's hair was tied up neatly into a bun; she did not look as though she had at any time let her hair hang loose even once.

The Japanese version, like the Mainland Chinese version, makes the meaning clear by adding an explanatory phrase, 羽目を外す hame o hazusu ('go to excess, go wild'), after 髪を解き放ち kami o toki-hanachi ('let hair loose').

Vietnamese (note: this version may contain mistakes as the original web page was corrupted and has not been corrected against the original text):

Da vũ Noel dĩ nhiên là một cơ hôi cho tất cả chúng ta ... ờ ... xõa tóc ra.

Với búi tóc bới chăt, giáo sư McGonagall trông như thể bà không đời nào xõa toc, bất kể hiểu theo nghĩ đen hay nghĩa bóng là xả giàn.

The Christmas Ball is naturally an opportunity for us all ... er ... to loosen our hair.

With her tightly combed bun, Professor McGonagall looked as if she would never let her hair loose, no matter whether one understands the term literally or figuratively, which is to act as one pleases.

The Vietnamese translator chooses a different tack. Seizing on the words 'never let her hair down in any sense', she takes the opportunity to explain that xõa tóc ra literally means 'loosen the hair' but also has the figurative meaning 'act as one pleases' (xả giàn). Xả giàn is an expression from the south of Vietnam meaning 'to act as one pleases, without moderation'.

The four translations are all effective in telling us that 'to let our hair down' has the meaning 'to relax and act as one pleases', and that Professor McGonagall's hair, which is in a tight bun, forms an amusing contrast to her words.

(Thanks to Dung Nguyen for help with the Vietnamese translation).


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