The 'Knight Bus'

When Harry hastily departed 4 Privet Drivet after inflating Aunt Marge, he found himself in the middle of Muggle suburbia with lots of luggage and no money. What's more, a huge black something with gleaming eyes was staring at him from across the street.

At this crucial moment, Harry inadvertently did the right thing - he tripped and his wand flew into the air. This simple action summoned that wonderful deus ex machina, the Knight Bus, 'emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard'. The name of the driver, Ernie Prang ('prang' means car crash in colloquial British English), and the conductor, Stan Shunpike (the bus not only shuns pikes, but also most other features of Muggle road transport) are a study in word play themselves. Unfortunately, neither is even hinted at in the Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese translations so we'll leave Ernie and Stan to go on their way.

More interesting is the name of their bus, the 'Knight Bus'. This name incorporates a rather interesting pun. Spoken aloud, the name sounds like 'night bus' - a bus that runs at night. But the spelling is 'knight bus' - suggesting a knight in shining armour coming to the rescue. Let's have a look at how this virtually untranslatable pun is handled by the translators. There are two possible approaches:

1) Ignore the pun and just translate the name as 'knight bus'. This is what the Chinese and Vietnamese translators do.

    The Mainland Chinese translation of 'Knight Bus' is just that: 骑士公共汽车 qíshì gōnggòng qìchē = 'knight' + 'bus'. There is no hint at the meaning 'night'.

    The Taiwanese translation is: 騎士公車 qíshì gōngchē 'knight' + 'bus'. Again, no hint at the meaning 'night'.

    The Vietnamese translation is: Chuyến xe đò Hiệp sĩ, which again just means 'knight bus'.

    All three must be awarded a Fail!

2) The second approach is to make an attempt at translating the pun. This is what the Japanese translator does, and in a most ingenious way.

    The Japanese writing system has a peculiar device known as furigana or rubi. This involves placing small phonetic lettering (katakana or hiragana) immediately above or beside the text to show how it should be pronounced.

    For instance, the Japanese word for 'the colour blue' is ao, usually written with the Chinese character . To indicate the pronunciation, the hiragana letters あお ao can be placed directly above the character, thus: あお (Note: this will only work properly in IE). This is useful for showing the pronunciation of difficult characters. Before the war, furigana were in general use in newspapers and many books.

    Nowadays they are mainly used for difficult or obscure characters, or characters with irregular readings. A history book might use furigana to indicate the reading of names in ancient Japan, e.g., the name 紀朝臣清人, read Ki-no-asomi Kiyo-hito, would be written 紀朝臣清人きのあそみきよひと.

    Modern children's books also use furigana as an aid to reading. In fact, furigana are used right through the Japanese translation of Harry Potter.

    But furigana has another, more interesting use that is often exploited by writers and authors. Rather than giving the normally expected pronunciation, furigana can be used to give ordinary words a completely unexpected pronunciation.

    This might involve giving a special twist to ordinary words -- a way of writing one thing and saying another.

    Sometimes it is used to give the English equivalent of a Japanese word. Taking the colour 'blue' a little further, an author might choose to write but show the pronunciation as ブルー burū (English 'blue'): ブルー. This tells the reader that the meaning is 'the colour ao', but that it should be pronounced burū, not ao as expected.

    This particular use of furigana is common in 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'. It's used in no less than six chapter titles to give the English pronunciation of words like 'firebolt', 'dementor', and 'Patronus' (see Book 3 Chapter Titles).

    In this case, the translator uses furigana to explain the pun on 'knight' and 'night'. The Japanese translation of 'Knight Bus' is 夜の騎士ナイト バス yoru no kishi basu. Since 夜の騎士 yoru no kishi means 'knight of the night', the name quite literally means 'knight-of-the-night bus'.

    This is where the furigana come in. The translator puts the furigana ナイト naito above the text, completely spanning the words yoru no kishi ('knight of the night'). In other words, the translator is saying: 'The whole phrase "knight of the night" is to be pronounced naito (nite).

    Now, almost all Japanese know that ナイト naito is 'night' in English. There are plenty who would also recognise that naito could mean 'knight'. Naito as 'knight' is listed in Japanese dictionaries as a loanword from English.

    But even if a reader didn't know that naito means 'knight', it is quite obvious that the bus's name means yoru no kishi 'knight of the night' and and that the whole lot is to be pronounced naito, with a more complex meaning than just 'night'.

    The translator should be congratulated for coming up with such an ingenious way to convey this difficult pun! Verdict: Brilliant!