Tom Marvolo Riddle

The climactic scene in 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' is the showdown with Voldemort in the Chamber of Secrets at Chapter 17. And the climactic moment is when Tom Riddle uses Harry's wand to trace three shimmering words in the air:


Riddle then waves the wand once and the letters of his name re-arrange themselves into a terrifying revelation:


Besides this re-arrangement, there is a second level of word play in this name: 'Tom Riddle' tells us exactly the nature of the name - a riddle. In order to translate this wordplay 100%, you need to find a name that can be re-ordered to mean 'I am Voldemort', and what's more it should mean something like 'riddle'. An impossible order!

Given that it's impossible to translate this word play 100%, what devices do the translators resort to?

Chinese (Mainland version):

In the Chinese translation, the main text is in Chinese. A footnote explains the word play by quoting the two sentences in English. The effect is roughly as follows:

He took Harry's wand from his sleeve and tracing it in the air wrote three shimmering names:


Then he waved the wand and the letters automatically re-arranged themselves to form:

我是伏地魔 (1)

Footnote: ‘In English, 汤姆・马沃罗・里德尔 is "Tom Marvolo Riddle". The letters in this name are exactly the same as those in 我是伏地魔 "I am Lord Voldemort", arranged in a different order.


Chinese (Taiwanese version):

The Taiwanese translation gives the main text in English, with the Chinese meaning shown in brackets at the left. (Since the Taiwanese version is printed up and down the page, this is equivalent to placing it below). This method assumes somewhat greater familiarity with English among the readership. The general effect is as follows:

He took Harry's wand from his sleeve and started to write in the air, forming the row of letters:



Then he waved the wand and the letters in the air started to re-arrange themselves:




Japanese version:

The Japanese translation uses the same device as the Taiwanese. Again, this method is more suitable for a readership that is reasonably familiar with English:

Riddle took Harry's wand from his pocket and wrote letters in the air. Three words shimmered faintly:

TOM MARVOLO RIDDLE (トム・マールヴォロ・リドル)

He again waved his wand. The letters of his name re-arranged themselves:

I AM LORD VOLDEMORT (わたしはヴォルデモート卿だ)


Vietnamese version:

The Vietnamese version uses the original English, giving the Vietnamese meaning of 'I AM LORD VOLDEMORT' in a footnote.

Riddle pulled Harry's wand from his pocket and began to collect in the air, writing the three shimmering words:


Then he waved the wand again. The three words rearranged themselves into:


Footnote: Ta là Chúa tể Voldemort. (= I am Lord Voldemort.)


Comment: Even in languages such as French, German, Spanish, etc. that use the Latin alphabet, a meaningful recreation of this word play is not easy, although some translators manage to do so. In the scripts of East Asia, the task is more difficult.

For instance, no amount of re-arranging the characters 汤姆・马沃罗・里德尔 Tāngmǔ Mǎwòluó Lǐdé'ěr is going to yield the sentence 我是伏地魔 Wǒ shì Fúdìmó ('I am Voldemort'). What about creating a new name for Tom Riddle that could be re-arranged into 我是伏地魔? Due to the nature of the Chinese script, no amount of ingenuity could work ('I') or shì ('is, am, are') into a plausible personal name.

There is more hope in Japanese because it has two phonetic scripts, hiragana and katakana, which could theoretically be re-arranged to gain the desired effect. But since these two scripts are syllabic rather than alphabetic, the task requires the matching of sound combinations, not just single sounds, which is quite a bit more difficult. The syllables トム・マールヴォロ・リドル to-mu-ma- - -ru-vo-ro-ri-do-ru are impossible to re-arrange into わたしはヴォルデモート卿だ wa-ta-shi-ha-vu-o-ru-de-mo- - -to-kyo-o-da 'I am Lord Voldemort' or anything like it. Finding a pausible, English-sounding name that would yield this sentence is a tall order. Besides, Japanese translators generally prefer to retain the English names rather than create new ones.

In the end, all the translators resort to the English original to explain Voldemort's sleight of hand. (Incidentally, Voldemort must himself be congratulated for his foresight in coming up with this little conundrum just so he could spring it on the unsuspecting Harry Potter many years later.)

All versions must be awarded a Fail!, but with extenuating circumstances.


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