The 'M' in Stalagmite

As Harry and Hagrid hurtle through the passages under Gringotts (Book One, Chapter 5), Harry spots an underground lake where huge stalactites and stalagmites grow from the ceiling and floor. It's then that Harry pops the eternal question:

    'What's the difference between a stalagmite and a stalactite?'

This particular problem arises from the similarity between the two words in pronunciation and meaning. The only difference is that one hangs from the ceiling, the other grows up from the floor. Generations of schoolkids have struggled to remember which is which. (For a brief explanation, see this site)

Hagrid, however, is not feeling up to discussing the niceties of usage, dismissing Harry's question with:

    'Stalagmite's got an "m" in it. An' don' ask me questions just now, I think I'm gonna be sick.'

Not all languages have the same problem with stalactites and stalagmites that English has. Let's have a look at the word for stalactite and stalagmite in the CJV languages, as used in the Harry Potter translations (there may, in fact, be other words that can be used for 'stalactite' and 'stalagmite', but we won't worry about them here).

Chinese (simplified characters)
Chinese (traditional characters)
Stalactite 钟乳石
'hanging-bell nipple rock'
'hanging-bell nipple rock'
'hanging-bell nipple rock'
vú đá
'rock milk' (= 'milk rock')
Stalagmite 石笋
'rock bamboo-shoot'
'rock bamboo-shoot'
'rock bamboo-shoot'
măng đá
'rock bamboo-shoot' (= 'bamboo-shoot rock')

The word for 'stalactite' in Chinese and Japanese appears to be derived from an ancient Chinese musical instrument, the hanging bell, which had protrusions -- actually rather longish spikes -- on the outside that were known as 'nipples' ( ). For a photo, see here. The stalactite became known as 'bell nipple rock' due to its likeness to the spikes on the ancient bells. This is possibly also the origin of the Vietnamese name. (You will note that the first character in the Japanese word shōnyū-seki is , not . In fact, was originally just a variant of . Owing to certain pedantic tendencies, is now regarded as 'correct' in this particular usage and is stigmatised as 'incorrect'.)

For 'stalagmite', the image of a 'rock bamboo-shoot' is common to all three languages.

So how did Hagrid answer Harry's question in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese?

Chinese (Taiwanese version): '鐘乳石 zhōngrǔ-shí is made up of three characters.'

    Translates the English orthographical difference into something intelligible in Chinese. (Notice, however, that Hagrid's explanation cites the Chinese word for 'stalactite' rather than the word for 'stalagmite'.) Good!

Japanese version: 'One's got three characters, the other's got two.'

    As for the Taiwanese version. Good!

Vietnamese version: 'Măng is longer than .'

    Vietnamese uses the Latin alphabet. This captures the meaning of the English, again based on length. Good!

Chinese (Mainland version): 'There's an "M" in the word 钟乳石 zhōngrǔ-shí.'

    Comment: This is a most puzzling translation. First, the translator has put the 'm' in 'stalactite' (钟乳石 zhōngrǔ-shí) instead of 'stalagmite'. And secondly, there is not an 'm' in sight!

    One possibility is that the translator has switched 'stalactite' and 'stalagmite' deliberately, and that we are actually intended to find an 'm' of some description in the word 钟乳石. For instance, could those few strokes at the top of be construed as an 'm'?

    This would be an attractive explanation, were it not for the great difficulty of making out the supposed 'm' -- indeed, it takes quite a stretch of the imagination to see an 'm' there at all, even for the most avid Chinese character buff. What is more, the translator doesn't do much to help. It might have been clearer if Hagrid said there was an 'm' hidden in the character . What the translation actually has him say is that there is an 'm' in the word (Chinese 单词 dāncí) 钟乳石 zhōngrǔ-shí. Looking for an 'm' in 钟乳石 as a word places considerably more strain on the (supposedly juvenile) reader's imagination than looking for one in the character . And despite the translator's love of trivial footnotes at other places, here there is not even a passing explanation of how 钟乳石 zhōngrǔ-shí might have an 'm' in it.

    In fact, there is a simpler explanation for this enigmatic translation. The switch to 钟乳石 zhōngrǔ-shí is almost certainly due to the Taiwanese translation (see above), which appeared earlier and was used throughout by the Mainland translator as a crib. The Mainland translator simply took the Taiwanese translation and, in an attempt to disguise her plagiarism, changed the explanation that "鐘乳石 zhōngrǔ-shí is made up of three characters" to "钟乳石 has an 'm' in it". But in trying to move her translation closer to the original English she critically failed to notice that the Taiwanese translation of this wordplay is based on the word for stalactite, not stalagmite. As a result, the Chinese translation puts the 'm' in 'stalactite'!

    This kind of mistake is not very surprising given that the Mainland Chinese translator doesn't seem to have much idea of the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite. Just a little earlier in the chapter, she describes stalactites and stalagmites as "growing down from the ceiling to reach the floor" (see MeHelp's analysis), which doesn't suggest great familiarity with limestone caves.

    All in all, the 'hidden m' theory is not terribly convincing. The explanation of veiled plagiarism is far more plausible.

    Unfortunately, the Mainland Chinese version must be rated a Fail!.

Thanks to Jeff who posted about this issue at The Chocolate Interrobang for calling my attention to questions about the Mainland translation.

Information about the etymology of 钟乳石 / 鍾乳石 has been drawn from goo answers.

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