Most J.K. Rowling enthusiasts remember their very first Harry Potter, be it the hardcover volume of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that came out in 1997, or the colorful paperback that followed. The Japanese version of Philosopher’s Stone came out in 1999, translated by Yuko Matsuoka. She has translated the whole series, and is one of only two translators who have met and talked with Rowling.
In fact, her work on Harry Potter cemented her reputation as one of Japan’s masters in the field.
“As a translator, I learned so much from working on Harry Potter,” says Matsuoka. “There were many passages where I thought, if only the author had written it another way, I could translate it to make it more comprehensive to Japanese readers. But of course, translators can never tamper with the original text. So I pondered and sweated my way through all the quirky phrases, especially in the dialogue. And I enjoyed every single moment.”
Matsuoka’s command of the English language is absolute, but astonishingly, she had never been out of Japan until the age of 28, when she visited the U.S.
“I had always loved studying English,” she said. “And my parents were very supportive. When I was in junior high, my mother hired an English tutor for my friends and me. It gave me an incentive to study more and aim higher.”
Matsuoka went on to study at International Christian University and carved out a career in interpretation, translation and publishing.
For Matsuoka, Harry Potter was a love-at-first-sight experience.
“I had never encountered any tale so fascinating,” she said. “It was a true page turner, and I felt shock waves go through my body.”
She was charmed by everything in the text, even if she didn’t quite know how to translate passages like Dumbledore’s famous four-word speech: “Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! Tweak!” Matsuoka asked Rowling for advice and was told to “translate it as I thought best. It was a liberating moment.” Matsuoka’s translation is ingenious, and is one of the factors that make the Japanese Harry Potter so unique.
Over the years the Harry Potter characters have become as near and dear to Matsuoka as her own family.
“When I translated the dialogue of Hagrid, who comes from ‘up north,’ I thought of my father and how he spoke,” she says. Matsuoka hails from Fukushima and the regional dialect is close to her heart.
“So I gave Hagrid a Tohoku way of talking. Many people have told me they loved reading that. It’s one of the times that makes me glad to be a translator.”
Matsuoka’s spoken English is as fluent and flawless as her translations, and though she had never been to England until her mid-30s, there’s a hint of a British accent. She attributes that to her career as a simultaneous interpreter.
“When you’re interpreting, you tend to speak with a hybrid accent ? half British, half American. It’s neutral, and comfortable to listen to.”
That said, Matsuoka adds: “I love English culture. I love the weather, afternoon tea, the fashion and literature. In my mid-30s, I lived in England for six months and really got acquainted with the ambience and background of the country. It was an enormous help when years later, I started translating the Harry Potter series.”
Matsuoka says that part of what makes Harry Potter so endearing to Japanese readers is the Hogwarts school environment.
“There’s a big emphasis on rules and discipline, just like the Japanese school system,” she says. “It’s a very challenging environment, so it’s important to have friends you can trust and rely on. Harry, Ron and Hermione make a wonderful team together.”
Of the trio, Matsuoka feels closest to Hermione.
“People who knew me in my younger days say that Hermione and I are so alike. True, we both love to study and share a tendency to be nervous about test results!” she laughs. “The series will always be precious to me. I feel blessed to be a part of its journey to Japan.” (Kaori Shoji)
Words to remember
松岡佑子 (まつおか ゆうこ）