On Harry Potter's Fantastic World with Sevin Okyay and Kutlukhan Kutlu

We met with these two masters, who translated all the books of the series with the exception of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in the Özgen Berkol Doğan Science Fiction Library.

Our guests of Children's Literature website in October are the people Harry Potter lovers are quite familiar with: Sevin Okyay and Kutlukhan Kutlu. We met with these two masters, who translated all the books of the series with the exception of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in the Özgen Berkol Doğan Science Fiction Library. The library in Kadıköy has a special collection of all the translations of Harry Potter around the world.

Both of you have very valuable writings on movies and translations from important names such as Manguel. Besides these, Mrs. Okyay has her own works. However, for today we want to have an interview about Harry Potter because of our file topic, which is "fantastic". When you first read the books, did you predict that Harry Potter would be such a phenomenon?

Sevin Okyay: No, because it has not happened yet. The book first appeared in Dost Publications in Turkey, but did not create such an excitement. Ülkü [Tamer] translated the first book. Simultaneously, the second book appeared in English. I said, "What is this, what is going on?" I wondered and read the second one. I enjoyed it as an idea very much. Then, I went to Yapı Kredi Publications for something. Aslıhan Dinç, our friend working with authors and translators, asked me if I am familiar with Harry Potter. "I know; I read the second book ..." I replied. She said, "Hah!"and threw the book in front of me –she always threw and heaped the books in front of us, and thereby, put us into trouble (laughter)- "Now you will translate this!" I took the book and examined it. I first asked Kutlukhan to become my advisor. It was very good. Always, and now, he has more knowledge on that world than me. Then, their calendars are so busy that I had to translate more than hundred pages and it was not possible to do. I told Kutlukhan; "Can you translate a hundred pages to help me?" He said "Yes!" He took the job, and did it, but the covers were published at that time without naming them. Then, Ülkü was unable to do other books because of her lack of time. Otherwise we were going to continue one by one; first time Ülkü and the next time we were together going to translate. When we were translating the fourth book, they said, "You will translate the third one too." It was too sad. "How long?" I said, "Fifteen days!" Aslı replied.

Kutlukhan Kutlu: We negotiated for three weeks, but finished in twenty days.


What was the reason behind finishing it such a short time? Was it something to do with catching up with the world? 

K. Kutlu: Their publication date was obvious. While the third book was approaching, we started the fourth book, and we have also finished half way. If I am not mistaken, the fourth book was published in October or September. One or one and a half months before that book, the third book was going to be published.

S. Okyay: They declared it was going to be published in July, if I am not mistaken.

K. Kutlu: It was about to publish, but an issue by meanwhile emerged: Ülkü was not going to not finish the translation, so we should have finished instead. We really did it in three weeks.

S. Okyay: When we started to the fourth one, I swear I forgot them too.

K. Kutlu: Critical decisions about the translation were really about the second and third books.

S. Okyay: For example, we could not intervene in some parts; because the previous translation used them in that way.


To provide integrity in the series? 

K. Kutlu: Well, some minor things were published. I think a couple of small retro changes have been made, but they were really minor things. For example, if we made a portrayal differently, there were minor changes in them.

S. Okyay: If the lilac color was used as brown, for example, for a pair of pajamas, we have changed them. But we could not fix the word "scepter".

K. Kutlu: Whatever completes the Harry's world in the first book, we obeyed them. It's still happening as additional books arrive. For example, when a word joke needed to be made we did it with another word. In addition, when you refer to it you will either have to give a footnote or explain it in a sentence. But since Harry Potter readers are attached very much to the terminology, you cannot change it.

S. Okyay: They know and remember everything!

K. Kutlu: For me, I did not predict this at all. When Harry Potter first came out, I saw the cover photos. Obviously, like Discworld, I thought it was a humorous thing. A boy with glasses, his hair in the air, broom on his hand. I am not sure though whether there was a broom in the first book.

S. Okyay: I think Hogwarts Express was approaching him in the second book.

K. Kutlu: Simon The Sorcerer series[1] and Discworld came to my mind. I have never read Harry Potter until I translate it.


Watching the movies might be another pleasure for you. 

K. Kutlu: Pleasure? (Laughter) It was rather more a stress! We could not watch the first movie; Sevin Okyay was sitting right in front of me. She kept turning to me and said, "What is this, what is this?" Because they did not use translation on subtitles. 

S. Okyay: Ülkü said them that she would help me and continued: "I'm not in Istanbul, send it to me, I will bring it to its version in the book." 

K. Kutlu: So, there were things that were different from the translation. 

S. Okyay: I was looking at Kutlukhan and he told me: "Don’t look at the subtitles, just listen it."


I do not think there was any criticism for this situation at that time? 

K. Kutlu: No, it was not written. At the time, I think Warner Bros provided the subtitle. We also had acquaintances from Warner Bros... We resented because we wish they would send it us, so we would check it out. 

S. Okyay: We did not expect money in response too.

K. Kutlu: Warner Bros is a little bit sensitive about the brand. I think they were not paying the same attention to the translation. In that movie they asked neither us, even in the beginning nor did Ülkü Tamer... But they corrected it in the second and the third movie. 

S. Okyay: Warner Bros intervenes about the words as well. that Ülkü’s keeping the word "muggle" in the original form is totally because of Warner Bros! Because they decided to create a game, namely, muggle, you cannot translate it. Otherwise, what is a muggle, are we all muggle, what kind of thing is this; it cannot be answered. 

K. Kutlu: We have received a list including the words whose original form must have been kept, from Warner Bros, while we were translating The Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. We told them that since half of it would be in English the book does not seem good,. And We suggested at least to write Turkish words next to them. Fortunately, it was accepted. Otherwise, it was going to remain in English. 

S. Okyay: We translated the dragon as “ejderha”. Are we going to say only dragon there?

Yet, this terminology has also been settled, we do not find it strange to say muggle...

K. Kutlu: Right now people say, "It's good that you left it. At this point, we can follow the Harry Potter terminology around the world", and people wear muggle shirts. But still, without Ülkü Tamer, we would translate it for sure. Because there's no point in keeping it as “muggle” and it is not a special name in the end. It makes even more sense to keep animal names.


Borges[2] says "If you are writing a fantastic story, do not exaggerate extraordinary elements. Otherwise, it turns into Arabian Nights." In spite of all the fantastic elements in Harry Potter, it is always partly on the ground. The sensibility of presence of muggles; a train’s department from a real station even if there is no any platform... The real and fantastic world are a side-by-side in harmony. What do you think is behind Harry Potter's success?

S. Okyay: Oh yes, thanks to muggles or thanks to his judicious professors, it is always partly on the ground. But the fantastic is also too much!

K. Kutlu: H. G. Wells[3] says the same thing actually: "When you've made a fantastic invention, let it stay like that". So, if you created an invisible man, do not give place to a flying man. Or if people of Mars come to the Earth, do not also add magic into it. However, at the time of Wells science-fiction had been just born. Coleridge[4] has a saying when he wrote Lyrical Ballads with Wordsworth[5]: "You can tell extraordinary things, but people must be real." I think Harry Potter is successful because of this: people are real. When books were published, we made interviews in schools, all the children were very impressed by the magic, but they were very passionate about the characters. They had found something in them about themselves. Their lives, the difficulties they faced in school... They perceived them as reflections in the giant mirror of their own troubles, so, they all made sense for them. I think it is a very effective point. Otherwise, there are so many fantastic elements in it... In addition, Rowling got benefited from not only just one mythology, but many others. Then, there is the station story. There is a 9 ¾ platform built in Kings Cross station in London. Think about Londoners; there are a lot of things you can find Harry Potter in your life. That's what they call "modern fantasy."
S. Okyay: I do not want to make you jealous, but I got on Flying Ford Anglia. We did not fly though... They allowed me when it was exhibited at Rahmi Koç Museum; "If you are one of the translators, then you can get in." I think another reason behind its success is that it is a very good idea. Harry Potter is really a very good idea!

Picture: It is taken by Sevin Okyay’s biographical interview book, Truly.[6]

K. Kutlu: It is also something known. Ursula K. Le Guin also complained: “I also wrote the magician school years ago.” (Laughter)

S. Okyay: I thought more about this to explain it to children. Adults are only one third of the readers. They wrapped the cover page of the book in paper. In the end, the publishing house began to make adult prints so that they could read comfortably. I was excited too when I read Harry Potter, and I am an adult too. I thought that I have never been late; there might be something I have not discovered yet.

K. Kutlu: I met people saying "Thanks to this book, I have gone through the difficult times of my life." There's also a side that the book reassures people.

S. Okyay: Otherwise, if we look at the very basics of the book, it looks more like a thing...

K. Kutlu: Kemalettin Tuğcu books. (Laughter)

S. Okyay: Kemalettin Tuğcu, yes! No mother, no father. He is together with his brutal relatives; they make him wear long sleeves. Like David Copperfield,[7] I expect him to run away every moment. I think that he will go somewhere and people would think that he is a thief. It ends there though.

K. Kutlu: Instead of that, the worst magician ever is in pursuit of him. (Laughter)


One of the adopted ideas in translation field is that the translator is in a competition with the writer in literary texts. In fact, you are the ones who made it so readable in the Turkish language. We are very curious about your partnership in your works. What kind of experience was it to translate Harry Potter books as two people?
S. Okyay: Just like the reader cares about the characters, we also paid too much attention to them. We tried to make them speak up appropriate with their ages and characters. For example, since I liked using old words, Kutlukhan said to me; "Dude, does Ron talk like that? I guess you should change these words; you can use them as you wish when it comes to Dumbledore." (Laughter) Most of the time, we were trying to make our styles close to each other because we were doing it together. We gave some parts of it to our very close friends, they could not differentiate which part belonged to whom.

K. Kutlu: We share parts one by one, hence, we both translate parts in the same number. After that, we sit side by side while reading. Other person, who did not make that part’s translation, reads and goes over it. I always say;  It does not matter if it's beautiful or not. Change it if you think that you would not translate it like that!" Because there were no alternative way to make our languages close. Sevin Okyay was trying not to change because she is very polite. I constantly poke, "Change it if there is something different than your style." She is such a polite that she only changed things with my push. I then changed everything when I realized that I would not translate them like that. She was saying, "You do not like anything at all..."

S. Okyay: Our language was really the same at the end.

K. Kutlu: Yes, when I read some part I even cannot detect who translate it. (Laughter) For example, some of her parts are more like the translations of my parts; because I made the editings and changed them when I passed over the words. Then I think that I translated it. Such things happen...

S. Okyay: This is one chapter for you-one chapter for me agreement that was broken in only two parts. One part is where they go into the cave that I was really scared there. I am also afraid, though this was not horror literature, but I was really afraid of that part. 

K. Kutlu: That part was terrible, though. 

S. Okyay: "Okay, I will do it" Kutlukhan said. Not only because I was scared, I also could not imagine when I closed my eyes. What is he doing, where and how he knows and get on that boat, and leaves... When the things I always knew were coming in my mind, I was making up mossy stones. “Okay, well, I will do it” he said and took the job in the end.

K. Kutlu: And I was usually taking the Quidditches.

S. Okyay: I also wanted the part where Sirius died. Or, maybe it was already mine, I do not remember. Because Sirius was my favorite character. I even worried when they said someone is going to die. I think I told Ayça that "I do not want to know." Ayça completely misunderstood it and thought that I could not learn who will die. One day, I got a phone call: "Sirius!" she said. I said, "What Sirius?", "It is Sirius who will die" she said. I said "Whaaattt! Sirius is dead. Oh my God!” After that, I kept telling Kutlukhan: "I will send an email to J. K Rowling!” There was no email address though... I will say: "You created only two proper characters!" very angrily: "If you will kill the one, tell me, then I will not translate it!" Kutlukhan also says; "Non of your business. This is her book, whoever she likes, kills or keeps alive.”

At the end of Jordan’s The Wheel of Time[8] there are additions. He notes the events in the statements. I also have a favorite character there. Next to that character’s name, he says "supposed as death", not "died". Therefore, we waited him to resurrect that woman in a way. Then he came here with his wife. His wife liked that character too. At the book fair, we begged him to resurrect her. He looked at us and said: "If I resurrect everyone I killed, the book would consists of thirty-five volumes!" (Laughter) I thought Sirius would reappear in the same way. Because they were whispering behind the curtain. Then, he did not appear.


There is one more thing that is underlined by those who work in translation sector. In order to produce a successful product, the translator’s work has to also have a critical reader. You are actually lucky; you are both readers of each other at the same time. Were there any times that you could not agree or criticize each other in your translations?

S. Okyay: (laughing) It was also probably due to the stress. Because it has to be quick but also has to be read very carefully.

K. Kutlu: There has never been a disagreement in word translations. I was even finding alternatives among which I asked the most appropriate one. It seemed to me that Sevin Okyay liked things easily. So, I was pushing her a little bit and saying: "Do not affirm it, let's find something else if it does not look good." Nevertheless, there was not much disagreement. The problem emerged in very urgent books. 

S. Okyay: That was almost all of them though. 

K. Kutlu: It is completely about the artisanship; how to construct the sentence, can it be understood easily in this version, what about the tone... Sevin Okyay focused more on due dates, but I cannot leave the text. 

S. Okyay: He could not leave the text; he could not say it goodbye. 

K. Kutlu: Even if the due date was approaching, I cannot leave it. I make a camping with the text. She was always saying, "It's enough, it's over." 

S. Okyay: Though I have fallen asleep, for example, Kutlukhan was still working. I said, "Let it go, okay."

K. Kutlu: Our situation was miserable, especially in the third book... Since we do not live in the same place, we came to work in the same house, we put chairs next to each other. In one of the books of Charles Dickens, there were sweatshops[9] where child workers were working eighteen hours a day. By working together and asking questions to each other, we did finish translations. It was very difficult indeed. 

S. Okyay: We left home to give an hour break and drink coffee. There was a cafe we used to go. I swear, even the waiters say: "What are you doing here? Go home. Finish the book!" 

K. Kutlu: There was a lot of social pressure. 

S. Okyay: Then we separated the houses. (Laughter) We already lived apart, but we were sitting and reading in the same house. We said that we should read separately and send notes to each other, then we will talk on the phone. To prevent throat tightening and ax issues... 

K. Kutlu: Actually, these throat tightening and ax issues emerged more after we separated the houses. Let me say this, there was no such thing as criticism. Because the critic has no meaning, if someone does not like it, it will change. Of course, after explaining herself... If translator says "I think it should be like this, not the other way", what translator wants should be applied in the end. If the other one cannot be convinced, then it will stay unchanged. The problem was originated due to the fact that the processes were getting long. We were doing this. Each one of us translates a chapter, and makes a final reading on it. But it should not be called actually as the final reading since we just so roughly corrected the mistakes. Then we come together. Actually, if you translate it by yourself, you should leave it for a few days to read it with a relaxed mind. But since there was no time, we could not wait even a day. We had to come together and read it just after we translated it. So, in fact, the text had a lot of work to do. We together sat in front of the text that took too much time. We were reading chapters all over the day: we started in the morning, continuing to read the two parts until midnight. Therefore, it lasted very long, both of us lose patience and energy. Fortunately, this was not the case for the other books because of a better due date schedule. At least, having one day off and then sitting down and reading created less workload. So, the axes were buried in the ground. (Laughter)

S. Okyay: There was also such a case that which country finished translation first was the fastest one. I guess, we were the fastest country for two times. Because it was two of us.

K. Kutlu: I guess Yapı Kredi was not trying to be the first in the world. We were in a hurry because of Harry Potter readers over there. They were very passionate even though they were not many in numbers, and they were constantly asking Yapi Kredi when it would be published. When they say, "You are translating too late!" we were saying, "Come on, we are translating it first in the world." (Laughter)

S. Okyay: It was nice though...

K. Kutlu: I confess that, if we had more time, things would be worse. Some things, especially things related to creativity, come out better under pressure. When a person is desperate, the inspiration starts to emerge. If something stays for a long time in your hand, you can make it worse.
S. Okyay: Yes, lots of time may not be a good thing because you make it worse unnecessarily. We have a dictionary around a hundred and fifty pages. What we used in Harry Potter is written there, as we get new books, we look at it back.


Do you have a project to publish it?

K. Kutlu: No, no. Because we do not have only the terms in the dictionary. There are descriptions, for example, how did we describe Dumbledore? We check it again.

S. Okyay: So, he is with beard and glasses... Because we need to be consistent in these descriptions. We had some situations that I cannot find a word. In those situations, I open the book then I find the word, and continue to read the book. Then, I suddenly realize that I have come to the end of the book. (Laughter) I finished it too many times with the aim of checking the word.

K. Kutlu: In the new books, there are references and quotes from old books. Thus, we have to look back and see what happened. Now that we have the digital versions of the translations. I assume that I translated this part like this, then I check it, and it was true. Then it is very satisfying.


It is difficult to translate a literary text, but it must be much more difficult to translate both fantastic and literary text. Firework, Horticulture, Death Eater, Dementor... We think we owe all these words, which are used by Harry Potter lovers, to Mr. Kutlu. What kind of experience was it to translate a fantastic text? 

K. Kutlu: Sevin Okyay was asking me how we would do that and what to say when she translated the second book. I was trying to help her by saying: "That's probably from here, he's probably referencing to this." I have actually started to translate the text before being its translator.  

S. Okyay: To be honest, it was extraordinarily annoying. There was something I was looking for, but could not find in the second book. I then asked Kutlukhan. He even told me about the etymology of the word. Then we gradually learned, of course, but we were not as good as him. 

K. Kutlu: Back in time, the internet was not so common. The most important thing about the terms was aesthetic, so it must be beautiful. Of course it is very important that the translation must be correct, but one of the things that makes these books popular is their language. Language games are a lot of fun, for example. When the author did something funny about the language, if you are loyal to him, it is not funny, and I think you could not be successful. If people read a creature name and laugh in the original, and if people in Turkey do not read and laugh it, I do not think that translation is successful. The reader who reads Turkish should also laugh there. I have always taken this into consideration. Take Horticulture, for example. When it is called Horcrux, there is a darkness in the mind of man; a nightmare and a heavy thing. In fact, you cannot say "outer" or "outer core" for horcrux in the original, which has gone from the root of Latin. So I thought what I should do, then found that the basic must be the sound. But I wanted to give a sense of its meaning. “Hortlamak,”[10] “korkuluk”[11]... It should evoke that a watch is going on inside it and should evoke fear. Then “hortkuluk”[12] emerged. For example, “düşünseli” is a very close word too. “Pensieve” comes from idea. But if you say “idea filter,” I do not think it would be so beautiful, just like “pensieve”. Thus a more fluent word was needed.
S. Okyay: For example, “zihnefendet.”

K. Kutlu: It is one of the most difficult words that I translated. It's a word I go from the root and tried a hundred things. It's also “occlumency,” from “legilimency.” Difficult words... So, it does not mean anything to an English child too. It has a little bit of archaic and secret structure. So, if we had use a very new language for children to understand it easily, it was not going to serve the same thing. So, I decided to go to a little old language which gives you an opportunity to close, to open and to overcome such problems... Finally, we have decided it by voting.

S. Okyay: Kutlukhan called Ayça and Betül to ask "I have something like this, what do you think?" Of course we had very good editors. Sometimes Kutlukhan called them and asked whether it was all right.

K. Kutlu: I think it was Ayça. I called her. She replied: "Now the book is in print Kutlukhan, sorry!" (Laughter)

S. Okyay: Yes, let's mention their names; Ayşe Sabuncuoğlu and Betül Kadıoğlu.

K. Kutlu: Very good editors.

Apart from fantastic literature, we also need to make a distinction between translation such as "translation for adults" and "translation for children". For example, there is a easiness of giving footnote to adults and it is possible to express yourself in the form of a "note of the translator". On the contrary, it is not possible to do it when you translate it for children. What are the conveniences and challenges of translating for children?

K. Kutlu: (Looking at Sevin Okyay) Here, you are both the children's book writer and the translator, you tell.

S. Okyay: The children's book is much more difficult in dealing with this issue. I have always thought in this way. Children will both understand and appreciate it and their imagination will be broad as they read the book... I think it's much harder if you're doing something really fantastic. Once, yes, the footnote was put into the bottom, even if it is not completely removed. You do not use any of the arrogant, too much detailed and pedant footnotes. You might give some place for something funny, like a rhyme. But you will make children happy and stick to the original of the book as much as possible. It is a difficult task. It is always easier to translate to the elders. 

K. Kutlu: I agree with her. If we did not start Harry Potter as a children's book, many things about the language would not be so. If there were adult books, there are many places that we would not approach it in that way. The talks of the characters would not change, even in the adult book. If a child speaks, you should try to get him to speak close to his vocabulary. But if the language is a little more humorous and playful one, footnotes are important. I have always resisted the footnote in fiction for children. I think stopping people at a point and sending them to check the footnote when they are all fascinated in fiction breaks the beauty and spell. I remember there was only one footnote, and I think it was even all right if I did not put it. They would look at the dictionary. We used the word “crossbow” and added a footnote describing it. Unless it is very often, I think it is a good idea to look the dictionary several times while reading the book. They learn vocabulary which is nice. I learned so many words in that way.

S. Okyay: But there are some books we have translated or read, such as Chauser, Canterbury Tales. We read it in the old English. The footnote was overloaded. So you lose your flow, but you should read all of them because you are an adult. You cannot expect this from any children. In fact, this kind of exaggerated footnote is so rare.

K. Kutlu: And adults are more tolerant to the artificiality and austerity of literature. Children do not tolerate it at all. When you use a little bad language and they leave the book right away. The hardest critics of a bad translation is children. They leave the book immediately. While adult readers are also interested in other parts of the content. Even if the translation is mediocre, they still read it. We all read too many bad translations...

S. Okyay: Children also think differently. When they bring the book to us to sign, I told a girl around ten or twelve: "But honey, the translator does not sign the book." She replied, "Where do we find the author now?" We have signed Harry Potter books for years. 

K. Kutlu: Yes, it is one of the interesting things in my life as well, signing the book that I have translated. 

S. Okyay: There was a puzzle in the second book, letters of Tom Marvolo Riddle were displaced by itself: "I am Lord Voldemort" was appeared. So now we will translate it into Turkish as "My name is Lord Voldemort". But one of them is "I am" and the other is "my name is"[13]. We have a more “d” letter. So even if you become miserable and try to solve it for four months, it would not be sufficient.   

K. Kutlu: Then, we talked with the publishing house, there is only one way to do this: if we add the letter “-d” and make it "Marvoldo", the problem will be solved. They said it is okay, so we did it. When we went to Koç High School for an interview, a young girl had corrected us: "It's not Marvoldo, but Marvolo!" (Laughter)

Thank you so much for spending time to us for this beautiful interview.

S. Okyay: We thank you very much. We had fun as well.

[1] It is an adventure game about the assistant of a sorcerer, made in 1993.

[2] Jorge Luis Borges: Argentinian novelist, poet and translator. One of the leading figures of magical realist authors.

[3] Herbert George Wells: Modern science-fiction writer.

[4] Samuel Taylor Coleridge: English poet.

[5] William Wordsworth: the poet who wrote Lyrical Ballads with Coleridge and started Romanticism current.

[6] Hakikaten is the original name of the book.

[7] This is the name of the main character and the novel itself, which portraits the worker class of the time’s England. According to the rumours this is the autobiography of Charles Dickens.

[8] Robert Jordan’s fourteen volume science-fiction series.

[9] Work places that people work in really bad conditions, especially children.

[10] Rising from the grave.

[11] Strawman.

[12] Turkish Word for horticulture.