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Translating Harry: The Language and
Business of Magic

(abridged)

The record, as far as we can tell, shows no instance of the now globally famous J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, ever having called one of her translators to offer that person the job of bringing the magical world of wizards and muggles to his or her native culture.

But that hasn’t prevented some excited reactions from those translators who have gotten the nod, either through their local publishers, or through their own pluck in lobbying for one of the most prestigious — and challenging — jobs in translating today.

Translators of the Harry Potter books have reacted in different ways to their selection as the transformers of this magical world for the children, and adults, of their native culture.

Beatrice Masini, who translated the three most recent Harry Potter books into Italian, also imagined the joy of children when contemplating the re-creation of this new, magical world. “It was the fun of bringing over such a popular work for Italian kids and seeing a little of the reflected stardust raining down.”

Yuko Matsuoka, on the other hand, saw her selection to bring Pottermania to Japan as something more divine: “A wave of shock ran through my body and mind,” she recalls, having read the entire first book in a single night — despite being a non-native speaker of English. “I said to myself: ‘Here is something I have waited for. Here is something that must have waited for me! It is fate.’”

Not so in the case of the current Russian translator, Viktor Golyshev. As the doyen of a team of three Russian translators working on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Golyshev expressed no appreciation at all for the work, proclaiming not the slightest interest whatsoever in children’s literature.

The stories follow a familiar theme in English children’s books, that of adventures at boarding school, and many of the cultural nuances will be unfamiliar to readers in translation. Translators have several options, including de-Anglicizing the text, leaving names and concepts as they are (but including explanations of particularly difficult notions), or some combination of the two.

With made-up words, magic spells, regional accents, unknown creatures, and descriptive names, the language of Harry Potter’s world is fraught with challenges for translators. The names of people, places, and things — “Knockturn Alley” “muggles,” and “Ravenclaw,” for example — invariably evoke powerful imagery and thus create immensely difficult problems.

Although Harry Potter may be read on several levels, it is ultimately a world created for children, and for the most part the translators never lost sight of that. “I relied on my granddaughter, a wonderful child just Harry’s age,” says Lia Wyler, the Portuguese translator. “I used to recount every chapter to her and on recounting them I found where to add and cut to give it just the right rhythm in Portuguese.”

Because in the end, as the translators realized, it is the language of magic that is what children truly understand.
2004
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Teams of Dreams: A basketball memoir on the 25th anniversary of “Hoosiers”

(abridged)

Every year at this time, we become acquainted from afar with the stories of young men who by talent and circumstance come together on a common quest for an ultimate prize. Filled with virtually every emotion in the sporting playbook, the three-week drama that is the NCAA men’s basketball championship captivates those among us who not only yearn to win a few bucks in the office pool or capture bracketology bragging rights, but who are simply seduced by the irresistible narratives of boys performing feats heroic, workmanlike, and yes, sometimes even clueless, in their quest for a title.

Who are these boys, and the teams that take on their collective identities? No matter what the tournament — whether this month’s Final Four or a state high school championship — the squads that stand out are the ones that tend to overcome great odds; where heart, and sometimes luck, is more important than talent. And where sometimes, as Butler coach Brad Stevens noted after his team’s upset of #1 seed Pittsburgh in the Southeast Regional last week, one team simply has the ball last.

Butler’s run to the championship last year — playing the Final Four in its hometown of Indianapolis — conjured up memories of a couple of other iconic Indiana teams, both from another time and, one might say, another place … although the physical location was actually the same. These teams made their stands in storied Hinkle Fieldhouse, the same building in Indianapolis that Butler today calls home, and the scene of many of the state’s greatest hardwood moments. Chief among these is “The Milan Miracle,” the improbable victory of tiny Milan (pronounced MY-lun) High School, enrollment 161, over Muncie Central, a school ten times its size, in the Indiana State High School Championship game on March 20, 1954. With three seconds left in a tie game, Milan’s star player, Bobby Plump, drove to his right from the top of the key, pulled up, and lofted a soft jumper over the outstretched hands of Jimmy Barnes and into history.

Today, that game is still remembered in state basketball lore and cited in regional histories. But it is also remembered for something else: the inspiration for that other, and perhaps more famous of the Indiana dream teams, the fictional Hickory Huskers of the movie “Hoosiers.” It was inevitable that Butler’s 2010 run to the championship game, with its multiple Milan parallels, would bring comparisons not only with the ’54 state champs, but with its celluloid cousins as well.

“Hoosiers” premiered in Indianapolis 25 years ago this Thanksgiving, the story of a team of undisciplined but talented boys, taught and inspired by their unconventional coach, who slowly begin to believe in themselves, and in each other, in their march toward an unlikely championship. The final seconds of the final game — shot in Hinkle Fieldhouse — mirrored the actual Milan story: Jimmy Chitwood gets the ball at the top of the key, takes one dribble to his right, stops, and launches his picture-perfect jumper to bring the Cinderella story to a picture-perfect end.

As the 2011 NCAA tournament winds down to crown an eventual winner next week, the champion certainly doesn’t have to be from Indiana to build its own story of hope and accomplishment. But a little dash of Hoosier sparkle probably couldn’t hurt.

(Postscript: Butler eventually made it to the 2011 finals, but lost in the championship game, to Connecticut.)
2011       Unpublished
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Connecting with your consumers, above today’s noise and clutter

Today as never before, consumers are exposed to a remarkable amount of stimuli that they must immediately process and react to. This is reflected not just in the explosion of products and services, but also in the very ways these new “consumables” are delivered — from the new media channels of the Internet, podcasts, and wireless technology to the morphing of the TV set itself. “Clutter,” in all its manifestations, is the new normal.

Consumers have evolved to demand more in this new world. The question is: have we as marketers, designers, and advertisers evolved to answer that demand?

Acknowledging the empowerment that consumers derive from all of these new choices is the first step toward establishing a meaningful relationship with them. This entails recognizing how they sort out these loud and sometimes conflicting messages to fit into the framework of their lives. Fortunately, today we are armed with new and powerful strategies — from emotional branding to experiential design to lifestyle targeting — that can help us actually design the resonant experiences that connect with our consumers, and form the basis of successful brands.

It’s a consumer’s life
Walter Landor once famously said that “Products are built in the factory, but brands are built in the mind.” With apologies and all due respect to this acknowledged master in our field, we might append that thought to bring it up-to-date for the 21st Century: “… and successful brands are built in the heart.”

Today’s audiences want brands that have relevance to them; brands that connect with both their minds and their hearts, and fit into the full context of their lives. This means, first, a brand that takes care of the basics so that its functional benefits are clearly communicated and understood. But then, laddering upwards, it must also tap into the consumer’s emotional frequencies, allowing him to elevate the brand’s functional attributes to a higher, more aspirational, more personally relevant plane. When this happens, companies begin to build successful brands.

Take the case of Plum Organics, a baby food company that engaged Brand Engine to create a new identity that would stand out in a crowded category. Created by a mom, Plum Organics believes that healthy eating starts with the very first spoonful. Steering clear of convention and cliché, the Brand Engine team focused on the healthful beauty of the product — and, on the spoon itself, the central and constant symbol of the happy, funny, frustrating (but always lovable!) theater of feeding a baby. The result is a contemporary, fresh, and smart approach that is on the way to carving out a whole new niche in baby food.

The meanings of life
Relevance to consumers is achieved by framing the brand as part of these bigger stories in their lives. This goes further than mere “lifestyle targeting” to dig into the deeper meanings of a consumer’s experience. As the authors Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff, and Darrel Rhea point out in their book Making Meaning, “Meaning is the sense we make of reality … assigning meaning to experience is how each of us creates the story of our life and its ultimate value and purpose.”

In another case study, Brand Engine tapped into the deeper meanings that consumers place on premium teas, by redesigning the identity for Mighty Leaf Tea. The company sought to elevate the presence of its core retail brand by expressing a gourmet level of quality. This expression, as developed by the Brand Engine studio, goes to the heart of the healthy, beneficial, and almost mystic powers of the beverage — a clear resonance with today’s discriminating tea aficionados.

To underscore the importance that meaning has, consider the remarks of a different kind of audience expert: magician Derren Brown, one of Britain’s foremost psychological thinkers. “When a group of artists comes together, the last thing they should do is talk about their art … They should talk about life, experience, and meaning, for this is where art begins and ends.” When we, as designers, talk about meaning, we change our focus from simply making a package jump off the shelf to ensuring that it fits in with our shoppers’ lives once they get it home.

This is not to say that the tea or the baby food aren’t important; of course, they are. But instead, it is how these items align with the consumer’s deeper life — not just his “life-style” — that determines their effect.

New perspectives
For Duraflame, Brand Engine refreshed the decades-old identity and created new packaging that tapped into more resonant meanings that consumers have about the ambience of a fire. Instead of the traditional emphasis on the duration of the fire, the Brand Engine team focused on the experience — the pleasure that people get from a warming fire in the hearth — and getting it without any hassles! This notion, coupled with the reality that it is primarily single women who purchase firelogs, led to a new and more attractive design that appeals not only in the store, but in the log bin at home, as well.

As should be obvious, shaping these resonances — cutting into the clutter of today’s myriad stimuli — is not merely a function of designing your package with a lot of whitespace; just as automatically putting a lifestyle image on the package is not an answer either. Instead, the bigger story should be sought because such “narratives” necessarily offer the larger context that meaning needs in order to thrive.

And it is meaning that gives us the greatest chance of connecting with our consumers.
2006 Ghostwritten, for Brand Engine/Sausalito
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Interpreting Magic: Secrets Revealed!

You are seated in a parlor — a small theater, of only 35 seats — for the singular purpose of witnessing a few curious and unusual things. A sleight-of-hand artist from abroad, renowned the world over, is about to astound and amaze you. Except for one thing: he speaks a language you don’t understand. How will you make sense of what is taking place? Meet two of the most well-known interpreters in the world of magic, Tina Lenert and Luis Iglesies.

The suave young gentleman takes the lady’s proffered ring, and places it on her open palm. “Concentrate on the happy memory that this ring evokes for you,” he says. “Think of that memory as a ray of white light.” In a moment, the ring moves, ever so slightly.

“Keep your eyes on the ring,” he continues in a low, calming voice, “and enlarge this light in your mind; imagine that the light is spinning, growing, rising ...” At that very moment, the ring floats off the woman’s palm, and hovers over it.

Over gasps from the audience, the young man moves his hand all around the ring, now suspended miraculously in midair, and says softly to the woman, “Know that you can completely encircle this warm feeling, and at any moment grasp it” — he plucks the ring from the air — “and hold on to it for the rest of your life.” Amid cries of amazement and applause from the rest of the audience, the young man returns the ring to the astonished woman, who, with tears in her eyes, whispers into his ear, “Thank you.”

Whether a simple effect with a pack of cards or a social experiment involving a personal memento, the emotional power of a magic performance taps into the spirit of humanity that is in all of us, regardless of what culture we come from, or what language we speak. And yet clearly — except for those performances that are deliberately wordless — we need to understand what is said in order to be able to fully appreciate the effect. Enter the magic interpreter.

A fortuitous path
Tina Lenert came to the magic interpreting field along a decidedly non-traditional route. Indeed, she is the first to admit that she is not a professional interpreter.

But her deep involvement with the magical arts over the years has led her — in addition to garnering fame and respect the world over as a performer in her own right — to be identified forever as the English-language voice of one of the most remarkable close-up magicians of all time, René Lavand of Argentina. (“Close-up” generally refers to sleight-of-hand magic performed for small audiences.)

Born to an American geologist working in Caracas, Venezuela, Tina grew up speaking Spanish, but largely abandoned it when her family returned to the United States when she was 12 years old. She didn’t pick it up again in earnest until the early ‘90s, when she was asked by her husband (also a magician) to interpret for a performance being given by Señor Lavand during one of his lecture tours in the U.S.

“I was petrified at first,” Tina said, “but his combination of patience and artistry opened a new door for me.”

Poetry in motion
Part of the appeal for Tina was the way Señor Lavand used language. “There’s a poetry and elegance to the Spanish language,” said Tina, “and the way he puts together words is just so beautiful; they simply ring in my heart.” Interpreter Luis Iglesies echoes this sentiment about Señor Lavand: “There is no one else in the magic community who expresses himself better through poetry and refined language, full of sentiment”; a characteristic that both interpreters agree makes Tina’s task especially difficult.

On top of that, Señor Lavand’s words, notwithstanding their poetic resonance, have to be integrated into the performance of the magic itself, where the need for interpreting necessarily alters the environment. After all, as with any public entertainment, magic depends on directing an audience’s attention through the careful timing of words and action (and, sometimes, music). Isn’t this disrupted by the need to stop and wait for a phrase to be interpreted?

“Yes,” says Tina. “But it’s all about timing; about continuing a flow, almost between simultaneous and consecutive interpreting — even pausing, when it’s important to stop and not do anything. To the extent possible, it’s about becoming a part of the performance, and not a distraction. After a while, you go on instinct.” She felt that one of the best compliments she ever received for her work with Señor Lavand was from the well-known magician Harry Anderson, who said she “was like a bell ringing softly above him.”

In addition to interpreting for Señor Lavand, and translating some of his books nto English, Tina has, on a more limited basis, interpreted for American magicians during their lectures in Spain. “It is a privilege to communicate these performances,” she says.

Schooled in the profession
An entirely different route to interpreting, and especially magic interpreting, was taken by Luis Iglesies. For Luis, while his interest in magic also blossomed early — as a youngster, he believed one of Spain’s most influential magicians, Juan Tamariz, had supernatural powers — his young adult life was all about language.

Born and raised in Spain, he took language seriously while at school, eventually living and studying in the U.S. and Britain, and receiving a translation and interpretation degree from the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain), with French, German, and Italian on his resumé as well. While working for various financial institutions and as a management consultant, Luis began translating magic books in his spare time. This in turn led him to interpreting, and has culminated in his working for the crème de la crème of the worldwide magic community.

“I must know the tricks they will be performing,” Luis says of his preparation to interpret for a magician. “Essentially I want them to tell me their jokes and funny lines, and to define my range of movement and location on the stage. It’s like having a blueprint, or a roadmap, of the performance. Being a magician myself, I thus know where they are going, and how the routine is going to end, so I don’t feel ‘lost.’” Being a magician oneself is obviously an imperative for anyone interpreting a magic performance or lecture. Not only for the obvious advantages of understanding the theatrics of performing, but also, again, in preparation. “Preparation also encompasses keeping up to date with magic’s most recent tricks, books, and performers, so you know what to expect. If there’s something I’ve never seen, it usually comes up during our briefing before the show.”

A sense of rhythm
Like Tina, Luis also feels that the interpreter must have a great sense of the cadence of a performance, in order to stay in sync with the artist. Although it depends on the performer, this often means working fast, but in any case it requires taking cues from the performer and offering the same emotions — enthusiasm, intensity, drama — that the performer is trying to convey, including voice inflections, gestures, and facial expressions. The result is that the interpreter is indeed not merely the conduit for what’s being said, but in fact an integral part of the performance.

“If you do a good job, the audience erases you from the stage,” says Luis. “They perceive you doing lip-sync with the artist; they put your voice over his mouth ... it’s as if you are the artist’s twin brother who happens to have studied Spanish.”

The magicians themselves have a responsibility for the success of their act in front of a foreign audience. “Since interpreters are part of the performance,” says Luis, “most good magicians will choose material that accommodates this situation. For example, in effects where instructions must be given to the audience, they must not be complex. It’s a difficult situation for a spectator to be in, because while physical interaction may occur between the spectator and the performer, aural (listening) interaction occurs between the spectator and the interpreter. And so things must be made as simple and straightforward as possible.”

As for the business end of interpreting, matters such as compensation are dependent, not surprisingly of course, upon the skill and experience of the interpreter. Most interpreters for magic lectures in Spain are not professionals, but those of Luis’s caliber can command above-average fees.

“(Magic) Convention organizers see the audience’s response to the interpretation — the overall enhancing effect that it has on people’s appreciation of the performances — and they realize it is worth the fee.”

Who among us would doubt that? We need only think back on the performance described at the beginning of this article to see how demanding such a job would be, and how difficult it would be to do it well.

Sounds like interpreting, doesn’t it?
2007
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