Harry Potter, my national identity (and also politics and morality)

Note: I took an online course on EdX -HarvardX to be specific- called Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens, and the Stuff Around You (yes, that’s the full name). To sum it up, it is a basic and relatively accessible introduction to the world of museology. It teaches us how to appreciate the tangible objects in front of us beyond their physical appearances. This blog post is my final project.

Note ends.

My chosen object is a copy of the Indonesian translation of Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix, first edition.

The cover design

Obviously, that was the first thing I noticed. When I first saw the covers of the Indonesian editions, I naively thought how impressive it was for my fellow countrymen to create such beautiful works. The visual magical realist style successfully evoke the atmosphere of a magical reality. I was disappointed to realise they were the works of Mary Grandpré, an American.

I don’t know why Gramedia -the publisher- chose to re-utilise the American covers. I don’t believe cost was a problem considering Gramedia was already a big company by that time. It is much more believable to say it has something to do with xenophilia.

Collectively, we love looking down on ourselves. We are more trustful of the expertise of foreigners than we are of our fellow countrymen, even when there is no reason to be so. Even after the resurging popularity of batik in the recent years, we still think our historically and heterogenously rich heritage is inferior compared to the foreign ones.

Unfortunately, I still cannot find papers that back my argument. I can only provide anecdotes. But, I can ask you these questions:

When was the last time you see Indonesians promoting their country as aggressively as the Koreans? When was the last time you and fellow non-Indonesians around you were smitten by Indonesia’s soft power? When was the last time you see Indonesians being genuinely proud of their heritages and not begging for validations from foreigners?

For the first two questions, I am sure the most likely answer is ‘never’. For the last question, the answer is very apparent when one watches lots of Youtube videos; every time a foreign Youtube channel makes an Indonesian-themed video, a hoard of Indonesians would come seemingly out of nowhere and swamp the comment section.

In 2017, there was a development, though. The Indonesian editions are now published with illustrations made by an Indonesian by the name of Nicholas F. Chandrawienata.

Stole it. Can’t remember the source.

Frankly, I am not a fan. I think his illustrations are not atmospheric enough and are too aesthetically similar to manga, making them appear more Japanese than Indonesian. But, compared to many Harry Potter cover designs, his works easily stand out.

Usually, Harry Potter covers utilise a wide range of deep, vivid colours and depict the individual story’s major characters and/or events. Instead of following the same path, he chose to depict the head of a creature which is prominently featured in the individual story (e.g. a dragon or a phoenix), surrounded by all of the characters and, to a lesser extent, narratively significant objects; his chosen colour schemes are also more muted and less colourful.

As much as I am not a big fan of the new covers, I have to commend the designer for creating such distinguishable works.

The (mis)translation

Content wise, the first thing I noticed was the poor translation.

I don’t know why the translator did not translate the places’ English names. Privet Drive can simply be translated as Jalan Privet (we don’t have a large variety for the word ‘road’). The Burrows can simply be Burrows, considering Malay/Indonesian does not have definite articles. St Mungo’s, the name of the magical hospital, can simply be St Mungo, as it is weird to use third person possessive in names. Grimmauld Place can be Kediaman Grimmauld or Rumah Grimmauld. Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley can be translated as Gang/Lorong Diagon and Gang/Lorong Knockturn, respectively.

Admittedly, I am making a big deal out of this. We Indonesians don’t always fully translate names of foreign places. We still refer to New York and The Hague as New York and Den Haag, respectively. I will let this slide, albeit grudgingly.

If you haven’t noticed, some of the names are puns. Grimmauld Place is Grim Old Place, Diagon Alley is Diagonally and Knocturn Alley is Nocturnally. I personally think it would be exhilarating if the Indonesian translator created her own puns, just like what her Brazilian counterpart did (Goldstein 2004). But, acknowledging the difficulty of such endeavour, I am content with direct translation.

I don’t know why the translator still kept the English Mr and Mrs titles, even though they can be easily translated into Indonesian. While apparate and disapparate are words created by J.K. Rowling, we certainly have words for appear and disappear; we could have easily repurposed them to describe the acts of apparating and disapparating.

This is indicative of our cultural cringe. We will purposefully use foreign words to convey certain meanings in order to sound ‘cool’, ‘educated’ or ‘modern’, even though there are available Indonesian words. Even I am guilty of such sin when conversing.

I also hate how stilted the dialogues are. It seems almost every character speaks in an almost formal manner. I notice it is not that unusual for some native English speakers to speak with standard or semi-standard English in their daily lives. But, that’s not the case with Indonesians.

Indonesian language is one of two currently-used standard variants of Malay and no Indonesians speak it in our daily lives. We only use it in writings or in scripted speeches. Even Indonesian language teachers use colloquial speeches when verbally teaching their students.

This happens because Indonesia is a highly-multilingual country where many still have attachments to their ancestral tongues; in such situation, a lingua franca is definitely needed to ease the intercommunication (Martin-Anatias 2017).

If the Indonesian translation uses colloquial dialects for the dialogues, I can guarantee the resulting storytelling would be much more dynamic. But, this adds a complication to the translating process: which colloquial dialects should we use?

There are countless of them here. Some Indonesians use regional languages in their everyday lives and some use other Malay dialects, which may or may not be considered as ‘improper’ Indonesian (Martin-Anatias 2017). If we use other Malay dialects, we should consider the factors of how much the speakers are influenced by the latest slangs. We should also consider whom we are speaking to; Indonesian is one of the languages in which the age and status of the speakers affect the choice of words.

But, again, I will let this defect slide. Unfortunately, many Indonesian films and TV shows also love using stitled dialogues that nobody use in their everyday lives.

One defect I will never tolerate is mistranslation.

Most of the time, the words are properly translated. But, there are occasions when they are incorrectly translated and stick out like sore thumbs. But, I believe the mistranslation of the word dream is the worst of them all.

In Indonesian, there are two words for dream: mimpi and impian. The former has multiple meanings: the dream we experience during sleep and an idiom for aspiration and daydreaming. The latter only means aspiration, desire or the likes; it has no other meanings.

But, for some reasons, the translator translated sleep dream as impian.

I don’t know how the translator bungled it up. No, she was not a foreigner who still had a relatively poor grasp of the language. She was an Indonesian!

Mistranslation is already bad enough. But, poor grasp of one’s native tongue’s basic vocabulary is even worse!

Its loaded content

While it was not the first book I read, Order of Phoenix was the first one that I read from start to finish. My twelve-year-old self was shocked; naively, I expected a fantastical world which I could escape from reality to.

Well, the depicted world is indeed escapist and fantastical. But, it also depicts inept and corrupt political establishment, political interference in the academia, propagandistic media and a PTSD-stricken titular character. Combine them with death and prejudice being recurring themes of the series, with the villains – Voldemort and the Death Eaters – who are often compared to the Nazis due to their violent obsession with being ‘pure-blooded’.

The plot of this novel is often compared to specific moments in history, in which the authorities either dismiss or partake in the worrying rise of sectarian populism; it can be argued one of the moments is happening right now in the United States (Calo 2018).

As an Indonesian, I can relate to the situation with the rise of Islamic extremism in Indonesia. While I still don’t know any Indonesians who are comparable to the villains, the increasing presence of Muslim extremists is worrying and personally, it does feel like the government does little or nothing to curb their influences.

I have read quite a few articles about this. But, disappointingly, none of them mention this: we should have seen the phenomena coming.

In the Harry Potter universe, pure blood supremacy is depicted as an age-old inclination among many witches and wizards. In the real world, people like Trump supporters and Muslim extremists have existed for many years, decades even; being under-the-radar is not the same being non-existent. We don’t have the privilege to be surprised by their rise to power.

The character Dolores Umbridge is even more interesting. Unlike Voldemort -whose acts are thankfully not mundane for most of us-, she is just too close to home. She is seen as a representation of sadistic power abusers we may encounter in our daily lives; even Rowling herself said her inspiration for the character was a real person she knew (Rowling 2015).

If that is not intense enough, we experience the story through the perspective of our PTSD-stricken teenage hero. To describe the reading experience as an emotional rollercoaster is an understatement. It took me many years to truly appreciate it.

I am not one of the people who take the ‘Harry-Potter-makes-you-a-better-person’ study for granted. Considering nothing lives in a vacuum, it does not make any sense to solely credit or blame one thing for our moral standards.

Some fans -me included- also notice a few things in the series which maybe considered “problematic” or “poorly-aged”. Combine that with accusations of queerbaiting and transphobia directed at the author. The more you know, the harder it is to not see Harry Potter as a wellspring of hypocrisy.

But, the series does have socially-relevant mature topics as recurring themes.Whether we like to admit it or not, Rowling’s highly escapist works successfully compel her young readers to take more heed about the reality they live in.

In this instalment specifically -in which the topics are more brazenly depicted-, she compels them to try putting themselves on someone else’s shoes, to imagine how it feels to suffer from PTSD and to deal with corrupt political establishment.


Regardless of how (un)impressed you are with it, you cannot deny that Harry Potter’s thematics is influential among the readers. Many do take the commentaries to their hearts, hence the backlashes against the author’s statements regarding trans people.

I am indeed sceptical about works of art and entertainment influencing our morality. But, with the right approaches, they can encourage us to contemplate about our own moral stances; whether we change our minds or not, it depends on us.

When I chose this novel as my object, I only expected to analyse the thematics, the cover’s visual aesthetic and the quality of translation; I genuinely did not expect to ponder about my national identity.

It took the publisher a long time to hire an Indonesian illustrator. The translator refused to translate the honorifics and place names into Indonesian; she also refused to translate the dialogues into vernacular Indonesian. It is inevitable that I will be reminded of how prevalent cultural cringe is among my fellow countrymen.

Calo, A 2018, ”Harry Potter’ and its frightening political parallels: ‘how we are living through the Order of Phoenix”, <https://medium.com/@andreacarlo/harry-potter-and-its-frightening-political-parallels-how- we-re-living-through-the-order-of-the-148698d4>

Goldstein, S 2004, ‘Translating Harry Potter, Part I: The Language of Magic’, <https://bytelevel.com/global/translating_harry_potter.html&gt;

Martin-Anatias, N 2017, ‘Who speaks Indonesian, ‘the envy of the multilingual world”, <https://theconversation.com/who-speaks-indonesian-the-envy-of-multilingual-world-85011>

Rowling, J 2015, ‘Dolores Umbridge’, <https://www.wizardingworld.com/writing-by-jk-rowling/dolores- umbridge>






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Author: The Stammering Dunce

I write blogs. I love to act smarter than I really am and I pretend that my opinions are of any significance. Support me on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?u=9674796

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