Firenze, Harry Potter's divination teacher poses for a photo for my walking tour on Edinburgh's Royal Mile

Hedwig, Harry Potter's postal owl

Rowling's treasured night in the ÉlysĂ©e Palace Paris

& the quiet midnight toils of her French translator

In 2009, 2 years after the release of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling was invited by the French president Nicolas Sarkozy to be made a Knight of the Legion D’Honour, an elite award created by Napoleon Bonaparte.

But Rowling is offered many honours, she prefers to stay with her family, she sells a few books just on merit so why accept?

French president Nicolas Sarkozy cheek kisses JK Rowling inside Paris' ÉlysĂ©e Palace
Maybe she wanted to snog Sarkozy?

Ug - No!
It was the chance to visit ÉlysĂ©e Palace and meet the French President, she thanked the president from the bottom of her heart.

A Knight to remember

The President said Rowling was offered Legion D’Honour because she had ‘given young people the taste for reading again’, teaching them that ‘reading isn’t a punishment but a source of pleasure’.

The president praised her for bringing together generations with a common interest, and through her charity work being a woman of heart who amply deserved the honour. The president’s kind words gladened Rowling.

Rowling is a eighth French, she studied and taught French and continues to be a Francophile but she is particularly thankful to Gallimard, the first publisher to publish the Potter books abroad, before even the Americans, and so France holds a special place in her heart.

In fact, the president noted that keen as her publisher Gallimard was, passionate French Potter fans impatient for the translation learned to read English from imported books, which doubtless gained a few nodders from their audience of Potter fans.

Rowling & her husband Ian Murray outside the ÉlysĂ©e palace Paris
Rowling's husband Doctor Ian Murray is in the background, Merlin's beard look at his shoes! He must iron his feet to get them in

Isn't it curious how Ian looks like JK Rowling's hero?
Actually, now I come to think about it, I don't think it's curious at all.

Harry Potter & the battle of Verdun

JK Rowling’s great-grandfather Louis Volant was French, he would fight at the battle of Verdun.

Having moved to Britain he swept Eliza Smith off her feet, marrying her in 1900 and settling in London.

JK Rowling's great grandfather Louis Volant, working as a waiter in the Savoy
Louis Volant found a job as a waiter in the Savoy & recruited other French staff for them

World War I was brewing, a courageous man, Louis forsook his wife, returning to Paris and signing up.

The Germans attempted a surprise attack on France hoping for a quick capture of Paris. Rowling’s grandfather Volant and the 16th territorials blocked their path.

Armed only with rifles, they had no defence against the German artillery who began shelling them from 04.30am. From 09.00 cannon fire intensified killing the last of the unit's officers.

Under violent bombardment Volant took command, leading them into battle and killing many soldiers but becoming wounded in the arm and receiving massive shrapnel to the face.

The hospital's assessment was "45 per cent mutilation"; a hole had to be drilled in Louis skull to relieve pressure. He couldn't return to duty and saw out the war as a translator.


After the war Volant would visit England. Rowling’s mother Anne enjoyed her lovely Grandfather, this short, stocky, beret-wearing Frenchman with interesting stories.

Volant’s Rowling legacy

She said that she’s always been proud of him - respecting his generations' sacrifice for liberty and justice - and believed he would be happy to know that the books written by his great-grand-daughter are well appreciated in the country where he was born.

The heroism and sacrifice of her grandfather, for friends and liberty, is one that isn’t a stranger to her fictional son.


As a student in the 80s, Rowling followed her grandfather’s footsteps studying for a happy year in Paris. Rowling sees France not as her home, but her hometown.

French president Nicholas Sarkozy pins the Legion D'Honour on JK Rowling

Being Knighted by the President was a cherished climax to her relationship with the city, which perhaps drew her to set Fantastic Beast's 2 in Paris.

JK Rowling & cast at the Paris premiere of Fantastic Beast's Crimes of Grindelwald
Hello old friends

Celui-Dont-On-Ne-Doit-Pas-Prononcer-Le-Nom

Accepting the Legion D’Honour she was glad that the French were never offended by her heartless villain’s French name. She sought a name that evoked ‘power and exoticism’ but was adamant Voldemort  is 100% English.

It's in French but you can fiddle the subtitles to English - just don't ask me how

Rowling would like to buy her speccy boy a butterbeer

I doubt that any of my next books will be as successful as Harry Potter, which has surpassed my wildest dreams. I am very happy to have this success, and my greatest reward is to imagine thanking Harry since children all over the world have discovered the pleasure of reading.

I will never forget the years the seven Harry Potter books were published. They were the most extraordinary years of my life, and a night like this is proof of the magical effect that Harry Potter has had on the life of its author.

Mr. President, thank you again for this huge honour. It will be a very precious memory for me and a beautiful night.

Thank you.

Rowling’s publisher out liberal-led Rowling

Rowling gave Hagrid a country bumpkin accent, he hadn’t graduated and is styled by cruel Draco Malfoy as a stupid oaf. This is a difficult thing to translate because if the translator gave Hagrid a regional accent, they could potentially stir up stigma. So in France Hagrid lost his accent.

It's one instance where Rowling praised the US version, because they were willing to stick with his difficult accent, although any potential stigma wouldn’t really travel the ocean. Rowling felt that removing the accent was dumbing down.

The battle to complete

Due to obsessive secrecy by British publisher Bloomsbury translators the world over received their copy of the latest Harry Potter on the day of publication of the English-language version.

Readers were champing at the bit to get reading, In Germany impatient fans rebelled, so the French translator Jean-François Ménard began at 6am each day, working till midnight. 126 hour weeks to get the books finished on time, it made him a little rounder around the waist & neck.

Jean-François Ménard the French translator holds a copy of the Half Blood Prince
Jean-François Ménard, Rowling's tireless French translator

Facing the torture of foreshadowing

Rowling is a masterful storyteller, the Potter books are partly written as mysteries. Red herrings (misleading clues), misdirection, she uses complex plot plans to map it all out.

Her books are stuffed with foreshadowing - setting things up that come to fruition later in the story, so it feels natural. She also has moments later which echo major events earlier, gifting a feeling of authenticity to Harry’s fantastical world.

MĂ©nard was concerned the rush to publish might harm the translation, a literal translation might be caught out by Rowling’s artful foreshadowing, where a name or sentence's real purpose and meaning is revealed later.

So to minimise flaws, he translated the last chapter first, then the first, working his way, one chapter at a time, from each end to the middle.

MĂ©nard’s mission was to be a detective, to discover the author’s purpose and serve that. It’s difficult with such twisting, complex plots, he said: "days are very long and busy when Harry is there”.

Drinking the Goblet of Fire

Jean-François Ménard & his bookmarked English Harry Potter books
MĂ©nard’s English Potter books became a mass of multi-coloured bookmarks

He saw Harry’s saga as “a novel in seven volumes, with continuity”. When he had to translate Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire I think this hit him like a Hogwarts-Express.

Suddenly he had all these French students from Beauxbatons running around Hogwarts, joining the British students also with French names. Oh...

For the love of Potter!

MĂ©nard rejoiced in reinventing Rowling’s invented names in French, saying it came naturally and is what he enjoyed the most.

A writer of children’s books himself, with a particular passion for fantasy, he was the publisher's dream choice and he earns an amount from each book sale. Asked if he thus pursued a luxurious contract, MĂ©nard laughed warmly and said “It would have been inelegant."

Why us Rosbifs love the French translations

The French translation creates much hilarity amongst British Potterheads. MĂ©nard translated Muggles, now non-magique in Fantastic Beasts to ‘Mou du bulbe’, meaning soft in the head. It’s perfect, when I first read that I fell off my chair laughing! Genius! Vernon Dursley is a total cottage-cheese head.

I also loved the translation for wand - ‘Une baguette magique’. I had visions of Hogwart's students walking down the stone corridors, battling monstrous snakes with cheese and ham rolls.

Sheild of Beauxbaton's Academy France

l'académie de magie de Beauxbùtons
You've no idea how much we love that - 'Beaux' meaning beautiful and batons, a word we've adopted ourselves for the baton twirlers in marching bands. Put them together you get "The magic academy of beautiful sticks" - I love it!

Of course 'beautiful wands' would be even better, and the coat of arms of the French school is two crossed, golden wands. But that would be "l'académie de magie de Beaux-baguettes", and that's no good whatsoever.

Beaux - 'beautiful', is femimine, similar to 'Durmstang' the school's name was likely chosen by Rowling to reinforce the character (femininity) of the school's headmistress, Madam Buxine, who Dumbledore describes as "a very able Headmistress – and an excellent dancer".


Hogwarts becomes Poudlard
This is one JK Rowling would be proud of. Hogwarts is a flower Rowling saw on a visit to Queue Botanic gardens in London with a friend. Crafty Rowling loves puns, plays on words, and conjures moods and associations in her writing by littering passages with certain sounds and adjectives (descriptive words).

Rowling also likes the humourous double use of words, which is likely how Hog-warts won her heart. Lumps on a dirty great hairy pig.

Many translators just bluntly maintained the school's name. MĂ©nard wanted to maintain the spirit of the name, by creating a humourous second meaning in French, so renamed the school Poudlard, which also means 'Bacon lice' - I love it!

Draco Malfoy - Drago Malefoy
A direct translation of Harry's bully was too literal, his surname already being French. His first name comes from the Latin 'Draco' for dragon, whilst his surname came from French, Malfoy, meaning bad faith. Draco 'badfaith' - MĂ©nard wanted a name, not a label, so inserted an e.

In the 1980s Oxford university turned down JK Rowling’s application to study there. So naturally I sought their French department’s opinion on the translation: In a project fraught with difficulty, and scattered with no-win situations pitting sound against sense, or humour against consistency, MĂ©nard pulls off a sterling job seven times in succession.

The soulful French book covers

President Sarkozy said that the covers had added to the myth. French illustrator Jean-Claude Götting did make interesting choices.

While the rest of the world’s illustrators depicted scenes of fantastical action, Götting instead opted for scenes of introspection, where characters ponder their choices and difficulties. Emo Potter.

A French Harry Potter book cover by illustrator Jean-Claude Götting
For Götting "the meaning of the book is not in the action scenes, it is about important choices... sacrifices, friendship & loyalty."

JK Rowling's Edinburgh

If you enjoyed this, I'd love you to come on my 3 hour Harry Potter walking tour of Edinburgh, where we examine how Rowling's life formed Harry's world.

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TrÚs bonne expérience lors du tour de Sam Il connaßt trÚs bien son sujet! Participer à ce tour permet de découvrir de nouveaux lieux et des anecdotes mais aussi de tester nos connaissances sur le monde d'Harry Potter! On le recommande vraiment!

If you're not upto 3 hours in English, contact me and I may be able to get a translator for a 2œ hour tour at an extra cost.

Or learn more about my many Potter tours

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