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From Shakespeare to Master Potter

Harry Potter

Who to choose - Harry Potter, trainee wizard, or Hamlet, Prince of Denmark?

That was the dilemma facing Maria Litvinova, Russia's top translator and world-renowned expert on Shakespeare, when she agreed to set aside her cherished research into the Bard of Avon to translate the tale of a bespectacled wannabe wizard.

"It was not easy for me to accept this offer. I am over 70 and time is too precious for me now to spend it on anything else but my research," she said after finishing the translation of the second volume of J K Rowling's Harry Potter adventures.

Litvinova says she has absolutely unorthodox views on Shakespeare and it is her life's goal to prove her point. But she felt it was no less urgent to give Russian children the best of Harry Potter who has so mesmerised children the world over.

"But the book is such a gem that it was unbearable for me to think that the magic of the language would be lost on Russian readers," she said.

Litvinova said she never regretted her decision and even felt that Harry himself seemed keen to help her.

"Instead of the planned six months I managed to finish the work in 90 days. What is that, if not magic?" she asked.

The adventures of the young boy stumbling his way through an exciting world of mystery and magic appears to have cast a worldwide spell, selling 100 million copies from Argentina to China.

Russian children have been treated so far to only the first of the four-volume saga. Rosman, publisher of the Russian-language edition, soon started to receive calls from parents distressed by the poor quality of the translation.

"Parents complained that their children were devouring the book - and the not-so-good Russian it was written in," Litvinova said.

So Rosman asked me to help them with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second book, which went on sale in Litvinova's translation on July 1.

The standard of Russian translation plummeted from its Soviet peak with the collapse of Communism in 1991 as publishers flooded the market with second-rate Western crime and horror fiction, churned out with little regard for linguistic flair.

English syntax pollutes most translations and has even begun to influence radio and television, with presenters often inadvertently using grammatical constructions completely alien to native Russian-speakers.

Mikhail Markotkin, Rosman's chairman, said his company was embarrassed by its gaffe in choosing the initial translator, and was doing its best to repair the damage.

"It was sub-standard," he said at the launch of The Chamber of Secrets in Moscow. "We have decided now to make corrections to the version."

Markotkin said the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, topped the Russian children's best-seller lists with sales of around 100,000 copies, and the company was assailed by children desperate to discover when they could get their hands on the sequel.

"Kids are ready to wait for two, four months, for half a year - which is astounding for a market where people usually lose interest after two or three months," he said.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets has an initial print run of 50,000 with a further run of the same size planned in two to three weeks' time.

That is extremely high for a country where living standards remain low and most books are sold in large cities.

Markotkin said the book was selling at well below average European and US prices in order to broaden its reach. He said Rosman was planning to increase the price steadily from the current $US2.50 ($NZ6.20), as new Harry Potter books hit the bookstores.

He declined to reveal how profitable Pottermania has been for Rosman, but was visibly excited about the company's victory in the lucrative tender for what has become a global publishing phenomenon.

Harry Potter tales have been translated into 42 languages from Albanian to Zulu and have transformed Rowling, a single mother writing in an Edinburgh cafe between school runs, into a millionaire.

Pottermania has worked its magic for the businessmen behind the books' success, but large-scale financial reward has passed Litvinova by. Her translation royalties from Rosman, for three months of intensive work, were equivalent to less than the cost of a cut-price notebook computer.

"I'm not bothered about how much they pay me. Money means absolutely nothing to me. I am from the old Soviet school - mind over matter," she said, sitting on a creaking armchair in a room with fading wallpaper peeling from the walls.

"What I am really ready to die for is the beauty of the Russian language - and my beloved Shakespeare," Litvinova said.

Living on a shoestring, she said she could not afford the kind of research Rowling's translators abroad indulged in, like Japan's Yuko Matsuoka who ordered a knickerbocker glory ice cream to see what it looked like.

But Litvinova said she was sure her profound knowledge of English life and literature would compensate amply for any such shortcomings.

Fearful that her advanced age should cramp the text, she also asked a team of younger translators to look over her shoulder to make sure Harry sounded like his real teenage self.

"All that made me feel younger myself," she said when asked if it was time for her to go back to Shakespeare. "To be honest I am already translating the third book."

Andrei Shukshin

© Reuters