How a Hanukkah song made its way into Harry Potter’s Hebrew version
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How a Hanukkah song made its way into Harry Potter’s Hebrew version

Translator Gili Bar Hillel speaks about the challenges of interpreting the series in a manner that would resonate with Israeli readers

Gili Bar-Hillel with her Hebrew-language version of 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,' one of the four Harry Potter books she translated, in her Tel Aviv office, June 23, 2003. (David Silverman/Getty Images via JTA)
Gili Bar-Hillel with her Hebrew-language version of 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,' one of the four Harry Potter books she translated, in her Tel Aviv office, June 23, 2003. (David Silverman/Getty Images via JTA)

JTA — If you read the “Harry Potter” series in Hebrew you may have noticed a curious Jewish fact: Though Sirius Black isn’t Jewish, the character sings a Hanukkah song in one scene from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” the fifth book in the series.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Hebrew translator Gili Bar Hillel reveals some behind-the-scenes tidbits about her “Harry Potter” translation process. In the original English version, Black parodies a Christmas song, “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman,” but Bar Hillel felt that wouldn’t resonate with Israeli readers.

Instead, she referenced a well-known Hanukkah song, “Mi Yimallel (Gvurot Yisrael)” so that Jewish readers would be able to relate.

“There were fans who ridiculed this and said that I was trying to convert Harry to Judaism, but really the point was just to convey the cheer and festivity of making up words to a holiday song,” she said. “I don’t think any of the characters come off as obviously Christian, other than in a vague sort of cultural way, so I didn’t feel it was a huge deal if I substituted one seasonal holiday for another!”

That wasn’t Bar Hillel’s only translation dilemma. She struggled with finding the right phrase for “Pensieve,” a container used to store memories. After weeks of thinking, she came up with the term “Hagigit.”

The phrase is “a portmanteau of ‘hagig’ — a fleeting idea — and ‘gigit’ — a washtub,” Bar Hillel said.

The EW story deals with the many challenges translators around the world have faced while tackling the seven-book series and features many other interesting tidbits.

It doesn’t seem like author J.K. Rowling would mind the liberties Bar Hillel took. The British author has recently become a vocal critic of anti-Semitism, using Twitter to call out people peddling anti-Jewish arguments.  Her latest book even includes a villain whose obsessive hatred of Zionism turns into anti-Semitism.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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