"Harry Potter" in Chinese is one of those transliterations that is necessary when translating names across languages; and the sounds are nearly perfect-- jokes aside regarding Chinese natives' English pronunciation.
哈利 波特 literally sounds like "ha li po te," with the "r" sound coming out like an "l." In fact, when I say those syllables out loud, I am tickled by my own Chinese accent. English-speaking Asians who have been in the U.S. for years can still laugh at themselves and refer to their form of communication as "Engrish."
There is a difference between translation and transliteration, and Chinese and other Asian languages in particular do much of the latter. Translation is taking the word "cat" and saying it in Mandarin as mao. Transliteration is taking my name, Jessie, and creating its Chinese form, Jie Xi. Hence the term, it is a literal translation of the sounds made to form the word. This second practice allows words that have foreign origin to become part of Chinese vocabulary, oftentimes necessary when there is no Chinese equivalent. Coca-Cola is a good example, as there was nothing similar to it in the Chinese language. In the 1920s, Coke was transliterated by store owners as ke kou ke la, sounding similar, but meaning literally "bite the wax tadpole" (as I learned from self-described language addict and writer Elizabeth Little). Anytime a foreign name or term is transliterated into Chinese characters, a new sort of nonsense phrase is created, like the Coca-Cola phrase. Chinese doesn't have an alphabet, like English, so "you don't have a script that is independent of meaning," says Little. Any translation encounters this problem, and so speakers simply ignore the literal meanings of foreign and western names, and things that clearly come from foreign terminology. Little illustrates with Bill Clinton's name: Co lin den, meaning, literally, in Mandarin, "repress forest pause." A Chinese person would know right away that this is a western name.
It should be noted that Coca-Cola had been searching for a better transliteration of their product's name in the years after its introduction in China, and eventually came to a satisfying decision. The current ke kou ke le translates in Chinese to mean "happiness in the mouth." Quite fitting.
When a word like "cell phone" must be added to the language, Chinese speakers do not transliterate such terms. This is an element of delight the foreign student of Mandarin runs in to; the Chinese term is shou ji, shou meaning "hand" and ji meaning "machine." So, the foreigner thinks, this is a "hand machine," and a laugh follows. But terms like this are not to be taken to mean quite such a literal thing when translated. A student must simply absorb the term to mean "cell phone," even while the parts of the translation do not individually mean "cell" and "phone." That would be nearly impossible to achieve, and makes the nuances of languages and the mysteries of learning a new one that more challenging and exciting.
Elizabeth Little, who I discovered within my favorite podcast, The World in Words, has been featured in two separate episodes in regards to her obsession with learning languages, fiddling with modern and even ancient languages (she reads ancient Chinese and Greek both), and in particular for her experience with the Chinese language. She has written a book about her life as a language addict, which I have not read yet-- but it is on my list. She sounds like a person I would love to invite to a dinner party. And why does she come up here? For two reasons: first, she taught me about the brilliant "bite the wax tadpole" transliteration.
Secondly, and to bring this back around to the start of the post, she encourages taking language learning beyond textbook- or CD-style repetition. She says she enjoys watching movies or reading books that she loves (and therefore knows well) in your subject language. I took this to heart, and bought myself a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Mandarin Chinese. Side by side, the reading is slow and tedious, but in the sort of exhilarating way of figuring out a difficult puzzle. I am surprised how many characters I recognize, considering my level of comprehension, and by looking at the context, I am able to build new meanings onto words I have already learned. New words are still hard to learn based only on character, because looking a word up in a Chinese dictionary is a lot harder than it may seem at first (remember... there is no alphabetizing going on...). But the internet is there to help me, for some words. Reading in Chinese is also rewarding for its grammar lessons, as Chinese grammar still makes very little sense to me.
It was great advice, which I must pass on. It is not the most original suggestion, people have been reading books in foreign languages forever, but it has been a useful nudge. I remember being in China and searching for something to read besides our textbooks for class, and feeling utterly overwhelmed by the idea of picking up a book in Chinese. My roommate Stacey, who had taken some Chinese previous to the trip, bought a book of poetry. I bought an audio book online, desperate for some English. (Granted, most books I would have even attempted that were available were older, and rather boring ones-- things I don't prefer, even in English.) I think the connection I was missing was tackling the language barrier through a book that I love. 哈利 波特 is the answer to that.