Huan Truong

Notes from a developer


Harry Potter and The Little Indie Translation

Reading How Three Kids With No Experience Beat Square And Translated Final Fantasy V Into English brings back my memories.

The whole process helped her launch a career in the video game industry. To this day, she puts Final Fantasy V on her resume, and she says without the project, she wouldn’t have learned reverse-engineering.

I did something similar with the Harry Potter series: beat the publisher to translating the book. Although I don't put translating Harry Potter on my resume, I have to admit that doing that silly event, strangely, was the one event that shaped my life. It did in ways I couldn't imagine in my wildest dream.

I discovered Harry Potter series up until Book 4, The Globet of Fire, by renting books from a bookstore when I was 15. At that time, many Vietnamese kids were all eager for book 5 to come out. Except for when Book 5, The Order of the Phoenix came, we had to wait for it. We would have to wait for the "blessed" translator (Ly Lan) and the publisher to translate and churn out the whole book when a new book comes, and with all the proofreading it would take about 4-6 months. I decided that was too long and started posting on a quite popular forum my indie translation. Shortly after that I moved my work to my personal website. Being a 16-year-old having a summer break at that time, I had nothing better to do. My timetable was something like stay up all night to translate half a chapter, post the new translation, go to bed at 6 AM, wake up at 11 AM, the next day rinse and repeat. People loved it and many started contacting me to help with the translation. We had a huge following to the point that I had to do nothing but just organizing and assigning who-does-what and then proofread it with my 16-year-old brain, but mostly we flew under the radar and it was easy.

One thing good came out of it: The indie translation on the Book 5 pressured the official publisher and made the "blessed" translator work around the clock. She had to release her unfinished translations as they came out. She wasn't sure how to translate the title, The Order of the Phoenix, and got it wrong for half of the book (order ~ the order came out of the phoenix's mouth) and then they had to change the translation halfway through (order ~ the group with hierarchy). We were very quick to realize that was the wrong translation. I was surprised (and somewhat pleased/impressed) that the publisher/official translator didn't refer to what we did to avoid that mistake.

The complete translated book came out about 20 days after the English version. The normies still had to wait for the blessed book to read it, but savvier people have already read the whole story months earlier. People would bring A4-sized printouts to read at school and my older brother was asked more than once whether he knew the person who translated it from time to time.

Book 6, The Half-blood Prince, was not as much of a happy story but nonetheless, a fun one. When Book 6 came, I knew so much better about the translation process that I knew to appoint someone that did the logistics. I did the fun part: code a website that allows us to automate the translation submission and make sure it can handle the traffic (it didn't!). At that time Vietnam has just signed the Berne copyright convention, and my indie translation was the center of attention. In the past, we gave out our real names or real nick-names, however the translator wanted it. We had about 4-5 chapters churned out before we realized that we were in big troubles. I remember one night I received an email to my personal mailbox at 10 PM from a journalist asking something along the lines of "Do you know you're doing something illegal? Do you think that Youth Publishing House will sue?" I was scared and fucking deleted everything. I thought this is the end, and went to bed, not responding to the journalist. Then at 5 AM, not being able to sleep, I checked email again and the same person sent another email…

"I see that you deleted everything. This was totally not my intention. If possible, please let me know if we can do a secret interview. I won't rat you out, I promise. You might think that I am being dishonest but please trust me this time, I want you to continue to do what you are doing. I would love to see the new chapter coming out tomorrow."

I immediately removed all real names and asked everyone on the team to choose nicknames for themselves. I actually gave out my home address to the journalist and he turned out to be a hipster-looking student studying journalism writing part-time for a newspaper. We became good friends after that.

Besides the interview, there are several interesting events that happened. The translation at that time was so controversial that it sparked the discussion on many online forums. I had Google Analytics installed at the time so I knew who was linking to our website. I registered a nickname just to talk my side of the story in one of them. It turned out that the admin of the forum was someone who studied in Princeton. Three years later, when I dropped out of college, disheartened by what I saw and discouraged by what happened, he suggested me to go study abroad. I would otherwise have never dreamed of studying abroad. Another online friend who was 40+ at the time asked me to work for him in the gap year, appointed me to his "vice-president" role of his company.

The rest is just history. Thanks to the event and all that came after it, I knew probably 50% of all online friends that I admire and probably wouldn't ever have known otherwise.

When Book 7, The Deathly Hallows, came out (I was having my "gap year"), I decided not to do it anymore.

It was too much to handle, I chickened out. Someone else, one year younger than me, did it anyway, though.