The Translation of Halloween

By / 18 January 2015 / Professional translation

The Translation of Halloween in France and Germany: a recently imported event

Mention Halloween to someone in France and you’ll probably be told that it was invented in America. Nevertheless, the American translation of Halloween is nothing more than that: a simple translation. In reality, Halloween stems from a far-off Celtic festival: « Samhain » [1].

Halloween has only started to gain popularity in France and Germany notably since the late 1990s. The translation of Halloween in Germany was led by the fancy dress industry when “fasching” (days dedicated to dressing-up) was cancelled due to the Gulf war. In recent years, Halloween has been an opportunity for these companies to add 30 million euros to their turnover [2].

In France, the translation of Halloween is of greater interest to children than to anyone else (and more readily in large towns and cities), despite the same tradition of “trick or treating” there [3]. In Germany, children also knock on their neighbour’s doors to haul in sweets and other treats, chanting all the while “Süßes oder Saures” or “Süßes, sonst gibt’s Saures” (which roughly translates into: “Give me sweets or things will be bitter”) [4].

The Translation of Halloween: complex through a glut of traditions

Halloween’s ambiguous heart: different translations of Halloween

The Celtic tradition of Halloween focuses on its ambivalence. Halloween marked the passing from one season to another and was an acknowledgement that the world of the supernatural and the natural were close enough to touch. According to the lore, this proximity allows spirits to easily return home. In certain regions of Spain, the translation of Halloween involves welcoming these spirits with cakes called “huesos de Santo (roughly, “bones of the sacred”) and other delicacies set by their graves [5].

A medley of translations: to welcome or to ward off the spirits?

Christianity has also changed the course of a festival which was originally only pagan. This medley of traditions means that whereas some costumes were initially designed to ward off evil, secular spirits, others bear witness instead to the way personified versions of death have been mocked. For example, the carved pumpkins (“jack-o’-lanterns”) go back to the mythical Irish figure of Jack, a restless spirit to whom both the gates of Heaven and Hell are closed.

The Translation of Halloween - Fred Rockwood, Jack 'O Lantern (Flickr)

The Translation of Halloween -Fred Rockwood, Jack ‘O Lantern (Flickr)

All in all, the translation of Halloween into practice is a way of skipping back and forth over the unfortunately abrupt disjunction between life and death. Dressing up as ghost, and welcoming back the deceased inside cemeteries is nothing less than refusing any irretrievable ends.

Sources and photo credits

[1] – The American Folklife Center: Halloween
[2] – Spiegel Online : Halloween: Süsses oder Saures? (webpage in German, a Mytranslation language)
[3] – Le Nouvel Observateur : Halloween en France : pourquoi cela marche seulement auprès des enfants (webpage in French)
[4] – Stern.de: Halloween Wie Deutschland das Gruseln lernte (webpage in German)
[5] – Wikipedia in English: Halloween
[6] – Fred Rockwood, Jack ‘O Lantern (Flickr)

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