On Saturday morning, a very special train will pull out of King's Cross Station in London. Its cargo: the woman whose stories about a young wizard-in-training have enchanted readers of all ages - in some 110 countries.
The four-day promotional tour by British author J.K. Rowling hardly seems necessary. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," installment No. 4 in her series, will be flying out of bookstores faster than the young protagonist's new Firebolt broomstick.
Potter aficionados camped out at stores in the US, Britain, and Canada will be the first to get their hands on the book. But this is a global phenomenon. And no literary series or single book has swept the world as quickly as this tale about an orphan boy, raised by uncaring relatives, who discovers he has the sorcerer's touch.
Harry's adventures are now being read in 40 languages, including Faeroese, Serbian, Thai, and Indonesian. Editors and critics say the themes of friendship, self-reliance, and tolerance transcend cultural boundaries.
Worldwide sales of the series since the first book was published in 1997 in Britain number about 35 million (more than half of them in the US).
In Japan, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first title, was released in Japanese just six months ago. It has been gaining popularity, selling 500,000 copies as of May and topping the bestseller list.
Though stores stock it in the children's section, pensioners have been snatching up the book, according to a survey by publisher and translator Yuko Matsuoka. It is most popular, however, with women in their 20s and 30s - a niche with increasing purchasing power. And in a culture that venerates otaku - obsessive dedication to one hobby, such as collectible items or real or fictional characters - Harry Potter fan clubs are blossoming like chrysanthemums. A Japanese Web site touts plans for parties in Tokyo and Osaka to mark Harry's birthday, July 31.
Accessibility a factor
"It is easily slipped into as a book, but it isn't an easy book as such," says Prue Goodwin, a lecturer at the Reading and Language Information Centre at the University of Reading in Britain. "You can be taken into the narrative fully, and be engaged in it without struggling with a subtext or a difficult vocabulary."
Elizabeth Devereaux, a contributing editor on children's books at US magazine Publishers Weekly, says that despite insider terms such as "Muggle" (a nonmagical person) and "Quidditch" (a popular sport played on airborne broomsticks), much of Harry Potter can be translated more easily than words like "Jabberwocky," from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" author Lewis Carroll, for example. "It is not about language as some books are," Ms. Devereaux says.
But Nicolette Jones, who reviews children's books for the Sunday Times in London, says she could see some problems. "I think the names must be a huge problem for translators." She points out that many of the words Rowling uses for names actually have meanings. The books' chief villain, Voldemort, for example, translates in French to "flight from death."
The message wasn't lost on Gunnilla Lindeberg Sandell, however. She read it with her nine-year-old daughter, Beata after the translation arrived in Sweden last year. Mrs. Sandell, shopping with her family in London, says the book is very popular "with adults as well." She adds, "Any child could identify, of course, with that lovely giant, Hagrid." Beata says she especially loves the invisibility cloak that Harry and his friends discover, something she would use "to spy on people."
When the book came out in January in Israel, Daisy Maryles, executive editor of Publishers Weekly, was there. She bought it in Hebrew for her cousin's son, who read it in one sitting and declared, "I'm going to have to start to read it in English because I can't wait" for the next one. It's due to be published just before Christmas in Russian, and next year in China.
Inroads in India
In some countries, the book arrives in English - just delayed. In India, where the fourth volume is expected on July 15, the books have been available since last fall, but only in the past two months has the word really spread.
"They are selling like anything. They are making publishing history. Parents buy them for kids. Kids buy them. And parents buy them for parents," says Balraj Bahri, whose store in Delhi's Khan Market has sold more than 200 copies since March.
S. Arora, owner of Teksons Bookshop in Delhi's South Extension mall, started stocking Potter in November and by March had sold more than 3,000 copies. The hardcover of the third volume cost 595 rupees (about $13.30) - a price high by Indian standards, but the books sold out.
Nine-year old Tara borrowed the first book from a friend, then bought the next two. Her mother, Ann, says the books have "become a family obsession." They all read them, staying up all weekend for the first volume, "since we had to return it on a Sunday night."
Meanwhile, booksellers from Vancouver to Dallas to Edinburgh, Scotland, who are not allowed to sell the book before the stroke of midnight on Friday night, are mining a wealth of party possibilities. Some are turning stores into replicas of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which Harry attends.
Demand is expected to break publishing records, with more than 5 million copies released in English-speaking countries on July 8. One million of those will be printed in Britain and another 3.8 million in the US - roughly twice the number that megaselling writers such as John Grisham and Tom Clancy receive. "Grisham beats Clancy, and Rowling beats everybody," says Ms. Maryles. The release of the fourth Potter book is "the largest launch book publishing has had."
Though debate rages among critics in Britain about whether Harry Potter can be called Literature (some noses are still out of joint that it was up for a prestigious book prize this year), observers say Rowling's storytelling abilities give her books universal appeal. "It's not dependent on being in the original language. To me, the charm is in the depth of the storytelling," says Devereaux.
The latest book will be longer than its predecessors - more than 700 pages in the US version (which will have more pictures) and more than 600 in the British edition. "It really does remain to be seen whether this longer length is going to put kids off," says Diane Roback, children's book editor at Publishers Weekly.
Tom Jackson, an eight-year-old from Limerick, Ireland, isn't dismayed.
If the book "has twice the pages" he reasons, "it will probably be much better."
*Staff writers Ilene R. Prusher in Tokyo, Robert Marquand in New Delhi, and correspondent Yasue Aoi in Tokyo contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society