Sitting in a small room down a dark corridor in the old, fading white building of the People's Literature Publishing House, Ma Ainong looks the part of a humble scholar from a bygone era. Her short black hair, deep purple sweater and calm, soft-spoken demeanour are slightly out of sync with the bold orange and blood-red lettering of a nearby Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows poster; that was a title she helped usher into the best-sellers list of China's cut-throat book market. Ma, 43, is one of two official Chinese translators of J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful Harry Potter series. As the spokeswoman of choice at many book-launching parties in Beijing, she's also been the main 'face' for the Chinese edition of the series. Her fellow translator on the project is her younger sister, Ma Aixin, who lived until recently in Cleveland, Ohio. The latest Potter project follows the sisters' five earlier Potter translations in the past eight years. Their deft touch has helped sell 10 million copies of the series throughout China. 'When you think about it, the series is very cleverly done - it's so close to the everyday school life of the young teenagers, with all the main characters having to do homework and all,' says Ma. According to the People's Literature Publishing House, the last title in translation has been through two print runs and sold more than 1.1 million copies since its mid-October debut. Ma, who has a deep passion for children's literature, wasn't among those originally assigned to work on the translations. In summer 2000, shortly after the publisher bought the rights to the first three Potter books, Wang Ruiqin, the editor in charge, assigned the books to Aixin, who was already translating elsewhere, and two other translators. 'I wasn't considered initially because I was already working full-time in-house as a book editor,' says Ma. A few weeks later, however, Wang asked Ma to take over a half-translated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone because the originally assigned translator became ill, says Wang. That sparked a working relationship between the sisters, with Ainong finishing the aborted Sorcerer's Stone and Aixin completing The Chamber of Secrets on her own. (The third in the series - the only one in the series not translated by the Ma sisters - was translated by Zheng Xumi.) The sisters came to be closely identified with the Chinese Harry Potter, going on to translate the rest of the collection. Often, the two worked on the same title to save time. Ma, nine years older than Aixin, is no stranger to the translation field. The granddaughter of literary translator Ma Qinghuai, Ma says she developed an early interest in foreign literature as a student at Nanjing University. She became particularly interested in Lucy Maud Montgomery's classic children's novel, Anne of Green Gables, and on a whim decided to translate it into Chinese the summer after she graduated. 'This so delighted my grandfather, working at the Commercial Press in Beijing as a senior editor at the time, that he rushed back to Nanjing to show me his full support,' says Ma. During the following weeks they holed up in her house, with her grandfather painstakingly correcting her translated pages in the next room. 'It was the best education I could ever ask for,' she says. 'If it hadn't been for his disciplined approach, I fear my translations today would be much sloppier.' Although Ma is a veteran, having translated more than 20 titles, including The Shipping News by Pulitzer Prize-winner E. Annie Proulx, translating the Potter series was tough going at times. 'In general, J.K. Rowling's writing is smooth and straightforward,' she says. 'But the hard part is translating the many incantations, unusual villains and magical gadgets, many of which you won't find in a Chinese dictionary.' She and Aixin considered using transliterations to resolve the problem, but realised these had no meaning in Chinese. They settled on a mixture of semantic and phonetic translations, rendering the evil Lord Voldemort as 'fudimo' or 'low-laying demon', and the 'horcruxes' in the final book as 'soul-collecting implements'. Tight deadlines were another problem. 'Because of sales pressure and mounting expectations from Potter fans, by the end of the series we were often given only about a month-and-a-half between seeing the original English copy and submitting our Chinese translation,' says Ma, who usually spends six months on a book that length. This meant a gruelling schedule, translating at least 5,000 Chinese characters a day. To ensure there were no discrepancies, the two sisters - working on opposite sides of the Pacific - divided the chapters as soon as they received the manuscript. They exchanged e-mails every day before meeting up at the end to address stylistic issues. They also compiled a 30-page dictionary of names and magic terms to keep tabs on the huge number of characters and events. Now that the sisters have finished translating the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Ma is enjoying the prospect of a return to anonymity. 'Strictly speaking, a translator should be someone who works quietly behind the scenes,' she says. 'We just happened to be involved in an extremely high-profile book series.' In addition to her editor's job, Ma is looking forward to translating other great foreign titles. 'Being able to sink your teeth deep into a fine book and getting lost in it is one of the most fulfilling parts of my job,' she says. 'You can forget about everything around you. And to me, that's a real luxury.'