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I came across the following sentence in Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone):

Les élèves de Smelting avaient également une canne dont ils se servaient pour se taper dessus quand les professeurs ne les voyaient pas.

My attempted translation of this is:

The pupils of Smeltings also had a stick which they used to hit themselves when the teachers couldn't see them.

The original sentence in J.K. Rowling's version is:

They also carried knobbly sticks, used for hitting each other while the teachers weren't looking.

How does the French translation above make clear that the pupils were hitting each other, rather than each pupil hitting himself?

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  • You may consider looking for "transitive verbs" (e.g. "habiller and s'habiller) – Koresh Feb 4 '15 at 10:41
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In that sentence it isn't very clear indeed. Only context could give you that information.

Himself/herself or themselves is translated by 'se' in french. There is no distinction

You could emphasize the fact that they are hitting each other by saying:

... pour taper sur les autres (to hit the others)

But in that case it is not necessary as one could easily understand that one pupil isn't gonna hit himself voluntarily

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    I'd rather say "se taper les uns sur les autres", as "taper sur les autres" might imply there's a second group of students, since the subject is ils. Anyway, se taper dessus is the fluidest, most idiomatic translation. It just makes total sense and no ambiguity in the context. – guillaume31 Feb 5 '15 at 16:14
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As mentionned in some answers above, you need a context to know exactly what this means. As I recall many scenes from the movie it seems to me that the right meaning is: “The pupils of Smeltings also had sticks which they used to hit each others when the teachers couldn't see them”.

I can imagine this easily, as the teachers are distracted by something else or are out for a moment the class would become messy as they begin to hit each others. These students from Boudlar are two shabby to hit themselves (so it seems to me, and that's why the full context is required to translate this correctly).

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My understanding of reflexive verbs in French is that the subject (the "performer") and the object (the "target") of the verb will always be the same.

This means that for a singular subject, like je, tu, il/elle/on, this will always refer to the self. Consider je me rase; because there's only one of me, I can only shave myself.

When we consider a group (nous, vous, ils/elles), the semantics change slightly. If le groupe se partageons le chocolat, the group is sharing the chocolate with the group. This generally implies that the members of the group are sharing the chocolate among one another, not that each group member is sharing their own chocolate with themselves.

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    The reasoning is not bad, but le groupe se partageons le chocolat is not so great... – jlliagre Jul 19 at 23:31

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