Tolkien in Translation

Tolkien in Translation. Edited by Thomas Honegger. Zurich and Jena: Walking Tree Publishers, 2011. iv + 158pp.
ISBN-13: 9783905703153. $19.45.

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Reviewed by Harley J. Sims

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 31.1/2 (#119/120) (2012): 171–175.]

In the linguistic study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s works and worlds, few topics promise to be more interesting—and no doubt more divisive—than translation. The sheer number of professional translations of Tolkien’s works aside, the approximation of one language by another is of course central to the legendarium, serving as the authorizing device of the Red Book of Westmarch, for example, as well as the inspiration of much of Tolkien’s imaginative expression even beyond Arda (The Father Christmas Letters, for one). On these considerations, as well as the fact that Tolkien was an accomplished historical linguist before he was a successful author, one might say that translation is Tolkien, and that no analysis of his work can pretend to be complete without some exegesis of his actual wording. As contained in his Letters, Tolkien himself expressed a number of opinions about how his work was to be translated and thus understood, as well as some less than flattering assessments of contemporary attempts (most famously Dutch and Swedish translations). Clearly, his linguistic acumen gave him formidable and uncommon authority over renderings of his work into many languages, an authority which, though it had no legal dominion, must certainly have proved intimidating to translators in his time. Few authors indeed have the capacity to translate their works themselves—into one foreign language let alone several—and though Tolkien was a native speaker only of English, the uniquely philological and creative dimensions of his literature guaranteed his jurisdiction in almost any event.

Tolkien in Translation is a modest collection of six papers, edited by Thomas Honegger, which explores some of the many issues both present and possible in translating Tolkien’s fantasy works into different languages. The book is No. 4 in the longstanding and wide-reaching Cormarë Series published by Walking Tree Publishers; first released in 2003, the collection was reprinted in 2011, and finds continuation in No. 6 of the series, Translating Tolkien: Text and Film, also edited by Honegger. In the eight years since its original printing, the collection and its range have largely been superseded by various entries on language, translation, and reception in editor Michael D.C. Drout’s J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (2006). As individual works of analysis, however, these papers remain very worthwhile. In the sense that it treats translation largely as the by-product of and answerable to original text, the book’s approach to translation is largely traditional—what might be called ‘small-t’ translation studies. It should be noted that Translation Studies as an academic discipline came to be established in the last two decades of the twentieth century, with roots in the writings of Russian Formalists, as well as in later semiotic and post-structuralist writers, particularly Roland Barthes. Its use, most commonly in Comparative Literature programs, treats the translated text as its own product rather than as a provisional shadow of the original, but like many modern theoretical domains has become formalized by specialist terminology, models, and canons of secondary literature. Such circumstances run contrary to the declared intention of the Cormarë series, which is to provide “qualitatively superior yet accessible studies on Tolkien and his work” (153).

The collection’s first paper is Allan Turner’s “A Theoretical Model for Tolkien Translation Criticism.” Though nominally and initially technical, the paper provides much more of a meditation on the act and assessment of Tolkien translation than it does a methodological framework. It makes reference to ‘translation studies,’ but its use of secondary literature is modest, and respects what it calls “a well-established history of high quality do-it-yourself criticism amongst Tolkien readers” (2). The model proposed in this paper, that of George Steiner, emphasizes deep reading in order to “penetrate to the depths of the source text in order to appropriate the whole meaning” (3). Though in-depth reading might seem obvious, and the ability to appropriate a text’s whole meaning debatable, it is something of particular importance to translating Tolkien, where the ‘text-world’ and its conditions are beyond the realm of direct experience. Allan brings up a number of examples where imperfect understandings of Tolkien’s work appears to have led to hasty or incorrect translations, as well as the crucial role of the Appendices in The Lord of the Rings—often omitted in translations, at least in part—in understanding the linguistic analogies used in Tolkien’s writing. Of Allan’s very stimulating positions, that of Tolkien’s “pseudotranslation structure” (the claim that The Lord of the Ring was translated from the languages of Westron) is most disputable, primarily because there is no attention given to the ineffability of Tolkien’s imputed source—that of a Secondary World to which no comprehensible language can truly be indigenous. In that it provokes this debate and many others, however, the paper serves as an excellent introduction to the collection, and includes numerous, well-selected passages.

The second paper is by Nils Ivar Agøy, entitled “A Question of Style: On Translating The Silmarillion into Norwegian.” Agøy, who himself translated The Silmarillion in 1994 (and, in later years, The Hobbit, Unfinished Tales, and The Children of Húrin) chose to innovate in order to create a literary style in Norwegian to approximate Tolkien’s archaism. Agøy outlines clearly the challenges he faced as a Norwegian translator, including the different historical characters of the source and target languages. His reflections on the theory and practice of translating the core text of Tolkien’s legendarium are well supported with examples and written in his typically engaging style, one which makes the brevity of the paper (eleven pages) its only disappointing feature. Agøy’s responsibility to his task was equal parts veneration and humility; “[i]deally,” he claims, “the translator should not only be an expert on everything Tolkien ever wrote, but also on European mythology, history, languages, culture and on Roman Catholic theology. Needless to say, I have never had the pleasure of meeting the ideal Tolkien translator” (32).

Vincent Ferré, Daniel Lauzon, and David Riggs, all of whom collaborated to revise the French translation of The Lord of the Rings first published in 1972, provide the collection’s third paper. “Traduire Tolkien en Français: On the Translation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Works into French and their Reception in France,” explores the anomaly of France in the landscape of Tolkien translation, reception, and study. The authors make the claim that “most people in France are unaware that Tolkien’s work stretches far beyond The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit” (48). Bilbo le Hobbit, first published in 1969, appeared even after the Japanese translation, and though the books and particularly Peter Jackson’s films have been well received, Tolkien’s reputation is alleged to have suffered due both to his conservatism and to several, corroborative instances of careless translation (e.g. translator F. Ledoux’s use of noiraud, a potentially racist term, to indicate the blackness of a Black Rider). The bulk of the paper is dedicated to outlining many of the challenges and opportunities the authors faced in revising Le Signeur des Anneaux, and involves their suggested compromises, including some clever neologisms (e.g. vingtescence for ‘tweens’ [59]).

Translating peculiarities of speech is the focus of Sandra Bayona’s “Begging your pardon, Con el perdón de usted: Some Socio-Linguistic Features in The Lord of the Rings in English and Spanish.” Launching from Nils-Lennart Johannesson’s 1997 paper “The Speech of the Individual and of the Community in The Lord of the Rings,” Bayona looks at how speech patterns used to indicate ‘working-class’ hobbits are rendered in Spanish, and whether their idiosyncrasy in the original English is retained. The answer is a resounding no, in that the Minotauro editions of El Señor de los Anillos actually introduce many different verbs and expressions—apparently haphazardly—to indicate what, in the English original, is represented consistently. For example, in translating the 13 occurrences of ‘I reckon,’ eight different Spanish verbs are used (83). Bayona’s conclusion in discovering these apparent liberties is to note that idiosyncratic speech patterns have not been observed in the Spanish translation, even though readers “come to know the same people, witness the same events, with the identical outcome” (88). The study is clear and workmanlike, though it would have been interesting to read some further thoughts on the translators’ apparent decisions.

After papers focusing on French, Spanish, and Norwegian, something of an eccentricity is represented by Arden R. Smith’s “The Treatment of Names in Esperanto Translations of Tolkien’s Works.” The translation of The Lord of the Rings into the artificial language occurred between 1995 and 1997, with La hobito, aŭ tien kaj reen appearing in 2000. Through the provision of many annotated indices, Smith looks at the methods used by Esperantist translators to represent proper names, focusing generally on the decisions to adapt them to Esperanto conventions of spelling and morphology. In addition to several errors, Smith discovers a great deal of inconsistency, and argues that “[i]t is truly a pity that the first translation of The Lord of the Rings into an artificial language was not done with the care and attention to detail that such a project requires and deserves” (116). As it stands, the paper seems the elephant in the tome; although Esperanto does indeed boast a massive literary corpus among its stalwarts, its position as an artificial language recommends some sort of justification for its inclusion here. The importance of invented language to Tolkien’s own Subcreation might have provided a stepping-off point, though it would remain to be argued just how Esperanto—a language invented in many ways to minimize ambiguity and facilitate communication in the real world—is truly equipped to handle the complexity of Tolkien’s Secondary World.

The collection’s final paper is Mark T. Hooker’s “Nine Russian Translations of The Lord of the Rings,” which looks at the various differences among the nine. Because Tolkien was essentially banned in the Soviet Union until 1982, underground translations were written and circulated for decades. Going translator-by-translator, Hooker shows how this lack of regulation led to a great many liberties with the text, some of which include embellishments in terms of words and entire episodes (including Zinaida Anatol’evna Bobyr’’s addition of the ‘Silver Crown of the Lords of Westernesse,’ which Aragorn must wear to prove himself worthy of Arwen’s hand [120-1]). Hooker shows that many of the changes, however, are owed to condensation of the text, with omissions that alter the spirit of many characters’ exchanges. Likely because it explores nine translations and runs to thirty-three pages, the paper includes very little of the Russian texts themselves. Passages are provided pre-translated, which, for Hooker’s specific focus on each, does not present too much of problem. The paper is very deft, and serves as an invitation to Hooker’s book, Tolkien through Russian Eyes.

Although it treats only a very small sample of translations of Tolkien’s work, Tolkien in Translation serves as a good introduction to the theory and practice of its topic, covering cultural as well as literary dimensions, and in a manner accessible to both lay and academic readers. Due to the linguistic boundaries involved, Honegger and Walking Tree Publishers are to be commended for bringing together specialists in five languages. Were the minds and resources available, it would one day be fascinating to read of Tolkien’s treatment in many other, less accessible languages, including those of China and, like the underground translations in the Soviet Union, of the many bootlegs that are sure to exist outside of the West.


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