Translating Tolkien: Text and Film

Translating Tolkien: Text and Film. Ed. Thomas Honegger. Jena: Walking Tree Publishers 2004, reprinted 2011. 250pp. $24.30. ISBN-13: 9783905703160.

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Reviewed by Sara Brown

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 31.1/2 (#119/120) (2012): 175–182.]

First published in 2004 and reprinted in 2011, Translating Tolkien: Text into Film, edited by Thomas Honegger, is the sixth in the Cormarë Series from Walking Tree Publishers and follows the volume Tolkien in Translation. Both of these useful collections deal with the ways in which Tolkien’s writing has been approached when translating it into various languages, including German, Dutch, Swedish and Hebrew. The challenges of translating Tolkien are many: not only must the translator achieve a nuanced sense of Tolkien’s secondary world, but there is also the question of how to tackle his invented languages successfully. With this volume having originally been published soon after release of the third part of the Jackson film trilogy, in addition to the contributions that deal specifically with language translation, five of the articles in this collection assess the ‘translation’ of Tolkien into film.

The first article, Thomas Honegger’s “The Westron Turned Into Modern English: The Translator and Tolkien’s Web of Languages,” examines what he refers to as “linguistic transposition” (1), the web of languages created through the understanding that, for example, Rohirric is mapped on Old English and the language of Dale on Old Norse. What this article really concentrates on, though, is the problem the translator faces in conveying the subtleties of nuance from one language to another. Honegger uses the example of the second person pronoun to illustrate this difficulty, describing first, in some detail, the manner in which the Old English þu, þy and þyne of the second-person singular, and ye, you, your and yours of the second-person plural, changed with the advent of Middle English to second-person familiar and second-person deferential. He then tracks the use of thou, as second-person familiar, throughout the text of The Lord of the Rings, suggesting that it has five different uses: in poetry or songs; archaic, in formal or formulaic speech; as an expression of contempt; as an indicator of high emotion, or an expression of familiarity or emotional closeness. Honegger persuasively argues that there are two particular issues regarding Tolkien’s varying use of thou; first, that the modern reader is often unable to differentiate between the different intentions, with most only perceiving it as archaic or formulaic speech. Secondly, and most relevant to the translator of Tolkien’s writing, although many modern languages have distinction in pronominal address, such as the French tu vs. vous and the German du vs. Sie, these cannot adequately replicate Tolkien’s nuanced use of thou and you, and neither can they substitute for the modern neutral value of you.

Honegger moves on to a discussion of how Tolkien created a web of languages with complex connections that, he argues, should be adhered to by any translator attempting a faithful rendition of Tolkien’s work. On example that he offers is that if the Common Speech were to be translated into Modern French, then the language of Dale should become Picard and Rohirric should be Vulgar Latin, with names translated accordingly. Honegger makes the point that Rohirric should, for example, be translated into Old High German in a German translation but that no translator has yet bothered to do so, a choice he deplores from a systematic point of view but admits to being common sense from a cultural standpoint. Honegger concludes, however, that he would have a preference for a full translation, taking into account Tolkien’s web of languages, rather than one which translates everything simply into the modern version of the target language.

Rainer Nagel’s chapter, entitled “The New One Wants to Assimilate the Alien,” examines what he terms the “controversy” that resulted from a new German translation of The Lord of the Rings, published in 2000. The “new” translator, Wolfgang Krege, claims that his work is closer to the original as it did not simply render the text from one language to another, but took account of Tolkien’s source material in an attempt to convey more faithfully a sense of Tolkien’s work. Nagel investigates these claims by comparing Krege’s translation with that of Margaret Carroux, whose German translation was produced in 1968, through the optic of modern translation theory. Nagel begins with the view that Tolkien’s main purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings was as a showcase for his invented languages, a point made by T.A. Shippey in The Road to Middle-earth, as well as by Tolkien himself. He uses this as a basis for comparison of the two translations, ascertaining how well each of them interprets this challenging aspect of the text.

Using examples from particular moments in the narrative, such as the Prancing Pony in The Fellowship of the Ring, Nagel shows that, although there are weaknesses in Carroux’s translation, Krege’s attempts to produce a more “modern” translation, using language calculated to appeal to a younger readership, sometimes has the result that it does not fully convey the voice intended by the author. Taking the chapter “The Mirror of Galadriel,” followed by a close examination of the translations of names, Nagel moves to a more in-depth comparison of the language of the two translations to see if the new version is truly a “conscious modernisation of the original” (29). Placing phrases from each translation side by side, Nagel exposes the weaknesses of both, including variations in style and tone that do not always convey the intention of the original text. Nagel concludes this interesting essay with the comment that the new translation certainly sets right some of the deficiencies of the old translation, but that Krege goes too far in his attempts to modernize the text for a new generation of readers.

Danny Orbach’s chapter “The Israeli Translation Controversy—What About and Where To?” has a similar premise to Nagel’s essay, in that it compares two translations of The Lord of the Rings, this time into Hebrew. Again, the earlier translation is a more literary translation, whereas the second has a more modern flavor. The first, by Ruth Livnit (1977), was very popular but had numerous errors, mostly due to her failure to read The Silmarillion (thus leading to a number of misunderstandings in the text) and to the fact that she did not translate the Appendices, a significant omission in Orbach’s view. The new translation by Emanuel Lottem, who had previously translated The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales into Hebrew, was widely anticipated but, according to Orbach, proved to be a great disappointment in many circles as “he did not pay attention to the spirit of the story and to the mythical atmosphere” (51).

Orbach’s essay, which is balanced and well-argued, considers the two Hebrew translations and asks why, despite its mistakes, the Livnit version remains well-loved whilst the Lottem edition has been widely decried. He summarizes the various views on the matter, and concludes with a discussion on whether, in the art of translation, beauty of language is more important than accuracy: a question that every translator must face at the start of a project.

The following chapter by Richard Sturch considers the challenges of rendering Tolkien’s work into Latin, a concept that seems formidable indeed. He identifies the four main issues of such a translation, many of which appear in the other chapters of this book as they are not limited to a rendering into Latin. First is the problem of names, and whether they should be translated or simply reproduced; second is the poetry or verse in the text; third is the variation in prose styles, so noticeable between The Fellowship of the Ring and the Return of the King, or between the discussions in The Prancing Pony and the meeting between Gandalf and Denethor. Finally, Sturch discusses the difficulties of handling what he terms the “rhetorical” passages in Tolkien’s writing: the differences inherent in Tolkien’s style from the usual models of Latin prose.

To date, The Lord of the Rings has not yet been translated into Latin and the main theme of this essay is a discussion of why that is. Apart from the obvious—what sort of audience would such a translation have, after all—Sturch shows that there are certain difficulties in rendering the narrative into Latin, whilst maintaining the full effect of the language that Tolkien uses. Through the use of some passages that he has translated himself, Sturch shows that Latin struggles to convey Tolkien’s prose it lacks the necessary flexibility. This is an interesting essay, demonstrating some of the difficulties of translation, but it might have benefitted from a stronger concluding section as it came to rather an abrupt halt at the end.

The next language to be considered is Dutch, in Mark T. Hooker’s essay comparing a self-published translation with two “official” published Dutch translations (1958 and 1996). It is, by the author’s own admission, a very short comparison of the three translations but he manages to convey a strong sense of their relative merits. The self-published translation, by a Mrs. E.J. Mensink–van Warmelo, was produced on a basic typewriter and intended only for her own use, as she had disliked the published version by Max Schuchart. Hooker reveals that he received a copy, scanned by Mensink–van Warmelo’s son, and began to compare it to the published version. The first thing to note is that it is an incredible achievement for anyone to produce a translation of a book as large as The Lord of the Rings, particularly on a basic typewriter; what is most remarkable, however, is that Hooker clearly feels that this translation is at least on a par with Schuchart’s edition, with some areas even being an improvement. Rather oddly, Hooker chooses to explore these translations through the means of a points system, with points awarded or taken away for style and fidelity to the original, and this does not really work that well. Despite this, the essay is worth reading if only for its discussion on samizdat publishing, a form of underground production of otherwise banned books in Russia.

Rainer Nagel’s second essay in this collection focuses on the translation of proper names in the German translations, and why this is potentially problematic. The argument here is, of course, whether one should attempt to translate the names in the text to convey a sense of the meaning that Tolkien was ascribing to them (for example, the name “Cotton,” which has the sense of “cottage”), or should the translator simply use the names as they are given in the original. This is a difficult question, and one which has been hotly debated; Nagel’s essay attempts first to place this argument in the context of the German translations, then subsequently to extrapolate from this a concept of what should be the norm in translation practice. This essay is a useful extension to the discussion in his earlier article, which compared the two published German translations of The Lord of the Rings, and takes into account Tolkien’s own opinion as evinced in some of his letters and his essay “Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings.”

Anders Stenström’s essay “Tolkien in Swedish Translation: From Hompen to Ringarnas here offers a discussion on the Swedish translations of Tolkien’s work. The first published foreign translation of any of the Middle-earth narratives is that of The Hobbit into Swedish by Tore Zetterholm and is notable for incurring Tolkien’s displeasure for its rendering of “Hobbit” as “Hompe” and “Bilbo” as “Bimbo.” Stenström is critical of many of Zetterholm’s choices, including “elves” as “älvor,” a word which apparently has the connotation of “fairy.” Swedish was also the second language, after Dutch, to have a translation of The Lord of the Rings; this was done by Åke Ohlmarks, who had previously translated Edda texts and, according to Stenström, would therefore be likely to “do justice to the ‘Germanic’ elements in Tolkien’s text” (110). Tolkien’s dislike for both Ohlmarks and his translation is made clear in his Letter #228, but Stenström has some good things to say about some aspects of the work, particularly the use to which Ohlmarks put his knowledge of Old Norse terms. This seems to be the limit of Stenström’s praise, however; the remainder of this section of his essay dwells on the numerous faults he perceives in this translation, including failure to recognise the relationships between words, such as “Trollshaws” being rendered “Trollbergen” (troll mountains). As Stenström points out, “shaw” corresponds with the Swedish word “skog,” both denoting “woods,” so Ohlmarks’ choice of “Bergen” is very strange.

Stenström then discusses other Swedish translations of Tolkien’s works, including Britt G. Hallqvist’s version of The Hobbit, Ohlmarks’ rendering of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Tree & Leaf, The Father Christmas Letters and some of Tolkien’s scholarly essays, and Roland Adlerberth’s translation of The Silmarillion. Stenström has clearly read some of these translations (he admits not having read all of them) in great detail, as he is able to comment on differences in language use. He concludes this chapter with an upbeat note, looking forward to a new translation of the Lord of the Rings that he obviously hopes will improve on previous efforts.

Vincent Ferré’s article “Tolkien, Our Judge of Peter Jackson” is the first of five chapters in this collection that are devoted to the concept of filmmaking as translation. Interestingly, this article is, itself, translated (by Daniel Lauzon), most probably from French, as Ferré teaches at the Université de Caen. He draws on Tolkien’s discussion in some of his Letters regarding his feelings about potential cinematic adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, and considers the broader issue of the adaptability of this text to film. What Ferré attempts to do in this article is to extrapolate from Tolkien’s judgments of those adaptations produced during his lifetime, to project what Tolkien may have thought of Jackson’s version, had he been alive to see it. What the reader actually gets is mostly Ferré’s own criticism of the Jackson film, interspersed with occasional moments where he uses Tolkien’s criticisms of earlier adaptations to provide “proof” for his comments. The result is not particularly coherent; this is one of the weaker essays in this book, which is a pity as the concept had great potential and, as advisor on the French translation of Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Ferré was in a unique position to comment on the film as “translation.”

Humiliated Heroes: Peter Jackson’s Interpretation of The Lord of the Rings” by Anthony S. Burdge and Jessica Burke pulls no punches in its criticism of Jackson’s films. It begins by speaking of Jackson’s “miserable failure” to preserve Tolkien’s heroes, the screenwriters’ “inability” to understand what Tolkien’s heroes were meant to be, and the subsequent “demoralizing” of these heroes (129). The authors focus first on the portrayal of Gandalf, drawing on T.A. Shippey’s work alongside Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, in which he examines the nature of myth. The film characterizations of Denethor, Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, and Faramir are then examined, with Jackson’s interpretations found wanting in various ways. This is one of the longer essays in this collection; Burdge and Burke have much to say on the topic and it is both well-written and well-argued. One might ask for a little more balance, perhaps, but as the object of this essay is undoubtedly to show beyond all doubt that Jackson has misread or misunderstood Tolkien’s depiction of his heroes in The Lord of the Rings, then it certainly achieves its goal. This chapter is entertaining but still scholarly; a very enjoyable read.

Øysten Høgset’s article, also focusing on Jackson’s films, explores theories of adaptation, reading Jackson through Dudley Andrew. Principle theories of adaptation are presented; the ‘success’ of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films is then judged using these criteria. Through comparing certain identified “key aspects” present in Jackson’s adaptations with a corresponding literary analysis, Høgset questions whether the spirit of the original text is misrepresented in the film versions. To this end, he examines aspects such the “nuances of the conflict” (163) between good and evil, the depiction of Aragorn as “hero” and the depiction of the character of Frodo. It is quickly apparent that Høgset’s opinion leans decisively towards Jackson’s failure to retain the spirit of Tolkien’s work, as this “extends beyond the mere thematic aspects of the narrative, and it is here that Peter Jackson’s adaptation deviates most prominently from the original text” (169). By the end of the article, the reader is left in no doubt of Høgset’s dislike for the film adaptations; his conclusion includes a comment on how the extended edition DVDs “do not necessarily contribute to the strengthening of the adaptation’s faithfulness to the spirit of the original text,” nor do they “correct the shortcomings of the preceding films.” Of course, this judgment is based on Høgset’s understanding of what constitutes the “spirit of the original” (173).

The penultimate article in this collection, by James Dunning, examines the depiction of good vs. evil in both the book and the films through the optic of philosophy and what the author refers to as the “spiritual Weltanschauung” (world-view) of The Lord of the Rings. This chapter begins with a positive note towards the Jackson films; Dunning assures the reader of his fondness for them and the likelihood of repeated viewings. Almost immediately, however, he reveals his conviction that “in translating Tolkien into Jackson, something philosophical is inevitably lost” (178, author’s emphasis); a judgment he feels qualified to make, given his self-proclaimed status as Eldar, or member of the Elder race of Tolkien aficionados. This declaration sets the tone for the remainder of the chapter.

The article begins by exploring the “world-view” that Dunning perceives as underpinning Tolkien’s Middle-earth. He begins with a comparison of how the ancient times of the Elder Days is depicted in the book and on film, and here is where the weakness in the structure of this article becomes apparent. Dunning lovingly describes scenes from the text, dwelling at length on descriptions of Lórien, Sauron, the One Ring, Gandalf and many important moments in the narrative. He then dismisses the depiction of these characters and scenes in the films in what is often a short, tersely-worded paragraph at the end of each section. This leaves the reader with a sense of a lack of balance in some parts of the chapter; the “shortcomings” that Dunning identifies in the films are often merely listed, rather than examined as to why such shortcomings might be so. The section on “Refusers of the Ring” is one of the better parts of the chapter, with greater depth of exploration, and there are moments when the article is extremely interesting, such as the section on “Insertions and Expansions.” Here, Dunning explores how some material, such as the Elvish language or the story of Aragorn and Arwen, is expanded in the films; he also applauds Jackson’s digital depiction of Gollum. He concludes that there are some good things about the films, although they change much of the original to such an extent as to occasionally make them unrecognizable. His final assertion, that one should agree to “render unto Jackson that which is Jackson’s, and unto Tolkien that which is Tolkien’s” (206), is perhaps one of the more perceptive comments on the films to be found in this volume.

The final essay, by Alexandra Velten, discusses the lyrics created for the soundtrack to the Jackson films, and asks whether they may be seen as being true to Tolkien’s textual legacy. The first point that she makes is that English is barely used: most of the lyrics are offered in Tolkien’s invented languages, including Quenya, Sindarin, Rohirric, Adûnaic, Black Speech and Khuzdul. The only songs that are rendered in English are those that accompany the end titles; these Velten does not discuss as she views them as “additional pop songs” (209) rather than as part of the soundtrack.

Velten begins by acknowledging the contribution to the creation of the lyrics of David Salo, founder of the Elfling List and well-known translator of Tolkien’s invented languages. She then identifies many of the lyrics as being from Tolkien’s work, including direct quotations from the text; this includes the titles to these songs, most of which are taken from chapter headings from The Lord of the Rings. The interesting point Velten makes here is that, just as for some of the poems and many other fragments in Tolkien’s original text, the song lyrics would not be understood by the majority of the audience, and almost certainly not without the aid of a lyrics sheet. The lyrics are therefore part of the background, setting the scene for the narrative they accompany. In this, perhaps, Jackson comes closest to Tolkien. Velten examines many of the songs in great detail, concluding that they provide “accurate translations into several of Tolkien’s conceived languages and Old English” (236-7). On the whole, she is in favor of the contribution that these songs make to the films; her final remark, that whether one likes the Jackson films or not, the lyrics are true to Tolkien’s textual legacy, concludes this volume on a positive note.

In summary, then, Translating Tolkien: Text and Film offers a wide range of interpretations of the concept of ‘translation’ and the majority of the essays contained within are both interesting and informative. My one criticism is of a lack of balance in consideration of the Jackson films; whilst it is certain that they are far from perfect and that there is much to criticize, there is little doubt that there is also much to be applauded, not least in the fact that they have brought a new audience to Tolkien’s work. Despite this, Translating Tolkien is well worth reading and is of the high academic quality that one has come to expect from Walking Tree Publishers.


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