Translating Tolkien: Language and Literature

When J.R.R. Tolkien was creating Middle Earth, he decided to build his world upon language. He used his knowledge as a philologist and his familiarity with over twenty languages to create unique languages for his races, and then to craft each people’s stories around those languages. While readers are familiar with the resulting Elvish dialects and the Dwarvish runic alphabet, Tolkien’s attention to his own language, the language of his novels, is perhaps less recognized. Yet the way Tolkien’s stories are written are just as important as the characters and actions they are written about. Tolkien’s work draws on Old and Middle English vocabulary and sentence structure to very deliberately create a sense of the old.

By combining older English words with modern ones, and sometimes by creating his own pseudo-archaic word forms, Tolkien gives reader a sense both that the stories of Middle Earth (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion) happened in the past and that they happened in an English past. Tolkien’s novels are very closely tied to his country, and his readers can close their eyes and imagine that maybe these stories really happened, sometime long ago. The language encourages a connection between the readers and the stories, and help them imagine the stories are real.

Although the task seems challenging, Tolkien’s work has, of course, already been translated into numerous languages, and while I have not yet had the privilege to read any of those editions, I do know what I would be looking for in a translation: fidelity not just to the meaning of Tolkien’s words, but also to their feel—their sense of being steeped in history. A great translation of The Lord of the Rings would feature archaic vocabulary and syntax, while still maintaining enough of a connection to the modern form of the language that the book did not feel too foreign or difficult. It would be capture all the subtle shifts in tone between each race of people, from the whimsy of the Hobbits to the seriousness of the Dwarves and the formality of the Elves. It would use language to bring Tolkien’s world to life.

Good stories impact people—move them, inspire them, and challenge them. Good translations help make those stories available to a larger audience, so more of us can be inspired.  Translation services like Smartling can help do that.

3 thoughts on “Translating Tolkien: Language and Literature

  1. Reno says:

    This is actually a topic I’m very interested in! 😛 I recently ordered Tolkien in Translation…it’s waiting for me back in Canada. One of the last papers I wrote for my undergrad was about how “care must be taken when translating the English of The Lord of the Rings into another language in order to preserve [the sense of depth and history].” (Yup, I went back and checked, haha.) I almost wish I could read another language fluently to see what reading Tolkien in translation is like…


    • Briana says:

      Interestingly, I was just reading Tolkien’s essay on translating Beowulf yesterday and he says much the same thing about the language: that a “good” translation of the poem has to sound old because the Beowulf poet himself was writing in a style that was very literary and somewhat old-sounding to his own audience. I guess Tolkien would approve of our thoughts on translating LotR!

      Yes, I’d love to read Tolkien in translation, too! I think my Spanish is good enough I could get through, albeit slowly, but I have very little knowledge of the history of the Spanish language (beyond struggling through a couple novels in medieval Spanish that were nearly unreadable to me), so I don’t think I’d have a good sense of the tone of the language if I tried. I might just end up assuming I have a limited Spanish vocabulary when I saw an unfamiliar word, instead of realizing that a word choice was semi-archaic.


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