Review: Tolkien in Translation edited by Thomas Honegger (Guest Post by Jenna)

Tolkien Reading Event 2017

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the complete schedule here.

tolkien in translation 2

tolkien translation 1

Once upon a time, I wanted to write a paper about translating Tolkien for an undergraduate course. Numerous challenges accompany the task of translating literature. Tolkien crafted his stories on a foundation of language. His careful use of the English language and his creation of Middle-earth’s own languages further complicates the process of translating his works. As he wrote of The Lord of the Rings, “Hardly a word in its 600,000 or more has been unconsidered” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 160). Though my paper never materialized, the beginning of my research led me to Tolkien in Translation¸ a volume of works that “reflects on some of these challenges and how different translators overcame them” (back description). This book is the fourth volume in the Cormarë series from Walking Tree Publishers. The series currently consists of 35 books collecting scholarly papers and studies about Tolkien and his writing.

Tolkien in Translation contains six papers, one that posits a translation theory for Tolkien’s work and five that each focus on a particular language of translation. Allan Turner’s “A Theoretical Model for Tolkien Translation Criticism” gives the collection context by providing a translation model that complements the articles to follow. Turner adapts George Steiner’s hermeneutical theory of translation. The fundamental idea of this theory, particularly as applied to Tolkien, is that to produce an accurate and faithful translation, the translator requires a deep acquaintance with the source text. This idea connects the six papers. Whether the authors of the papers explore their own translation or critique others’, they each appreciate that a translator of Tolkien must understand not only the text which they are translating, but also Tolkien’s other writings and comments about his Middle-Earth universe.

“In the Middle-Earth books, the interconnections are so frequent and complex, and the pitfalls for the translator who does not know the larger structure so numerous and well hidden, that ‘ordinary competence and conscientiousness are simply not enough” (Nils Ivar Agøy, 42)

Even if you’re not specifically interested in translation, you may learn something new about Tolkien’s language choices from this text. For example, the works about the Norwegian and French translations both comment on English’s Germanic background. Tolkien often selected words with a specific English history. This background means that English has many words of a particular history that Norwegian and French cannot necessarily trace or replicate. In addition, each work references Tolkien’s own comments on translations. Readers unfamiliar with Tolkien’s opinions on translation can still gain a sense of how he would have liked to see his work treated.

Discussing translation necessitates a discussion of Tolkien’s stylistics. When I first considered the difficulties of translating Tolkien, I thought only about the meaning he built into his names and his constructed languages. Never mind the choices he made when using the English language! As a native English speaker, I rarely stopped to consider what kind of impression his use of English made on me, the reader. This is just the sort of thing to which a translator must pay careful attention. Sandra Bayona’s exploration of socio-linguistic features in the Spanish translation of The Lord of the Rings exemplifies this idea. For example, the phrase ‘I reckon’ (frequently used by Sam) is translated seven different ways in Spanish (82-3). ‘I reckon’ loses its significance as a marker distinguishing Sam’s discourse. Bayona’s close reading of the text identifies a number of speech elements that convey meaning easily lost in translation.

If pressed to choose the paper in the collection that least interested me, I would choose Arden R. Smith’s “The Treatment of Names in Esperanto Translations of Tolkien’s Work”. This paper is the only one that focuses on name translation. The paper consists of numerous list and charts detailing one translator’s poor and inconsistent choices when translating names into Esperanto. I can appreciate the challenge of an Esperanto translation. Esperanto was a language constructed to be simplified and easy to learn, in order to facilitate universal communication. Tolkien certainly wasn’t going for language simplicity in his works. However, I found the Esperanto translation errors less interesting than, say, the Spanish missteps, because Esperanto is not a living language with the history and connotations of the other languages explored.

Some final comments on the three papers I haven’t yet mentioned: The second work in the book is a reflection, as Nils Ivar Agøy explores some of the decisions he made in translating The Silmarillion into Norwegian. This is the shortest work in the collection, and the only one that focuses on The Silmarillion. Vincent Ferre, Daniel Lauzon, and David Riggs’ paper provides an explanation of how the awkward choices and delays in the French translations may have contributed to France’s cool reception of Tolkien. Mark T. Hooker’s “Nine Russian Translation of The Lord of the Rings” provided me with the most ‘did you know’ moments in the book. I.E. Did you know that The Lord of the Rings first circulated in 1960s Russia as an underground condensed translation by a woman named Zinaid Anatol’evna Bobyr’, because official translations were banned until the 1980s? (120). Each of these articles sheds illumination on an aspect of Tolkien’s work that may have gone unconsidered had it not needed to be translated into a particular language and culture.

I recommend Tolkien in Translation to those with an interest in how language shapes literature. Tolkien fans will find much to appreciate in this accessible collection. A companion volume, Translating Tolkien: Text and Film (Cormarë Vol. 6) [link: also looks promising, though I have not yet read it.

About the Author

Jenna enjoys reading Tolkien, middle grade, and speculative fiction, though she blogs about all kinds of books at Falling Letters. She will be moving to Vancouver in the fall to begin a master’s in library and information studies. You can also find her on Twitter and Goodreads.


4 thoughts on “Review: Tolkien in Translation edited by Thomas Honegger (Guest Post by Jenna)

  1. Samantha B says:

    I find this particularly interesting because I’m a native French speaker and own Tolkien’s books in French. Bu this comment on the different translations makes me think that perhaps it could be interesting to read it in English too, so to get a better perspective on the author’s choice of words.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂


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