Master of all rings? Translating Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is one of the best-selling novels ever written, so it’s no surprise that it’s been translated into 38 languages and counting. But getting there (and back again) is a tricky process…

Why the difficulty?

JRR Tolkien was an expert in Germanic philology, and was more than happy to pack his linguistic expertise into his writing. Not content with simply creating the intricate world and history of Middle Earth, he wrote The Lord of the Rings as if it were a translation of a book in the Middle Earth language Westron. He then used languages related to English to deepen the connections between his invented languages – Rohan, an area grounded in Anglo-Saxon tradition, has a language based on Old English, while the Dwarves are given Old Norse names.

Tolkien made very conscious decisions about the languages and names he used, from the more commonplace – giving Ents tree-related names – to the truly detailed, with place names written as if they had been translated from Elvish. (And did you know the ‘historical’ plural of dwarf should be dwarrows? Nor does anyone else – except Tolkien.) Anyone trying to translate a translation from an invented language with this level of forethought is sure to trip up – some more than others.

One who got it very wrong…

The Swedish translator Åke Ohlmarks had a career translating works from Shakespeare to Dante, but hobbits were to be his downfall. His translation of The Lord of the Rings included many dubious choices. Some were only spotted by people paying close attention (of which there were many), such as his complete ignorance of Tolkien’s detailed etymology. For example, he translated Rivendell as Vattnadal or ‘water-dale’, mistaking riven for river. The glaring factual errors, however, such as translating Isengard in four different ways – including two different spellings within the same paragraph! – are harder to excuse. (Perhaps he just needed a more thorough proofreader?)

More impressive than such lacklustre translation, however, is the controversy it continued to excite. There were numerous complaints from readers and petitions to revise the text, which Ohlmarks ignored; then, when The Silmarillion was published in 1977, Tolkien’s son Christopher only agreed to a Swedish translation if Ohlmarks had nothing to do with it. The ongoing feud evidently affected Ohlmarks: after a fire at his house in 1982, he accused Tolkien fans of arson, before publishing a book connecting Tolkien to ‘black magic’ and Nazism. (Who wouldn’t be convinced that the name Saruman is derived from ‘SA man’ with the word Ruhm or glory stuck in the middle?)

… and one who got it right

After the Swedish fiasco, Tolkien decided to write a guide to the names in The Lord of the Rings for the benefit of future translators – such as the German translator Margaret Carroux. She paid much closer attention to Tolkien’s language and intentions, even going to visit him in Oxford with a suitcase full of notes and questions. Her translation shows a much greater level of linguistic care: elf became Elb, because although Elf is also a German word, it conveys connotations of fairy-like frivolity. Carroux also avoided the literal translation of Shire, which would have been Gau; she felt it was tainted by its use under the Nazis, and chose the more artificial Auenland or ‘meadow-land’ instead.

Carroux’s translation was very popular, and very influential – it set the standard for the style of much fantasy subsequently translated into German. A more recent translation of The Lord of the Rings in 2000 by Wolfgang Krege sought to update the language, but his use of 90s German slang (which has Sam calling Frodo Chef or boss, and Pippin referencing the lost property office) met with a mixed reception. It didn’t dent Tolkien’s popularity, though, so there are sure to be many more questionable translation choices to come…

Cover image via Unsplash (CC0)

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