Review of Tolkien in Translation and Translating Tolkien: Text and film

Translating Tolkien(to the main page on Translating Tolkien)

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The following are extracts from a review that appeared in Tolkien Studies 3 (2006) on pages 218-222.

Tolkien in Translation, edited by Thomas Honegger. Zurich: Walking Tree Publishers, 2003. 152 pp. €23.50 (trade paperback) ISBN 3952142468. Cormarë Series no. 4.

Translating Tolkien: Text and film, edited by Thomas Honegger. Zurich: Walking Tree Publishers, 2004. 243 pp. €23.50 (trade paperback) ISBN 3952142492. Cormarë Series no. 6.

Traduttore traditore, say the Italians; or, to put it less cryptically, of necessity a translation is to some extent an act of betrayal. Or if it is not quite betrayal, deception, albeit a deception in which the reader is complicit: a text disguised as belonging to a different language and culture from that in which it is written. [...]

Tolkien in fact presents an extraordinary case, at least as far as translation is concerned. For a start, his writing is so bound up with England and the English language that there are always going to be serious problems with any attempt to present him to other cultures [...].

The first of these volumes begins by tackling the broader principles raised by the above issues in an article by Allan Turner [...]. He stresses among other things the need for a translator to communicate with the target audience, taking into account the social context and any economic constraints, which, in the case of The Lord of the Rings, immediately focuses on whether the Appendices are to be translated in part or in full, or at all [...]. Among the many matters Turner deals with sagely is how to cope with the "translation from the Westron" aspect of The Lord of the Rings [...] This is of particular concern in the relation of Westron to other languages, notably that of the Riddermark and of Dale, which are represented in the original respectively by Old English (or rather, Old Mercian) and Old Norse [...].

[T]he language with the greatest and most contrasted number of translations is Russian, a very special case, dealt with in the first of these volumes by Mark Hooker [...]

The second volume [addresses] not just on adaptation of Tolkien, but mainly concerning one particular adaptation: Peter Jackson's films. Attitudes to these vary according to contributor, but the overall tone is summed up by the title of Vincent Ferré's article: "Tolkien, Our Judge of Peter Jackson." [...] Anthony Burdge and Jessica Burke [...] in "Humiliated Heroes," examin[e] the screen treatment of such major characters as Gandalf, Faramir and above all Frodo, and concluding that Jackson, together with his screenwriters, "demoralizes and diminishes each of Tolkien's characters," [...]

There is however one particularly controversial feature of Jackson's adaptation, namely the use of "Elvish", especially that written not by Tolkien himself, but by David Salo for the films in brilliant if controversial translations of Tolkien's verses into Quenya, Sindarin, Khuzdul, Black Speech, and Old English, as well as brief verses in these languages actually composed by Salo, or at least translated by him from originals written in English by Jackson's screenwriters. Most of these translations/ inventions are set to music, and Alexandra Velten's detailed study of the soundtrack lyrics of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings deals at length with this whole added layer of derived text and translation.

(extracts from book review by David Doughan, London, England)

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