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Reviewed by:
  • Tolkien in Translation, and: Translating Tolkien: Text and Film
  • David Doughan
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. This has its dangers; for instance, in rendering the speech of a nineteenth century French aristocrat it is often difficult to avoid the opposed dangers of making him sound either like a bluff English squire or a Greenwich Village phony (with Proust, the latter is the main trap). Foreign translations of Byron tend to make him seem more refined than his style justifies. And so on.

Then there is the matter of adaptation, i.e. transferring something composed in one medium into another, usually from book to some sort of drama, as when Tchaikovsky takes Pushkin's ironic short story The Queen of Spades and turns it into a melodramatic tragic opera in four acts, which is in fact a major work of art in its own right. We purists can get quite annoyed about this, as for example Boris Strugatskiy did over Tarkovsky's rendition on film of Lem's Solaris; again a major work of art, but of Tarkovsky far more than of Lem. If translation is betrayal or disguise, at least it is unavoidable; this sort of adaptation is much less so. As Tolkien himself said of A.A. Milne's stage adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, "a perceptive admirer (as distinct from a great admirer) of the book would never have attempted to dramatize it." (On Fairy-stories, MC 157) What he charitably refrained from saying is that adaptation is often an act of appropriation.

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, even when the culture is as close as that of the U.S.A., where, for example, "The Last Homely House" has unfortunate overtones that would not immediately occur to British readers. It also becomes increasingly remote in time, so that even young generations of British readers probably would welcome a footnote to explain that when The Lord of The Rings was first published, a "farthing" was a coin still in circulation (just). When it comes to putting him into other languages, the possibilities of misunderstanding and misinterpretation multiply. For instance, the place-name "Shire" [End Page 218] immediately causes difficulties, even before trading companies try to copyright it. It has no easy equivalent in any other language, and some approximations, like the German "Gau", have acquired undesirable historical associations, in this case with Nazi use of the word. Worse still, in Russian there is not even a straightforward way of translating "Lord," let alone "Shire," "Farthing" or other such terms (Russian also does not distinguish between leg and foot, whence the hairy-legged hobbits of many a Russian illustration). In addition, there are such matters as the pseudo-translation from the Common Speech, and how that can be reflected in the "real" translation. So putting Tolkien into another language involves a number of peculiar hazards above and beyond what translators usually meet.

The first of these volumes begins by tackling the broader principles raised by the above issues in an article by Allan Turner entitled "A Theoretical Model for Tolkien Translation Criticism". This title, together with the use of terms like "hermeneutic motion," might well frighten off many people who have been exposed to academic literary theory using terminology which one expects is opaque even to the writer. This...


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