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  • Translating Tolkien: Philological Elements in “The Lord of the Rings,”
  • Arden R. Smith
Translating Tolkien: Philological Elements in “The Lord of the Rings,” by Allan Turner . Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2005. 216 pp. $43.95 (trade paperback) ISBN 3631535171. Duisburger Arbeiten zur Sprach– und Kulturwissenschaft no. 59

Articles discussing the difficult business of translating Tolkien's works, particularly The Lord of the Rings, have been appearing in publications of various Tolkien fan organizations for years, but few have made it into the mainstream academic press. Such articles have likewise tended to focus on specific languages or specific problems in translation. Even when collected together, as in the case of the 28-page booklet Translations of "The Hobbit" Reviewed, compiled by David Doughan in 1988, the material has provided little more than a grab-bag of translational curiosities. 2003 saw the publication of Tolkien in Translation, edited by Thomas Honegger, the first book-length collection of this sort, but this was in the same [End Page 228] vein, though on a larger scale. Mark T. Hooker's Tolkien through Russian Eyes (2003) is an even lengthier book (at 324 pages), devoted largely to the matter of translation, but like most of its article-length predecessors it discusses translations into only one language. Turner's Translating Tolkien is thus the first book of its kind: the first single-author, book-length examination of the difficulties inherent in translating Tolkien into any other language.

In addition to taking a broader view of Tolkien translation, Turner also differs from his predecessors by developing a systematic approach to the problem, grounded in translation theory and literary criticism. Much of this was already set forth in Turner's article in the Honegger volume, "A Theoretical Model for Tolkien Translation Criticism." I am not a big fan of "theory" myself, since so much of it seems to obscure or disregard the author's own intentions, but the approaches that Turner draws upon tend to reflect Tolkien's own way of thinking. In the area of translation theory, Turner frequently refers to George Steiner's "hermeneutic motion," which he finds compatible with the views of Tolkien and his fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield. As for literary criticism, Tom Shippey's "sympathetic" philological approach is the primary influence here, an influence that is keenly felt throughout the book.

After three chapters of theory, definitions, and background information, Turner begins analyzing data from the various translations. Most of the examples in the study are taken from the German and French versions of The Lord of the Rings, and judging from his detailed analyses, it would appear that Turner knows both of these languages very well. In places the Germanic data are supplemented by Dutch and Swedish examples, the Romance by Italian and Spanish. In addition to limiting the study to these two language groups, Turner also limits his scope to two main areas of investigation. The first of these is nomenclature, which has been the focus of most of the previous scholarship on Tolkien translation. The second is archaism, which has hitherto been largely ignored.

Turner first addresses the treatment Tolkien's complex system of nomenclature, which is dependent upon the history of the English language and its specific relationship to other languages. Within a framework of pseudo-translation from a putative Westron original, Tolkien has rendered this Common Speech as Modern English, whereas the related language of the Rohirrim is given as Old English and alien elements used by the Breelanders (especially in place-names) have been given a Celtic form. Turner examines how names in these languages have been translated into Germanic languages, where a common cultural and linguistic heritage with English solves some of the difficulties, and contrasts this with the strategies used for translating them into the more distantly related Romance languages, where the interplay of familiar and unfamiliar [End Page 229] elements necessarily breaks down. He also takes a close look at the normative effect caused by the translators' use of Tolkien's "Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings" and shows how a literal interpretation of the Guide's strictures could in some cases cause infelicities in translation.

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