Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Translations" from the "Elvish"

I've never had much luck with languages. Despite hailing from a bilingual family, my mind is stuck more or less exclusively in English. However, four years of high school French has left me with the ability to, if not think in, passably read French--an ability for which I am inestimably grateful. Reading The Stranger in the French launched me into Algeria's shimmering heat. When I tried later to read the book in translation, the world was dimmer, the colors duller. The same feels true for most of the works I've read in French: their settings seem vivid and new, lost in translation.

I don't think that this is because translations are necessarily worse than the original (although some of them are). Much of this novelty came from my inexperience in the language. Because I was just learning the words, each lacked the rich web of connotations that English holds for me. Instead, everything was freshly minted, and I stumbled into the fictional world like a newborn, just-opened eyes blinking in the unfamiliar brightness.

No wonder, then, that Tolkien said, "I should have preferred to write in 'Elvish'" (Letter 165). Language is key to how we perceive the world. As Tolkien wrote in "Mythopoeia," "trees are not 'trees,' until so named." The names that we give, the language which we use, bring the material into the realm of the mythical. Once named, a tree is suddenly more than a jointed collection of wood and leaves: it becomes a symbol of growth; its roots stretch into the sky and its branches hold the earth; the lights in its leaves illuminate all the world. I will spring lightly over the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis mess, only to say that I think different languages do give different means of seeing the world, as each language embodies its own unique mythology and culture.

I mean this embodiment literally. As we touched on in discussion last week, Tolkien viewed language as being uniquely the product of an embodied mind. And if language transmutes the body into thought, so too does it give thought a body. Middle-Earth feels so real, so grounded, precisely because "the invention of languages is the foundation" (Letter 165). The newness of Middle-Earth derives from the newness of its languages, the same way that Tolkien found that the language of the old Finnish epics carried with them the air of their country. Moreover, the variance in style found in Middle-Earth reflects the variety of its languages--different even though they spring from the some root (both in Middle-Earth's history and in the fact that they're all products of Tolkien's individual mind). One point brought up in class on Monday was that it's easy to tell that Lord of the Rings was "written" in Westron and The Silmarillion in epic High Elvish: the beautiful plainness of Westron is contrasted well with the more archaic forms of High Elvish, and the two subtly bleed into each other when, say, Elrond or the high men of Gondor speak (as well attested to in Shippey).

Of course, Middle-Earth does not come to us in 'Elvish.' Instead, we receive from Tolkien a "translated" English edition. This serves a couple of important purposes. For one thing, there is no publishing company in the world that would print a Westron book, complete with accompanying dictionary. More importantly, it allows Tolkien to serve as our very own Elf-friend: the translator, as a bridge across languages, serves as a bridge across worlds. Appendix F is important not just because it shows how intentional Tolkien was about his language; it frames the books such that Tolkien becomes not just the creator of a new world, but also our guide towards and within it. By elucidating the etymology of "Samwise Gamgee," Tolkien shows us something of our world ("Sam"), and then throws a grappling hook towards the "Banazir Galbasi" of Middle-Earth. We can cross over to Faery, but there is always familiar English, orienting us in this new plane.

Furthermore, Tolkien's use of English to "translate" an invented language allows Middle-Earth to simultaneously be a unique subcreated world and a true mythology for England. Elves do not exist in our world and Englishmen are a far cry from Numenoreans, but the language that they use tie their culture back to England's. The Elves' archaic language ties them to ancient nobility, the alliterative verse of the Rohirrim echoes Beowulf, and the liturgical song of the Eagles gives the crowning of the heir of Elendil a familiar cathedral. Because English is so familiar to us, reading a work in it gives the work depth: as Tolkien wrote in "On Fairy Stories," each hill and valley in a story becomes, for us, our own personal hill and valley. Language facilitates this transition, as each of us has a vast web of personal connotations with each well-used English word. While the works I read in French gave me a glimpse of a flashy new world, it ultimately lacked some depth because my understanding of French is still superficial--babies are dazzled by the world around them, but they can't yet comprehend it. On the other hand, Middle-Earth manages to possess both the depths of familiarity and the vitality of the new because it is in an English that carries the air of another language. When I read Lord of the Rings, I feel like I'm coming home to somewhere I've never been.



  1. "When I read Lord of the Rings, I feel like I'm coming home to somewhere I've never been." Beautifully put! I especially like the way in which you talk about the importance of Appendix F as a frame for the book/translation/story and how this fiction of translation from Westron revitalizes our appreciation of the English.


  2. I agree wholly with your last statement as well! However, I wonder what the centrality of English and English-ness to LotR and the rest of the legendarium means for Tolkien's popularity in the non-anglophone world. His explanation in Appendix F of the necessary "translation" of Galbasi to Gamgee seems, in a way, to be at odds with his apparent disgruntlement with the changing and/or modification of certain terms in the Dutch edition (was it?). As we have seen repeatedly even in these first few weeks, the transmission of story from person to person, and from people to people in their respective languages, is an enormous theme for Tolkien. The "Hey-Diddle-Diddle" song presents a much more complex example of this than expected - we are both witnessing our own (English) folk rhyme in an earlier (Westron) form, and Tolkien even takes the trouble to put in a footnote indicating its far more ancient Elvish roots - that the Sun is She (Arien!) to both hobbits and Elves. Even Sam knows a verse or two about Gil-galad, though he prefers to omit the tragic parts. In the end, I feel that the validity of my argument cannot be stretched too far – it is, after all, Tolkien’s world, and he has final authority over its representation (though there is a much more complex issue at stake in whether that has been true in past years). Yet if we are to extend the transmission of story through language that occurs on so many levels throughout LotR to the level of the book itself, as it exists in our world, it seems valid that non-English cultures and language-worlds should be able to accommodate the hobbits for their own.

    - J. Wetherell

  3. I think it may be easier, a bit less metaphorical, to say that languages give different means of expressing the world. People of a single language already show a bewilderingly great variety of ways of seeing the world, and how else do we reconstruct ways of seeing the world but by creative, including verbal, production. Disembodied speech is often alarming (e.g., by machines, like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey), sometimes inconceivable (consider angelic apparitions). The received text is actually disembodied language until it is given voice by a reader, a principle that has had profound critical implications. Like the matter of authorship, that of translation is difficult. Your point that the notion of a translation from Westron serves two purposes, upholding the integrity of this other world and relating it to the English-language audience, is well taken. It certainly indicates a plane of elaboration behind the surface of the text. In connection to a point raised in class, I don’t think it’s unfair to repudiate, or simply overlook, the historicity of some of Tolkien’s claims, including this. Neither author nor translator can determine the reader’s experience - one of the implications of the above mentioned principle.

    JT (in place of CJ)

  4. This is a fantastic post! The idea of language being the means by which we give the world around us meaning is one which I’ve been intrigued by all quarter, and this considers another fascinating layer to that question, namely, how different languages give different meanings. Questions in that direction start to get somewhat convoluted (language giving meaning to a world which is full of languages which are also trying to explain the world, and then re-explaining what was already explained…you get the idea!) but it is fascinating for me to consider.
    One element which intrigues me is the problem of uniformity being brought to a series of very diverse stories through translation, as with The Silmarillion, in its High Elvish, and the Lord of the Rings, in Westron, both being translated into English. Given that, as you said, no publishing company in their right mind would release copies of these stories in Elvish and Westron, it becomes very difficult for us to fully internalize the differences and the vast divide between two such stories when they are presented to us in exactly the same format of English text. Tolkien solved this problem to the greatest extent that he could through his stylistic differences in these texts (making it rather amusing to read criticisms panning his inconsistent style!) however, it is unfortunate that this is as far as such a process can really go, and does not truly bring us the same depth. Then again…a completely accurate representation of the world is just the world itself…such is the price of understanding!


  5. Well put! I wholeheartedly agree with your last statement. I think it gives an interesting commentary on the question of who, if anyone, wrote the story that we discussed in class. Like you said, what made the stories of Middle Earth particularly attractive to us is the coexistence of the the familiar of an inherent "English-ness" and the foreignness of a whole secondary reality with its own language and people. In comparison to translated works we usually encounter, what sets it apart is Tolkien's choice to anglicize and appeal to our cultural vocabulary. Because of that, is it truly a "translation from Elvish and Westron" as Tolkien's way of framing the story claims, or is it more accurately classified as an anglicized adaptation of the stories of Middle Earth? For me, the answer is the latter. Because of this, I think I can understand some of Tolkien's ire at the modification of terms in the Dutch edition. If I may presume, Tolkien's reluctance for translators of the work to modify Tolkien's own "translation" of the words in Westron, Dwarvish, and so on arise from the fact that by doing so, and stopping it at that for that matter, the end result becomes neither a faithful translation nor an adaptation that's culturally relevant to the target language. After all, Tolkien himself took great care in his own "adaptation" process to parallel diction and stylistic differences between the different races' speech and the different source languages in his English "version," such that the differences between the speech of the Hobbits and Elves--even the differences between Sam and the rest of the Hobbits in the Fellowship--are immediately discernible. I would hesitate to guess what Tolkien's reaction would have been if a translator of his work choose to adapt it into the target language on that same level, but my money's on him being slightly less disgruntled, to say the least.
    - CZ