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.