Friday, April 18, 2014

Translating the Red Book of Westmarch

                According to his forward in the first edition of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien wrote the story in the manner he did, with the language he did, and with the style that he did because he was translating the Red Book of Westmarch. He was simply the translator. It was not up to him to take liberties in who said what and in what manner. He encountered this red book and translated it from Westron into English. Let us assume that this is true. Let us forget Tolkien’s masterful skill of creation and story-crafting (blasphemy, I know) and let us believe that he is nothing more than a translator.
                What interests me most about Tolkien’s translations is his translation of words that don’t quite have an English equivalent, such as names, both of people and places, as well as races. With Quenya and Sindarin names, the solution is simple: don’t translate it. Tolkien only translated the book from Westron to English and from Rohirric to Old English*; the other languages and the names which derive from these languages largely remain, such as Aragorn, Galadriel, and Mordor. Yet the names of races and those whose names derive from Westron still provide a problem for translation. Some solutions are simple. Dwarves, for example, is a translation that seems rather obvious. The race he was describing – short, stocky humanoids who enjoy mining and beer – was already a thing. So he simply translated the Westron word narag to the English word dwarf. Likewise, elves were a concept we already had. Yet this is not so easy for the word hobbit. The creatures we know as hobbits are largely Tolkien’s own invention.** We don’t have a name yet for them. He could have simply called them halflings. I think that’s a name that our society could understand without much prior knowledge. However, that would be a poor translation of the Red Book. This book was written by hobbits. Hobbits did not call themselves halflings, or in Westron banakil; no, they called themselves hobbits, kuduk. Kuduk means “hole-dweller.” As such, Tolkien had to properly translate the word. For this, he borrowed from Old English. Hobbit derives from hol byldan, Old English for “hole build.” These are then grouped together into hole-builder: holbytla. And from this, we get hobbit.*** Ents provide us with a similar problem. Most cultures have talking trees; however, we lack a unified term for these creatures, other than the rather cumbersome “talking trees.” Tolkien instead named them Ents, which again he borrowed from Old English. Ent means giant. Yet, Ents are not Giants. That is not to say they are not very large, towering creatures. But they are not the same Giants. Giants as we known them do (or did) exist in Middle Earth. Giants and Ents are distinct creatures. Tolkien used distinct names to refer to them. So, why did Tolkien refer to them with an Old English word for Giants? He could have created a more precise name again using Old English. I do not know the Westron word for Ent, but I do know they are described as Shepherds of the Trees. So, in Old English that would be treowa hierdeas. Perhaps the word treeherd or something similar did not have the same feeling that Tolkien wanted for the Ents. Yet still, I find it odd that Tolkien decided to use an Old English synonym for a race that is not synonymous with Giants.
                We also see Tolkien’s hand when it comes to the translation of the Hobbits’ names. We know Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Bilbo. However, their actual names were Maura, Ban, Kali, Razar, and Bilba. Bilba’s name change was the smallest, and it was simply to avoid confusion. In English, names that end in –a are typically associated with the feminine. To make sure there was no doubt in Bilba’s masculinity, Tolkien changed the hobbit’s name to Bilbo to conform to English standards. Alright, so that explains why Bilbo still has a “weird” name, but what about Frodo? Why does Frodo have a weird name when Sam, Merry, and Pippin all get (relatively) normal names? Ah! Well, that’s because Tolkien only translated Westron into English. Maura isn’t a Westron name. It’s Rohirric. So Tolkien couldn’t translate it into English. It had to be translated into Old English. Maura in Rohirric means “wise, experienced one” so Tolkien gave him the equivalent Old English name, Frodo. Now, just because the other three received (relatively) normal names in translation does not mean their names were translated with any less care. Sam is short for Samwise, not Samuel. As such, the name is English in origin, not Hebrew. Samwise (a rather unfortunate name given the meaning) means “almost wise” or “half wise.” This makes it a direct translation of his Westron name Banazir. Kali means happy leading to Merry. Razar is short for Razanur which essentially means “traveler.” Pippin is short for Peregrin, which also means “traveler” or “wandering pilgrim” but alas, Peregrin derives from Latin as opposed to English. However, it has entered into English lexicon, and Westron only needs be translated into English, not necessarily into English words with English ancestry.
                So why do this? Why translate these names into English? It is understandable to translate narag into dwarf because Tolkien’s audience would have a concept for what a dwarf is. The same is true for elves. But why did Tolkien create an English word, such as hobbit, ent, or Samwise, when he could have just as easily left it in Westron (or Rohirric). He could have told us a tale of a kuduk named Banazir. He could have told us about King Turac of Rohan. But he didn’t. He translated it. He created words in the English language simply so he could consistently translate the Red Book of Westmarch from Westron into English. But I suppose that reveals the lengths that Tolkien was willing to travel. He would rather change the English language and make new words than provide us with a substandard translation. Now that is a dedicated translator.

* Rohirric is the linguistic ancestor of Westron, just as Old English is the ancestor of English.
**  Yes, I know. Subconscious Snergs.
*** Actually, Tolkien created the word hobbit first and then created a backwards etymology so that the hobbits could have an equal footing with the other races which have such linguistic depth. Which is pretty impressive. But again, I am assuming Tolkien is nothing but a translator and he did no creating!

-N. Lurquin


  1. These are some very interesting observations. Beyond the internal consistency which Tolkien so meticulously maintains, I wonder if they can lead us to deeper questions about the role and choices of the translator and, beyond that, to how Tolkien understands himself as an artist. Every translator must make choices, beyond simply finding the correct words and remaining consistent. They have considerable influence over the tone, emphases, and much more, as we can see by looking at any two translations of a classic text (compare, for example, Dryden's Aeneid to the Penguin Classics edition, or the Pevear and Volokhonsky Dostoevsky to the Garnett version). Can we see the sorts of choices operative in Tolkien's works (it might be interesting to think about the differences in tone between the Hobbit and LotR in these terms)? Can we imagine an "alternative" translation of the Red Book? What would that look like? (Perhaps these questions are so fascinating to me because the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf is sitting on my desk and I just got an e-mail from Amazon about Tolkien's soon to be released translation, I think that would make for a fascinating comparison)

    On Tolkien as an artist, we might ask does Tolkien really only consider himself a translator? Or does he, even more interesting, consider himself the creator of a text, the Red Book, in another language, which he then seeks to translate into English? What's at stake with these interpretations? Your post brings us to the edge of these considerations, it would be great to delve a little further.

  2. Cayce’s readings are filled with examples of reaping what has been sown in previous lives. An individual suffering from severe asthma is told, “You cannot press the life out of others without seeming at times to have it pressed out of oneself.” A deaf person hears this admonition online translation: ”Then do not close your ears again to those who plead for aid.”