Friday, April 18, 2014

Translation, Style, and Historical Narrative

             In thinking about the various points raised during our class discussion on Wednesday,  I find that I’m drawn more and more to the idea of translation as a means of understanding many of these questions about both the style employed by Tolkien in the creation of The Lord of the Rings. I would also say the style is linked quite closely the nature of Tolkien’s writings as a primary historical narrative rather than a novel.
The open conceit of the LotR is that Tolkien, having found an extant manuscript of the Red Book of Westmarch*, translated it into English, and through him these works were published as at least The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, perhaps as well as The Silmarillion, and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil depending on what material theoretically existed in the Red Book. As anyone who has had the pleasure of working with an ancient language such as Latin (as in my experience), Greek, or Sanskrit would know, translation is not a science but rather an art or a craft. While there may be direct translations of words – something not always guaranteed – this alone does not serve to convey accurately the feeling or character of the text, and in rendering those sentiments properly in a new language, the translator shows his skill.
An old Latin teacher of mine used to call the language which our first efforts at translating Ovid or Cicero took ‘translationese’, and she would tell us that proper translation is a two-step process. The first step anyone can do, but the second requires a master. Aragorn himself struggles with this process in translating a piece of the Lay of Leithian for the Hobbits (Bk. 1; chpt 11). Particularly interesting about this moment is that Tolkien himself also translated much, if not all, of the Lay of Leithian himself – provided one extends Tolkien’s conceit to its furthest extent. A comparison between the two reveals that they are  different in terms of length (though Aragorn says his is only a fragment), meter, and rhyme scheme; however, importantly, they share all the basic touchstones of the story. For me, this creates the aura or illusion of vast expanses of time and the growth of culture rather than any sort of internal inconsistency – inconsistency is a part of history. So too, in Tolkien’s mythic history, these little details enhance the sense that these works are not simply fictitious stories to be enjoyed and thrown away. They are too compelling to do so.
How does this tangent apply? First and foremost, it means that we as readers, students, and analysts of Tolkien’s works should not consider them to be novels but rather as historical narratives  written either by or from the accounts of first hand witnesses. This is not to say that it is a literal history since, as Ursula LeGuin notes in her essay, history only partly requires style whereas fantasy – which is the true categorization of Tolkien’s works – is nothing but a ‘recipe’ or plot synopsis without style (LeGuin, pg. 90). Rather, I would argue that the style mimics that of a historical narrative which is why it reads like ‘plain, clear English’ though its register has wide flexibility in order to cope with the subject matter in which it deals (LeGuin, pg. 89). While some critics may bemoan the wide shifts in style or tone, to me it seems like a very reasonable choice to make in translation when you have one passage where some Hobbits are joking around while bathing versus another where the representatives of the free folks gather at a high council to discuss the doom of their world.
This mix of the sermo sublimis and sermo humilis further reflects the actual shifts in the register of communication that would naturally occur were the events Tolkien describes to have in fact taken place just as we can see modulations in our own daily speech. Therefore, such mixing would logically carry over into the work of the chronicler whether it be Bilbo, Frodo, or the later copyists, and Tolkien himself carries on the chain by employing both the high and low mimetic styles that grate certain critics so.
In saying all of this, I want to reiterate that I don’t believe the Lord of the Rings to be anything other than fantasy, an exploration of faerie, but his archaizing style can be best understood to serve a very distinct purpose which gives it strength. As LeGuin says, archaizing is the first great pit-fall of beginning writers of fantasy because they archaize blindly (85); whereas Tolkien, he archaized only to serve the needs of his translation such as preserving the language of the Rohirrim as Old English or expressing the incredible age of Elrond in his specific, idiosyncratic grammatical structures.
            At the very end of class, I feel as though I remember a short point being made about the intrusion of faerie into the real world – though this may be simply my own fevered imaginings. However, it now seems to me that the end result of the careful style is the seamless creation of faerie to the point where the question, “do you think that Tolkien really took this stories seriously?” is a legitimate question to ask. Moreover,  the fact that the question, “is it perhaps possible this was all translated from some dusty, old manuscript?” comes to me at all is very significant. In short, the conceit of translation seems to be deeply integral both to the style in which Tolkien wrote, but also to how he understood his works and how we should understand his works.


* Though more properly, Tolkien actually ‘found’ a later expanded copy called The Thain’s Book which was remarkable among the copies of the Red Book in that contained the whole body of Bilbo’s Translations from the Elvish.


  1. While I agree that the translation conceit does affect the style of The Lord of the Rings, I feel it has more to do with Tolkien’s desire to make his world fit into the history of our world. In his letters, he talks a lot about a certain Northern European air that influenced his languages and the world they inhabit, and about his desire to create an English mythology, but saying that he has merely translated the works of Frodo and Bilbo is the most direct way of saying that his world was real.
    For me at least, this frame works as well as Ramer’s time-machine in the Notion Club Papers; it distracts from the content of the story itself. For if Middle Earth is to considered Faery, then Tolkien is claiming we live there, which seems to conflict with what he says about the separation between the worlds. If the idea from the beginning is that LotR is just a translation of a historical text, then Tolkien is claiming to have discovered a lost part of our history that should then be buried beneath our feet. In either case, I feel the conceit of translation hurts the believability of Tolkien’s work, even if it explains the style.

  2. Dear LDD,

    Thanks for your focused approach toward the significance of Tolkien as a ‘translator’ of the Red Book and the reading of LoTR as ‘primary historical narrative rather than a novel.’

    About the latter, I am quite intrigued about this question: What would it mean to read these as ‘histories’ rather than as a ‘novel?’ You argue that the style mimics that of ‘historical narratives’ but this raises questions for me.What kind of historical narrative? A first hand narrative, like a memoir or travel account? Or do you mean a later, compiled, scholarly account?

    I think you are quite right to raise the point of the ‘two-step’ process of translation. I think much more could be said on this. Here though, you might read the Prologue and Ap. F differently than I. In the framing device, is simply translating straight out the the Red Book OR is he compiling, re-constructing from the various pieces within the Red Book, and translating names? I take the latter view (which would put heavier emphasis on the second step of translation), but since more than one blogger seems to think the former, I could definitely be wrong. Which do you think?
    I would love to read more on this.


  3. LDD,

    I found your points about translation all very interesting. But one thing that I thought was a stimulating tangent in your post was that you highlighted the shifts in tone and style in Tolkien’s narrative. I think this recalls another very prominent word in this course—fragmentary. Aside from Tolkien’s method, his narrative is also very fragmented in a way, often appearing as if written by completely different people. But in thinking about this, it makes a good deal of sense, since Tolkien’s aim was not only to spin a narrative thread, but also to weave a history and a mythos. This is a very compelling point you capture in your post when you say, “For me, this creates the aura or illusion of vast expanses of time and the growth of culture rather than any sort of internal inconsistency – inconsistency is a part of history.” It also calls to mind another influential series of woven stories that compose a history—the bible. The bible is also a chorus of voices contributing to a massive, orchestral whole. Packaged in with this is the whole idea of oral history. I doubt that this point was very far from Tolkien’s mind when he was consigning Middle-Earth to paper.

    Steven Vincent