Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Translation and Faith in Prayer

            In our discussion on Monday, we approached the subject of exultations, particularly in the many uses of the phrase “A Eleberth Gilthoniel”, and whether this can be considered a prayer.  We seemed to conclude that it the phrase at least resembles a prayer, because it is declared at times we traditionally expect a prayer to be said; for example, in periods of hardship to bolster the spirit, as when Frodo cries it at Weathertop.  The particular issue we did not completely resolve was whether the power comes from internal strength increased by the declaration, or if the power is within the words themselves.  One piece of evidence suggesting that the power is in the words itself is, as was noted in class, the instance in Shelob’s lair in which Sam begins speaking elvish, even though he doesn’t understand the words he’s saying.  This certainly alludes to a supernatural source.  I strongly feel that simply referring to strength of prayer residing in the “words” is imprecise.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the strength is in the language.  This leads us to something we touched on, but didn’t quite explore.  We acknowledge that Tolkien struggled with the transition in the Catholic Church from the Latin Mass to Mass celebrated in the vernacular.  This is demonstrated by his letters.  Furthermore, Shippey has explained that Tolkien did not believe understanding was necessary for words to be appreciated; that is, the words, in the language as it is, and comprehension is not requisite to convey beauty and hope.  Yet this does not fully explain why Tolkien left prayer-like passages untranslated, and this also does not explain where the power of the language itself comes from.  There are two facets of this that strengthen the argument that the power of the prayer is in the words.  Firstly, that translation in some manner “corrupts” the phrase; secondly, that because comprehension is not necessarily required for the words to have power, the power comes from faith.  Both of these themes are reflections of Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs.
            If we assess the problem of translation through the veil of Catholicism, it is not hard to understand why Tolkien preferred the Middle-Earth exultations in elvish rather than translated into the common tongue.  Tolkien is quite close with the Latin prayers of Catholicism, and one must ask why the language persisted in the Church for such a long time.  I would argue that it came down, simply, to precision of language.  The Roman Catholic Church highly values accuracy of the language used in Mass and in prayer; this is why, for example, two years ago the English translation of the Roman Missal was updated. Many of the changes were small, and may seem insignificant (for example, the common response, “And also with you” was altered to “And with your spirit).  However, the alterations were made because they were thought to better capture the intention of the words.  Capturing the essence of a phrase is an inherent in any translation – whether it culturally or historically is not easily transferrable from one language to another tends to be an issue regularly.  Doubtless, as a man who understood linguistics as an art, Tolkien would appreciate this issue in the Church’s transition from Latin to vernacular in the mid-1960s.  Indeed, Tolkien explicitly notes the problem of elvish to English translation in his letters.  In translating one the elvish passages for a fan who writes to him, he says “O look towards me, Everwhite! [of …] Everwhite is an inadequate translation; as is equally the snow-white I 88. The element ui (Primitive Elvish oio) means ever; both fan- and los(s) convey white, but fan connotes the whiteness of the clouds (in the sun); loss refers to snow” (Letters 211).  Clearly, then, he understands that a certain connotation is often lost in translation, and it is possible that his fear of this occurring in the Church in its changes was reflected in an insistence that some elvish be left untranslated.  A translation, in a manner, corrupts a phrase because it often does not capture the entire original meaning.  If we assume that the words themselves have some sort of power or strength, it stands to reason that the least corrupted translation has the most power, which is why elvish words came to Sam in a time of need.  Furthermore, if we argue that translation dilutes the power of the words, this means that the words of the prayer themselves are inherently powerful.  While this may explain why the power of A Eleberth Gilthoniel and other elvish passages are is partly a result of the language itself.  However, the explanation is still lacking.  Even if phrases are best left untranslated, and even if they offer an inherent value of beauty simply from pronunciation, we still have not addressed entirely the source of the power.  I think that the value of faith in the source of the words informs their power as prayer.  Sam doesn’t know what he’s saying in the lair of Shelob, and the words aren’t even his own, but he certainly has faith that they will have an effect.  This can be paralleled to pre-Second Vatican II Catholicism; one may not understand the words of the Latin prayer, but I doubt Tolkien believes that that would take away from their strength.  Indeed, as faith is highly valued, it would make sense that faith in something not understood makes prayer even more powerful.

            However, something that I’ve had difficulty resolving with this argument is that Tolkien obviously takes great comfort in daily repetition of prayers, especially in Latin.  Tolkien knows what these prayers translate to.  Is he valuing the daily repetition of prayer in Latin as an act of faith, or, because he understands the meaning of the prayers, does he find greater comfort?  If his comfort comes from understanding the prayers, I think that would weaken my argument for the value of translation and faith.

- Kariana Weis   


  1. Perhaps the solution is to decouple translation from the need for understanding: a translator by definition understands both languages, but also senses deeply how they differ. Some things simply can't be translated from one language to another without losing something of the meaning. RLFB

  2. To learn more about Christianity is part of the reason for why I registered in this class, so my understanding may be greatly erred and please correct me if you spot any absurdity. It is interesting that prayers to Virgin Mary sound quite foreign and inapplicable to me, yet the songs and calls to Elbereth do not. I think it is because tributes to Elbereth are not explicitly identified as prayers. From my limited understanding I don't think praise and prayers are said for their own sake; they are reminders of the humbleness of human existence and assistance to peace of mind, away from the danger of insatiable hunger for "more."
    I completely agree with your claim that "comprehension is not necessarily required for the words to have power, the power comes from faith." The words are not uttered for the sake of praying since Sam does not understand them if the first place. They are rather a result of the innate Virtue (also Power!) of Sam. Just like holders of gem stones are believed to be virtuous not because they are automatically sanctified by holding gem stones, but because their virtues qualifies them to be the holders. At the moment Sam is like a gem stone shining an inner light. So the dragons are not virtuous regardless of how many gem stones they hoard, and utterance of sounds resembling prayers does not make one faithful. The Faithful does not necessarily sing the prayer all the time if their faith is strong enough; their action shows everything (so we see the action of Elendil and his sons). But if you ask them question of the kinds their answer would be in the words of the prayers.
    So I don't think the fact that Tolkien finds comfort in repeating prayers weakens your argument but rather strengthens it, for he is looking for the power of faith in these word. Words are light but not the source of light; one can follow its trace and guidance to the source in the struggle against pain and sorrow and imperfection of the human world...