Tolkien, Fiction Writing and the (Implicit) Act of Translation

TolkienAs translator David Bellos points out in his excellent Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, translation of literature is no easy task. Take this passage from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

‘It was one of those regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby […] and now you’d hear the thunder go off with an awful crash and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs, where it’s long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.’

As well as getting as close as possible to the basic (‘referential’) meaning of the text, there are poetic aspects of rhythm and rhyme (‘rumbling, grumbling, tumbling’) that the translator might try to somehow recreate in the target language. There is metaphor and simile, and invented words like ‘spider-webby’, which might not transfer easily from English to another language. And there’s the specific cultural reference to rolling wooden barrels down cellar stairs, which would seem an odd choice of simile for audiences in, say, Morocco.

And how about the dialogue that follows:

‘Jim, this is nice,’ I says. ‘I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else but here. Pass me along another hunk of fish and some hot cornbread’.

‘Well, you wouldn’t a ben here, ‘f it hadn’t a ben for Jim. You’d a ben down dah in de woods widout any dinner […]’

When it comes to the speech of Huck and Jim, and all the other characters, there is also the prickly question for the translator of how to render the (very meaningful) differences in dialect and style. In fact, how could anyone hope to translate the dialogue of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without risk of offending Twain himself, when he writes in the preface: ‘The shadings [of the dialects] have not been done in a hap-hazard fashion, or by guess-work, but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech’?

But even though they might not be aware of it – and even though they are not ‘translating’ in the literal sense – these challenges are also faced by novelist themselves, writing fiction in their own language.

Admittedly, if an English speaking author is telling a story set close to their own time and in an English speaking setting (as Mark Twain was), then there’s unlikely to be any translation involved. Assuming it will be reasonably comprehensible to the average English speaking reader – even if, for instance, the protagonists in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting might sometimes stretch that assumption – the author simply has to do their best to render their characters’ (imagined) language in a way that captures their nationality, place of birth, class, and so on.

But if the context or setting for that story becomes too far removed from the writer’s here and now, they will soon have to face the same challenge the translator faces. For a novelist writing in English, the question is: what is the best way to represent the language of that (spatially or temporally removed) context in a language that will be readable and comprehensible to a modern English-speaking audience?

In the temporal dimension, language change is the principle problem. For instance, what if the story is set in Medieval England, like Ken Follett’s The Pillars Of The Earth? In the imaginary world of the story, about the building of a cathedral in the twelfth century, the characters will all speak various dialects of Middle English. But in writing the novel for (and making it sellable to) a modern British audience, Follett has no choice but to render this speech in modern English – albeit with a few choice archaisms (such as Tom Builder’s ill-fated wife being ‘with child’).

And perhaps less evidently, because of the unstoppable evolution of language, a similar issue arises for authors writing about an imagined future – dystopian or otherwise – as Stan Carey has recently pointed out in his blog. All we can be sure about the English of 1000 years from now is that it will be very different to the English of today.

Likewise, the challenge arises when events unfold somewhere else in the spatial dimension. Where the narrative unfolds in a foreign country, where another language is spoken, the author most make certain choices about how to represent that language to an audience who might not be familiar with the language in question.

Take, for example, French author Jules Verne writing about upper class British gentleman Phileas Fogg in Le Tour Du Monde En 80 Jours. In the imagined world of the novel, his characters speak a Victorian version of English. The first problem the author-translator faces is how to get across a sense of ‘foreignness’ (Englishness in Jules Verne’s case) in the French prose.

Verne, however, had a few solutions up his manche. For instance, when Fogg meets Passepartout for the first time he asks, ‘Vous êtes Francais et vous vous nommez John?’ (‘So you’re French and your name is John?’). Of course, his reliable new manservant is French, so his name is really ‘Jean’. With one carefully placed word, Verne captures Fogg’s true nationality in an otherwise Gallic sentence.

Lastly, of course, there are those story-tellers whose imagination takes them far further along the dimensions of both time and space, into whole new worlds entirely: that is, the writers of science-fiction and fantasy.

Today, one of the most celebrated of these is George R. R. Martin, author of the series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire. In creating the lands of ‘Westeros’, ‘Essos’ and beyond – and in keeping with their geographical, ethnic and cultural complexity – Martin also needed to create an entirely new linguistic world to map on top of them. Handily for us, the Common Tongue of Westeros is represented by an English we understand, with all of its more fine-grained dialectal and stylistic variations represented by similar variations in English.

But whether Martin, Verne and Follett considered themselves translators – or even considered that writing direct from their imagination could seen as ‘translation’ – is a different matter. It’s fair to say that this (implicit) act of translation is seldom made explicit by writers or novelists – albeit with a few notable exceptions.

In The Old Man And The Sea, the novella which earned him the Nobel Prize for literature, Ernest Hemingway alludes to the Cuban setting by scattering occasional Spanish words throughout the English prose. On the first page, he writes:

‘But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky […].’

But what makes Hemingway different to other authors is the fact that – at one particular point in the prose – he actually acknowledges that he is ‘translating’ the words of his ageing protagonist as he types:

‘“Ay,” he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood. […]’

Hemingway was something of a linguist having lived and worked in many countries, including Italy, Spain and Cuba. As a result of his multilingualism, perhaps he was more aware than most of the process of transferring meaning between different languages. Or perhaps, by making the act of translation explicit, he simply wanted to make the story more real. That is, he wanted the reader to feel that he wasn’t just writing from his imagination. Instead, he was translating from Spanish the true story of an old fisherman fighting for the biggest catch of his life.

But if Hemingway alludes briefly to his role as translator, there is one author that goes far further. Perhaps it’s not surprising that this writer was also himself a linguist.

As well as an author, J. R. R. Tolkien was an academic philologist – an expert in medieval languages. C. S. Lewis said of Tolkien’s work in writing The Hobbit and the epic Lord Of The Rings: ‘No imaginary world has been projected which is at once multifarious and so true to its inner laws.’ Perhaps this is most apparent in the mind-boggling complexity of the languages Tolkien devised for his fictional Middle Earth.

In a preface to The Hobbit, Tolkien briefly introduces the languages of the world he has created. ‘This is a story of long ago,’ he says. ‘At that time the languages and letters were quite different from ours of today. English is used to represent the languages.’ But in The Lord Of The Rings, he goes far further. He includes an entire Appendix to Book III about the ‘Languages and Peoples of the Third Age’. In it, there are lengthy descriptions of ‘the Westron’ (or the Mannish ‘Common Speech’), as well as the ‘Elderin’ languages ‘Quenya’ (the ‘Latin’ of the Elven languages) and ‘Sindarin’, and even the ‘Black Speech’ of the Orcs. The phonemic systems or these languages are described in great detail, as are their roots and origins in earlier languages. Tolkien the linguist also describes the way language contact, between speakers of these different languages, has led to language change – for example, how the Westron has been ‘enriched and softened under Elvish influence’– just as it does in the languages closer to home.

Later, and at some length, he even discusses the dialectal and stylistic variations between speakers of the Westron. According to Tolkien, the Hobbits mostly speak ‘a more rustic dialect’ and – with the exception of the odd one or two with knowledge of ‘book-language’ – in a less formal style. In The Hobbit, very soon into his adventure, Bilbo Baggins comes across three trolls whose language is ‘not drawing-room fashion at all’ (‘Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton tomorrer’). Later on, he comes across Gollum who has possibly the most famously idiosyncratic idiolect of all: ‘Praps ye sits here and chats with it a bitsy, my preciouss. It like riddles, praps it does, does it?’

The second part of the Appendix to The Lord Of The Rings is even more striking. Titled ‘On Translation’, Tolkien gives a thorough and detailed account of how he has rendered the languages of Middle Earth for his readers and how, in doing so, the Common Speech has ‘inevitably been turned into modern English’. Tolkien explicitly makes the point that – from the very first page – he is translating the words of his characters, except for a few names of places and people, into English. At the same time, he acknowledges those very same challenges that all translators have in representing the source language in the target language of their readership: the subtle variations in accent, dialect, register and style, code-switches to third languages, and so on. He even makes a point, which David Bellos also makes, that in the act of translation differences in dialect and style are inevitably smoothed out (into what Bellos calls ‘Tranglish’).

Perhaps most striking of all is Tolkien’s central conceit that, in writing The Lord Of The Rings, he is in fact translating from a manuscript called ‘The Red Book’. Tolkien says he is ‘presenting the matter of the Red Book, as a history for the people of today to read’. Perhaps, as with Hemingway, Tolkien wanted to create a tangible origin for his writing, that wasn’t simply his fertile imagination: that is, to make the ‘story’ closer to a ‘history’. Perhaps he was setting out a defence of his work against serious academic colleagues who might deride his stories of dwarves and dragons as frivolous. Or perhaps, as a linguist who greatly enjoyed the intellectual and artistic challenge of translating old Norse Anglo Saxon texts, he couldn’t help himself from consciously bringing that same process to the process of writing fiction.

Either way, it’s clear that for Tolkien the act of creating a fictional world, and all the fantastic stories that went with it, was inseparable from the act of translation. One thing is certain: without authors like Tolkien (and Hemingway and Martin) who are prepared to ‘translate’ for us stories from other times and other places – knowingly or otherwise – our own world would be a far poorer place.

Many thanks to John Cowan for giving me the initial idea for this piece in the comments he made to an earlier blog post.

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5 thoughts on “Tolkien, Fiction Writing and the (Implicit) Act of Translation

  1. I love the Hemingway quote: ‘There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.’

    Whenever I’ve learnt another language it has always felt like a physical process and the words, especially the words that have no translation into English, each have a feeling, a physical sensation attached to them. I know what ‘saudade’ or ‘duende’ feel like, but it would take me an awful lot of words to explain them.

    I think it’s one of the reasons why phrasal verbs are so hard to explain or pin down when language learners try to understand them. ‘Tune out’ or ‘make for’ have a sense of physical movement attached to them. An infinitesimal physical movement, but the sense of it is there. To me. But completely invisible to a language learner.

    I’d love to know how that sense gets into us. Nobody acted out phrasal verbs at school. Nobody taught them at school. Indeed, I had no idea that phrasal verbs were a special thing until I started teaching English as a Foreign Language. They’re so useful to us, but so opaque and bothersome to language learners.

    Sorry – I’ve strayed from translation. I’m thinking as I write. Thank you for your post. I really enjoyed reading it.

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