Yesterday we celebrated the works of J.R.R. Tolkien with a Tolkien Reading Day, so it is only fitting that today, for Scholarly Saturday, the post concerns Tolkien. This turned out to be a coincidental scheduling, as I did not remember the Tolkien Reading Day until Thursday, but it was a fun day. I helped run a chat throughout the day on Twitter, and you can search through the #TolkienChat entries to see what we discussed and chime in with your own thoughts on the books, movies, soundtrack, and more.
There are many excellent works of literature out there to read, and understanding how translation affects your experience with a text is essential to getting the most out of anything that was written in a different language. Tolkien was a linguist and a Medievalist. He devoted himself to reading texts like Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, and many others. He formed a group known as Kolbitars (Coal biters) that would sit by a fire at night and read their own impromptu translations of Icelandic Sagas. He developed his own languages throughout his works, the most popular being the Quenya and Sindarin (both of them a form of Elvish) languages. He understood the importance of translation and wrote about it at some length.
In his essay, “On Translating Beowulf” (originally published as “Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of Beowulf“), Tolkien writes that, “No defence is usually offered for translating Beowulf. Yet the . . . publishing of a modern English rendering needs defence: especially the presentation of a translation into plain prose of what is in fact a poem, a work of skilled and close-wrought metre” (Tolkien, ix). In other words, the translator fails to defend their reasoning for providing this new and different translation of Beowulf to the world (when there are already many good translations to be had), and felt that those who translated the poem into prose especially needed to provide a strong defense for their decision. A poem loses something when it becomes a prosaic story, yet the ironic thing is Tolkien’s own translation of Beowulf was in prose form. Granted, he never anticipated this translation being published and, if he had, I imagine he would have either done a poetic translation or else offered a suitable defense for his decision to translate it into prose. For, as Tolkien himself stated regarding a prose translation of Beowulf, “The proper purpose of a prose translation is to provide an aid to study” (Tolkien, x) rather than one to read and study on its own. A prose translation was to function as a supplement to a poetic translation, or the text in its original form.
Tolkien also weighed in regarding the choice of using modern words or the words that would have been fitting for the time period of composition. Tolkien believed, “if you wish to translate, not re-write, Beowulf, your language must be literary and traditional: not because it is now a long while since the poem was made, or because it speaks of things that have since become ancient, but because the diction of Beowulf was poetical, archaic . . . in the day that the poem was made” (Tolkien, xvii). So he was firmly entrenched in the camp that believed using older terms, fitting for the time period, was the way to go rather than pandering to the modern crowd’s choice of vocabulary. This is something you can see not only in his translation work, but also seeping through all of his writing. Even children’s tales, such as Roverandom, use words that fit the story rather than ones that fit the audience. Yet while Tolkien was a proponent for a traditional translation, he also cautioned that “words should not be used merely because they are ‘old’ or obsolete. The words chosen . . . must be words that remain in literary use, especially in the use of verse, among educated people” (Tolkien, xix), which is why you won’t see thees and thous and other completely outdated stylistic language in his work.
This is only scratching the surface on Tolkien’s thoughts regarding translation. I highly recommend getting a copy of The Monsters and the Critics, which has his essay “On Translating Beowulf” in full along with six other worthwhile essays/lectures from Tolkien.
When it comes to translations, here is a list of the works he translated and had published:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
The Old English ‘Exodus’
Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Prefatory Remarks on Prose Translation of Beowulf.” In Beowulf and the
Finnesburg Fragment: A Translation into Modern English Prose. Tr. John R. Clark Hall.
Ed. C.I. Wrenn. London: Allen & Unwin, 1950: ix-xxvii. Print.