Why is Tolkien's work so difficult to translate into other languages?
ecause his interest in, skill with, and love of language are manifest at every level and indeed in almost every word of LotR, thereby
producing a result difficult if not impossible to duplicate.
The previous question describes how Common Speech names were
"rendered" into English. The Guide to the Names in The Lord of the
Rings, Tolkien's instructions for translators, does attempt to
address this. In it he goes down the list of names in the index and
specifies which should be translated (being Common Speech) and which
should be left alone. It would require skillful translation to get
even this far, but that would only be the beginning. Reproducing the
other linguistic intricacies described in the previous question would
be well-nigh impossible; for example, Rohirric would have to be
replaced with some ancient language whose relation to the language of
translation was the same as that of Anglo-Saxon to modern English.
On another level, there is the diction and style of everything
said and told. The language used has a strong archaic flavour; it is
not an exact recreation of how Anglo-Saxon or mediaeval people actually
spoke but rather is as close an approximation as he could achieve and
still remain intelligible to modern readers. This was not accidental
but rather was deliberately and carefully devised. (See Letters,
There were, moreover, variations in the style in which characters
of different backgrounds spoke the Common Speech ("represented" as
English) (e.g. at the Council of Elrond, FR, II, 2; see also RtMe
90-93). There were variations in the style of individual characters
at different times (RK, 412 (App F, II)). There was even an attempt
to indicate a distinction between familiar and deferential forms of
pronouns (which doesn't exist in modern English) by use of the archaic
words "thee" and "thou" (RK, 411 (App F, II); for an example, see the
scene with Aragorn and Eowyn at Dunharrow, RK, 57-59 (V, 2)).
Finally, there was Tolkien's poetry, which was often far more
complicated than it appeared, and which in many cases is very probably
untranslatable. (The extreme case is Bilbo's Song of Earendil, FR,
246-249 (II,1); T.A. Shippey has identified five separate metrical
devices in this poem: RtMe, 145-146).
- RK, Appendix F, 57-59 (V, 2);
FR, "The Council of Elrond" (II, 2), 246-249 (II,1);
Letters, 225-226 (#171), 250-251 (#190) [on the Dutch translation], 263 (#204) [on the Swedish translation];
RtMe, 90-93 (4, "'The Council of Elrond'"), 145-146 (6, "the elvish tradition").
Last modified: Sat Aug 19 19:45:30 1995
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