III – Tolkien as a translator

There is one plain reason, that makes the matter of merely translating Tolkien a complicated and possibly confusing one. Tolkien presents his English version of LOTR as a translation from the Middle-earth language Westron.

The fact that he wrote LOTR partly to create a background for his Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin led him to working, on the whole, in a higher degree of detail than mostly usual at that time in this genre. Apart from the Elves, the Dwarves and their languages, Middle-Earth in Tolkien’s imagination was also inhabited by Men and Hobbits, who spoke the widely known Common Tongue Adûnaic. Tolkien, in English, called this language Westron and chose, as the Hobbit perspective was central to the story, to have English represent Westron throughout LOTR. This also meant, that he ‘translated’ every name or place name which was Westron or derived from Westron in his imagination into English or to find an English equivalent.

This ‘translation’ process, as surreal as it may seem, was immensely important to Tolkien himself and was followed at an amazing degree of detail. Tolkien attempts to explain this process in the appendices to LOTR.

Gamgee. According to family tradition, set out in the Red Book, the surname Galbasi, or in reduced form Galpsi, came from the village of Galabas, popularly supposed to be derived from galab- ‘game’ and an old element bas-, more or less equivalent to our wick, wich. Gamwich (pronounced Gammidge) seemed therefore a very fair rendering. However, in reducing Gammidgy to Gamgee, to represent Galpsi, no reference was intended to the connexion of Samwise with the family of Cotton, though a jest of that kind would have been hobbit-like enough, had there been any warrant in their language.’1

‘But Sam and his father Ham were really called Ban and Ran. These were shortenings of Banazîr and Ranugad, originally nicknames, meaning ‘halfwise, simple’ and ‘stay-at-home’; but being words that had fallen out of colloquial use they remained as traditional names in certain families. I have therefore tried to preserve these features by using Samwise and Hamfast, modernizations of ancient English samwís and hámfoest which corresponded closely in meaning.’2

The process of translating the names of villages or mountains was not much different from that. Tolkien would take an English word, or part of a word and merely create a name, later claiming that there had been a Westron original, unknown to the reader, or create an Elvish name for a place, like the village Imladris and translate it into English Rivendell, claiming again that this is merely the English equivalent of an unknown Westron word.

The effect of this is obvious. The reader, unfamiliar with the Elvish languages Quenya or Sindarin, cannot make much of words like Imladris or Lothlórien, as these sound like fantastic unreal places, and he also knows nobody called Galadriel or Legolas, but Michel Delving or Rivendell could well have been places at some time in England, Bree could be a village in the English countryside today and an actual Sam Gamgee once wrote a letter to Tolkien. Would Tolkien have kept his imaginary Westron names like Banazîr Galpsi from Sûza and not transferred them to the likes of Samwise Gamgee from the Shire, they would have seemed as unfamiliar and as fantastic as Galadriel and Legolas, but this way the perspective of today’s reader is as close to that of the Hobbits of the Shire as is possible. The reader is supposed to feel at home in the Shire and at awe in Lothlórien and afraid in Mordor in exactly the same way as the Hobbits he reads about have felt, this is why Tolkien created only a partial ‘translation’ and left the Elvish untranslated.

1The Return of the King, Appendix F, p. 522

2The Return of the King, Appendix F, p. 519

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