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Translating Tolkien

Vincent Ferré, in charge of the translation into French of J.R.R. Tolkien's works for Christian Bourgois éditeur, describes in this article - in collaboration with Daniel Lauzon and David Riggs - the peculiar difficulties that arise in the attempt to translate J.R.R. Tolkien's works, and the complexities of such a translation into French in particular.


~ Vincent Ferré ~

 “… this is an age of potted criticism and pre-digested literary opinion; and in the making of these cheap substitutes for food translations un­fortunately are too often used.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘On Translating Beowulf’)


It was forty-five years ago that J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings were first published in French (1969), and even though the number of his works available in that language has been growing steadily, especially since 2002, the question does not seem irrelevant. The case of French is indeed of special interest when considering the work of a writer such as Tolkien, as far as translation is concerned.


A critical issue for J.R.R. Tolkien

Let us begin by recalling the importance of this question in the mind of the author, — reading this unpublished note of his on the subject of translation — and the cautious, even distrustful posture he adopted towards any kind of translated text. This is seen, apart from the statement cited above (excerpted from a preface reprinted in The Monsters and the Critics), from the many words of caution addressed to his publishers and the instructions he provided to those who first tackled foreign versions of The Lord of the Rings, in Dutch, Swedish and Polish (in 1956–59). Some of these instructions came to alter and to develop over time, especially as regards the translation of proper names, until Tolkien finally laid them down in an extensive ‘guide’, the Nomenclature of the Lord of the Rings. As he recalled in his 1966 Foreword, Tolkien’s world emerged in close relation to language: his whole fictional undertaking ‘was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of “history” for Elvish tongues.’

The Foreword does not by any means boil down to this idea, but it is undeniable that the question of language and translation frequently resurfaces at the heart of the work itself, as can be seen in the Old English versions of the Annals of Valinor and the Annals of Beleriand, ascribed to Ælfwine, and given in The Shaping of Middle-earth (the fourth volume of The History of Middle-earth); or again in Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings, which features long discussions of the various tongues spoken in Middle-earth, and spells out the consequences arising from the very nature of the text, purportedly translated from the Red Book into modern English.

There may be sufficient reason, then, to pay attention to the problem. And if the case of French is not exceptionally remarkable, it does however show several peculiarities of interest: the fact that it is a Romance language, that it does not quite match the lexical diversity of the English language, and that it distinguishes several grammatical forms.


Is French a peculiar case?

Tellingly enough, French language is rarely mentioned in the Nomenclature, with Germanic and Nordic languages receiving most of the author’s attention. As he does in his correspondence, Tolkien comments on some of the choices made by the Dutch and Swedish translators (say, for the name Shadowfax), when he is not actually making suggestions, such as Dachsbau for German, or Graveling for Danish. Of course, most of the character- and place-names featured in his work being of Germanic heritage, they are much more difficult to translate in a Romance language, rooted in an entirely different tradition.

More especially, it must be noted that the lexical richness of English seems difficult to match in French. A few sentences show this indirectly, such as Gandalf’s rather redundant turn of phrase about the ‘Champs aux Iris, où il y avait de grands parterres d’iris’ (‘the Gladden Fields, where there were great beds of iris’). As we can see, Tolkien uses a dialectal form to distinguish the place-name from the flowers themselves (both rendered ‘iris’ in French), and asks translators to maintain this distinction in his instructions. If the English language can occasionally pose a challenge to the French translator, what shall we say of Tolkien’s English, rich with obsolete or dialectal words, not to mention those that he coined himself?

Indeed Tolkien, in his literary creations, appears very much as a linguist, inventing new words such as tweens, and of course hobbit; but also as a stylist, by taking pains to singularize the speech of most of his important characters: social and cultural differences are conspicuously present in the English text, from Gandalf to the Gaffer, Gollum to Théoden. This contrast is in fact made explicit in Appendix F of The Lord of the Rings, where it is linked to the imaginary geography: the more widely travelled the character, the greater his variety of speech.

But it may be shown that history also has a word in it – the history of language, that is. The evocative power of Old English poetical words, which ‘come down to us bearing echoes of ancient days beyond the shadowy borders of Northern history’ (as Tolkien wrote concerning Beowulf), is preserved unscathed in his work. Thus with ‘bury, found in Bucklebury (Châteaubouc in French) or Norbury (Norchâteau), an element of ancient English which the French translator of The Lord of the Rings renders by the same equivalent he uses for hall…‘Why deliberately ignore, refuse to use the wealth of English which leaves us a choice of styles – without any possibility of unintelligibility,’ the author wondered when a reader criticized his narrative style. Tolkien’s translators, however, do not necessarily have these resources at their disposal.

Transposing English into French can also raise difficulties of a less subtle, more conspicuous nature, such as the use of the familiar ‘tu’ or the deferential ‘vous’ (in French). Indeed Westron, the language spoken by all as a ‘common’ tongue, features – in the second person (and the third) – a distinction absent in modern English ‘between “familiar” and “deferential” forms,’ as stated in Appendix F. But the second form was largely forgotten in the Shire, where use of the familiar form was dominant: one can thus imagine the comical effect of Pippin addressing the people of Gondor in this manner, including the Lord Denethor. Even though the English text occasionally distinguishes between you and thou (the latter as a familiar form), this is far from systematic; the French translator, however, has had to choose continually between ‘vous’ and ‘tu’, thereby relinquishing the ambiguity of the modern English you, and sacrificing nuances of interest in the interrelations of characters.


Translating: the never-ending circle

We might also show how the determination of gender (masculine or feminine) in the case of place-names, such as ‘le Mordor’, ‘le Gondor’, or those names which are translated (‘la Comté’ for ‘the Shire’), can alter the perception of the imaginary world. But this problem of choice is in fact a general one, and applies to many other aspects of the text, chiefly owing to the imaginary nature of the world in which the narrative unfolds. Because of the moment the translation took place and the scant information available at the time, there arose in the new version problems of internal coherence not encountered in the original. Indeed, the French translation of The Lord of the Rings was published thirty-five years ago, at a time when The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, not to mention The History of Middle-earth, were still unpublished in English: the translator had then no information to turn to concerning the imaginary world, other than that which is contained in The Lord of the Rings (and the Nomenclature). This led to a number of errors that could hardly be avoided, as the translator was left to choose between different interpretations where readers of the original could leave the ambiguity unresolved in their mind.

Take, for example, the phrase the departure of Galadriel in the Prologue. Does it refer to her actual departure, or to her passing away? Of course, Galadriel leaves Middle-earth at the end of the tale, but the statement could very well refer to a later death, given that The Lord of the Rings does not emphasize the ‘immortality’ of the Elves so clearly as The Silmarillion does; moreover, the word departure is found in a chapter-title referring to the crucial episode of Boromir’s death (Book III, Chapter 1). The choice of death as the likelier meaning in the French Prologue seemed therefore justified, from the translator’s point of view, in his own time; and the incoherence only came to light when further texts were published that cleared the ambiguity.

Today, the situation has altered dramatically, and it is encouraging to note that whereas five different translators have been involved in translating the works of Tolkien from 1969 to 1982, only four have carried the bulk of this task in recent years by translating three or four books each, a situation which can only benefit to the coherence of the whole. They are Adam Tolkien (Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Book of Lost Tales Part I & II in 1994, 1995 and 1998), Daniel Lauzon (starting 2006: part of The Lays of Beleriand, and The Shaping of Middle-earth and The Lost Road, before The Hobbit new translation in 2012), as well as Christine Laferrière (The Monsters and the Critics (2006), The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún (2010) and The Fall of Arthur (2013) – also, Delphine Martin translated The Children of Húrin in 2008, after her translation of Tolkien’s Letters (2005) and Alan Lee’s Sketchbook of the Lord of the Rings (2006), both of them with Vincent Ferré.

Translating Tolkien requires fuller immersion into the work than is usually the case with most authors. Indeed, a translator has to take into account every (published) version of the same material: thus, the story of Túrin as it appears in The Children of Húrin interconnects with Chapter XXI of the Silmarillion, but also with the Narn in Unfinished Tales, with one of the Lost Tales (‘Turambar and the Foalókë’), and still with the first of the ‘Lays of Beleriand’. It follows that the translator is taken into the footsteps of the author, who for example composed the Quenta (given in The Shaping of Middle-earth, the fourth part of The History of Middle-earth) with the Sketch of the Mythology in front of him, revisiting and developing the earlier text. Copying out, rewriting text, incorporating earlier additions: these acts are performed by author and translator alike. In the mind of the latter, Tolkien’s writings relate to one another in an unbroken chain, being part of a whole not unlike the imaginary universe they depict; thus the temptation, each time a new work comes out, to revisit every translation ever produced, as our knowledge of this universe deepens.

As Tolkien himself wrote:

the effort to translate, or to improve a translation, is valuable, not so much for the version it produces, as for the understanding of the original which it awakes.



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