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User:Sage/Translator of the Red Book

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In the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien writes about the work as the result of a "translation". Tolkien was one of the authors who entertained with the idea of their work as a result of study and not of fiction.

This idea offered some depth and background to the usage of names and terms he used, and English neologisms he created. For example, he named Elrond's home with the English name Rivendell (a compound of the English words riven "cloven" and dell). As the inhabitants of the fictional timeframe of Middle-earth did not speak English, but a different native language, he explained Rivendell as an English "translation" of its actual name in Westron, "Karningul".

Tolkien did't elaborate on the "frame story" of that fictitious "translator" of the Red Book (perhaps a fictionalized version of himself), or explain how the copy of the Red Book came to his hands.

In at least one point, Tolkien presents himself as an unreliable narrator: In Appendix D, the "translator" admits that some errors must have slipped him while "translating" astronomical and calendaric details from the Red Book.

[edit] Method of "translation"

See also: Mannish
See also: Germanic

In the fictional backstory of Middle-earth, the languages of Men (Mannish) are described to belong to two main families of the First Age: the "Northern" and the "Southern".

  • The "Northern" family resulted in the languages of the Edain, the Northmen, the "external names" of the Dwarves of Erebor, the Dúnedain and eventually the Realms in Exile. Thanks to the expansion of Westron, it became the dominant Mannish family of the Westlands. Languages of that family are always rendered as Germanic languages, showing their interrelationship and mutual intelligibility.
This effect can be understood for example comparing the names Marhari (Éothéod), mearas (Rohirrim) and Marcho (Bree-Hobbit) all containing the element seen in mare "horse".
  • The "Southern" family resulted in more obscure languages, like those of the Men of the Mountains, the Dunlendings and other Pre-Númenórean languages. From the Dúnedainic point of view of the legendarium, these languages are considered "alien" and unintelligible to the speakers of Westron, and appear "untranslated". Remnants of these languages in Eriador are rendered as Celtic; not closely related to English, but familiar because of geographic and cultural proximity (to the Hobbits).

In reality, the names Tolkien provides as "translated" are borrowed from real life history. cf. Odovacar Bolger, wearing the name of a historical Germanic figure. In The Hobbit Tolkien made use of Norse names for the geographical context of the North, including those of the Dwarves of Erebor (taken from the Dvergatal). In the Lord of the Rings, other peoples and real-world languages appear, such as Old English for the Rohirrim, and Gothic for a couple of names related to Rhovanion. These are all Germanic languages, like English, used to show their relationship with the dominant language of the Westlands, Westron; Old English names appearing in the book seem familiar, but also archaic and mostly unintelligible to the reader; supposedly, this renders the effect of the Rohan language when heard by the Westron speaking characters.

[edit] Writing

Tolkien did not only provide real-world names as "translations" in the narrative. In visual reproductions (illustrations) of in-universe documents, such as the Thrór's Map or the Book of Mazarbul, he didn't provide them as autotypes, but kept the same "translation" logic. Upon reflection Tolkien would later say that such translations were "an erroneous extension of the general linguistic treatment".[1]

In The Hobbit, the Thrór's Map bears Roman letters and Anglo-Saxon runes. In the Lord of the Rings it was established that letters are to understood as representing actual Tengwar, and the runes representing Angerthas Erebor.

An example of this "erroneous extension" is the inscription on Balin's Tomb. The main inscription in Angerthas Moria is Khuzdul, except the Norse names "Balin" and "Fundin" (representing Northern Mannish). Below, there is a smaller inscription written in Angerthas Erebor which is actually English (representing Westron).

[edit] Other considerations

  • "Gandalf" is a Norse name, representing a "translation" of the Wizard's unrecorded Mannish name. In the narrative he signs his presence with a certh representing "G",[2][3] indicating that either his actual name also starts with G or that the rune is also "translated".
  • Similarly "Saruman" is an Old English name with the character's in-universe name being unrecorded; yet the narrative mentions that his Uruk-hai bear the rune "S",[4] again indicating that his actual name also started with S.
  • Regarding Sam's garden box, Galadriel mentions that it is decorated with a silver "G" for her name, noting that it is also the first letter for the Hobbits' word for "garden",[5] indicating that in both English and Hobbitish, the word starts with "G".
  • The narrative mentions the double meaning of the name "Orthanc" in both Elvish and Rohan (represented by Old English where the word is orþanc "cunning"). The similarity between Elvish and Old English was a pure coincidence,[6] but according to the narrative, the name was also meaningful in the original Rohan language.[7]

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