25 January 2007

From cold storage: The Stillsuit of Elendil

Lightly edited, a post from my old blog. I find it convenient to refer to when I want to explain Old High Translationese.

While on the subject of genre authors with a taste for archaic prose...

I have been known, from time to time, to say rude things about Tolkien's writing and his writing style. China Mieville has done the same with a lot more panache than I can manage and David Brin has a lenghty article: J.R.R. Tolkien -- enemy of progress. So none of my grouching is new or interesting.

But while thinking on the puzzle of Frank Herbert's sometimes archaizing style, my thoughts naturally turned to Tolkien's tortured prose. And I had a revelation.

Tolkien, or Professor Tolkien as Peter Jackson calls him constantly on the special features tracks on the LOTR DVDs, was a philologist. He studied dead languages. You can, from time to time, still find his academic work cited in articles on historical linguistics. In both Latin and Greek, which were certainly central to Tolkien's education, sentences can tolerate word orders that English would never put up with. Homer, for example, regularly puts adjectives some distance from the noun they go with. It's stylish, and because of the grammar of these languages, perfectly clear (or nearly so).

When you first study Greek and Latin, your teacher might expect you to produce fairly literal translations. I've been an instructor for several ancient Greek mailing list groups, and I also plead with the students to stay close to the Greek as possible when we start. I need to make sure they're understanding the grammar correctly, and aren't just fudging it. Once their command of Greek is more solid, then I'll generally tolerate quite free translations. But that initial habit of the literal translation leaves its mark. I produced this clunking monstrosity just this week for the Odyssey translation group (Od.2.81-83):

All the people felt pity.
And there all the others sat in silence, nor did anyone dare
to answer Telemachus with strong words.


This very literal translation is nearly a gloss - hardly English at all. And yet I continue to produce English like this because if all of us in the group were to work too freely no one else could use our translations to check their own work.

My revelation: Tolkien's natural language is Old High Translationese*!



* Old High Translationese corr. Classicist Translationese ms.

1 comment:

Luke said...

That translation seems perfectly natural to me! Yet I read Greek.

Luke