Monday, June 23, 2008

Digging deeper into the Flammifer

Aah, but how deep is too deep? You tell me.

Last week, I wrote about the Flammifer of Westernesse, one of those seemingly innumerable and always conspicuous single-use coinages for which Tolkien is justly renowned. I talked about two things: searching out a possible source in Ovid, and considering (in brief) the challenge of how to translate such neologisms. I used the example of Italian, which was really the catalyst for the whole post. So what more can be said? Well, let’s see ...

Mark Hooker, who is much better acquainted with the subtleties of translating Tolkien than I am, reminded me that along with Lucifer as a model for Flammifer, there is also Christopher, which literally means “bearer of Christ” — this time, from Greek: Χριστος “Christ” + φερω “to bear, carry”. Yes indeed! And I think we can be pretty certain Tolkien knew the etymology of this anthoponym, having bestowed it on his youngest son.

Then, on the point of how the phrase has been approached by translators, I’d like to add to our catalog of examples. I’ve dug up a few more myself, and Mark also provided me with several additional translations of Flammifer of Westernesse. Several of the translators had the good sense to leave the word alone, while others made an attempt (sometimes a clever one) at translating it by sense.

In the first category, the two German translations (Carroux and Krege) each have Der Flammifer der Westernis. Similarly, the Dutch (two translations, both made by Schuchart) has De Vlammifer van Westernisse — here, the change in spelling is made for pronunciation. The French translation, like the Italian, also retains the word unchanged: Flammifer de l’Ouistrenesse.

As some of you may know, the Russians made rather a mess of things with more than a dozen efforts over the years, some of which remain unpublished and some of which are hardly translations at all. Without attempting to explain the situation fully (for which I am not qualified in any case), let me just pass along the information Mark Hooker shared with me. For more details on the history of the Russian translations of Tolkien, see his book Tolkien Through Russian Eyes. Any mistakes you spot here are probably mine, and not his.

The Gruzberg translation is the only one that leaves the word unchanged. It has the lines, Carrying through the darkness of the heavenly sphere, / The Message of the Western Lands, The Guiding Light — the ‘Flammifer’.

In the earliest official Russian translation, by Murav’ev and Kistyakovskij, the poem is only translated in the loosest possible sense, with no attempt to render Flammifer of Westernesse at all. Ditto the Grigor’eva and Grushetskij, V.A. Matorina samizdat edition, and Nemirova translation. The Ukrainian translation, by the way, is of the same basic form – leaving out the idea of the Flammifer altogether in favor of, well, I don’t quite know what. I can’t make much sense out of it through dictionary translation alone. If anyone out there reads Ukrainian and is interested in taking a look, let me know.

And here’s a novel solution: the Yakhnin and Bobyr’ translations omit the poem altogether. *smirk* Both ‘translations’ are really rather severe abridgments — retellings actually — for a younger audience. Think Russian Cliffs Notes for children.

Now, let’s turn to the second category: attempts at translating (or replacing) Flammifer into the local language, one way or another. Here are several to consider. Some are fairly close, while others demonstrate a greater poetic license.

Another of the Russian translations, by Volkovskij, ends rather strangely with, To the Shinning Lighthouse. The basic idea is there, but something is clearly lost. The two Polish translations offer, respectively, Plomieniec na podobloczu! = “[carry] a little flame through the heavens [lit: under the clouds]” (Skibniewska); and Zwana Plomieniem Ludzi Zachodu = “Called the flame of the people of the West” (Lozinski). Among some of the other Slavic translations, there is the Czech Světlonoš ze Západní říše = “The bearer of light from the Western Empire” (the Czech říše is cognate to German Reich, Old English ríce); and the Bulgarian Задморски вечен Пламотвор = “The eternal overseas Creator of Flame”.

Among the Romance languages, the Spanish and Portuguese translations are much looser than the Italian and French. They have, respectively, la luz flamígera de Oesternesse and lâmpada a flama qual Porta-chama do Ponente.

And just for grins, let me take a stab at the Estonian. The final two lines of the poem are: ja lampi kandmas üle maa / on Läänesaare Tulilaev. As near as I can make out, dictionary in hand, this means “the lamp borne over the earth in the Fire-vessel to the West-island.” Anyone out there who’s capable, please feel free to improve on that. Läänesaare seems to have in mind Tol Eressëa, while Tulilaev (tuli “fire” + laev “boat, ark, vessel”) is a commendable replacement for Flammifer.

Let me finish up with probably the most interesting of the Russian translations, the Karrik and Kamenkovich (poems translated by Stepanov): This is the 1994 annotated edition with running commentary on some of the Germanic and Christian motifs to which Tolkien alludes throughout The Lord of the Rings. The translation has: “Shine on, O Erendil, the Light-Bearer of the West!” K&K (or Stepanov, I presume), opted to replace Пламеносец with a more archaic word, recalling my previous comments on the Italian fiammifero. The Bulgarian translation, however, as I’ve said, retains something closer to the Lucifer/Venus connection with Пламотвор. But more interesting to me: the translators provide a footnote explaining their choice. Here’s the note (and thanks to Mark for the note and translation into English). As you’ll see, it’s very à propos of my comments on Lucifer / Venus in the previous post and comments:

Light bearer of the West. The original used the Latin word Flammifer (“Plamenosets”). In Latin, the word rhymes with the name for Venus — Lucifer, which, however, is used in the Latinophone Christian tradition as the name of the mutinous Archangel Lucifer (i.e., an analogue to Tolkien’s Melkor), and Tolkien, of course, had to find a replacement for him. The same thing happened to the Slavic name for Venus (Dennitsa) used in the Slavic translation of the Holly Books. Therefore, the translator used another Russian word to name Venus, which is actually a calque from Latin, but which does not, in contrast to the latter, carry any undesirable negative connotations. The Catholic Latin used by Tolkien here is rendered by the archaic word “svetonosets”, even though, in principle, the word “flammifer” [Фламмифер] could have been left untranslated. After all, it is also marked in English as a foreign word.
Oh, and one final note: I have the Chinese translation also; however, I know so little Chinese (maybe half a dozen words — at most :) that I don’t really have a foothold for commenting on the attempt. So it’s a complete mystery to me — but likely to be pretty interesting. If anyone out there would like to take a shot at it, click on the image above and let me know what you make of it. :)

If any of you made it this far, give yourselves a round of applause. I suspect most readers will have given up in the paragraphs on Russian — if not earlier.


  1. "To the Shinning Lighthouse"?
    Is Volkovskij referencing Woolf?

  2. Speaking of which, I read a good blog post on that Virginia Woolf novel last week, here. But back to your comment ...

    I suspect you’re probably being somewhat tongue in cheek here, but seriously, it’s interesting to see how some of the translations — mainly the Soviet and former Soviet bloc (e.g., Polish, Czech, Bulgarian) — seem to be trying to incorporate their own cultural values into the translation, or into the paratext. And by cultural values, I suppose what I really mean is that peculiar admixture of ennui and paranoia you only tended to find in Communist states during the Cold War era.

    As an example, have a look at some of the art for the Polish Silmarillion — it’s downright bizarre. It would be interesting to make a survey of this, but it would require access to books that can be hard to come by.

  3. Gary Schmidt6/24/2008 2:02 PM

    Wow, Estonian, Jase ... you continue to impress me. That wasn't even one of the dictionaries we had from the Houston Public Library. :)

    And you know how I feel about the Polish Silmarillion: it definitely deserves its own post, or more. :)

  4. [Estonian] wasn’t even one of the dictionaries we had from the Houston Public Library. :)

    You mean, that you know of ... Hahae, no seriously, it’s all thanks to the Internet. In the case of the Estonian, I mainly used this dictionary, hosted by the Institute of Baltic Studies. But there were a couple of others I referred to as well. There’s an almost unbelievable wealth of language material out there — you just have to know where to look, and how to (try to) use it. I mean, this Estonian site even lets you translate words from your cell phone, for crying out loud! What a world it is!

    And you know how I feel about the Polish Silmarillion: it definitely deserves its own post, or more. :)

    Hahae, I don’t know if I have enough information for a full post. Maybe if I’d bought that copy that came up on eBay recently ...

  5. I'm in Almaty, Kazakhstan right now and I came across your blog in the course of checking out information about Russian translations of LoTR. I wanted tofigure out how to choose from among the five different translations (some in different editions, even) availble in a large bookstore here. Some of the editions are much more recent than the ones Mark Hooker had available, so I'll head down to the bookstore to check out your flammifer reference in the more recent editions, and then buy one or two for myself!

  6. Hi Laura (in case you check back here again). Thanks for dropping in and leaving your comments — and from the far-flung corners of the earth, no less. Yours is one of only a small handful of visits I’ve had from Central Asia (two from Kazakhstan, and one from Uzbekistan). I’ll resist the temptation to make a Borat joke. ;)

    I think Mark would be very interested to learn about these newer editions. You might want to let him know what you’ve found at some point. If you’d like to go through me, that would be fine too.

  7. I don't have any contact info for Mark, so I'll keep in touch with you. Maybe I'll pick up whatever the bookstore has in stock that is new, but nothing is cheap here, so we'll see what it costs! Anyway, now I've got a quest, so I'm pleased. :)

  8. I won’t post Mark’s contact information here on a public blog, so yes, you can just go through me here or via email (my email address is in my profile). Good luck in your quest! At least, it’s an easier one than Frodo’s. :)

  9. Sadly, I have nothing interesting to report from the bookstores of Almaty. There are no new translations, just new editions of old translations. Thus there were a bunch of books which ended the poem before the Flammifer line (and one that didn't include the poem at all!), and the others had the "To the Shining Lighthouse" oddity. So, I guess that's that!

  10. Pity there were no new developments or surprises. Thanks for checking and reporting back! :)

  11. It might (or might not) interest you to know that the official publication of the German Tolkien Society is called "Der Flammifer von Westernis".


  12. Sorry, my Blogger account is probably not very interesting for you, as it is devoted to my "other" passion, patchwork/quilting. Here are links to my two blogs that are mostly Tolkien-related:


  13. Heidi, yes, I knew that about the journal of the GTS, and it may be another reason why the phrase popped into my head so forcefully while perusing our Italian cookbook. Unfortunately, my knowledge of German is otherwise very limited. I’ve got a friend, however, who speaks German and does work on the German (and other) translations of Tolkien’s work. In fact, he reviewed the first three years of Hither Shore for the current Tolkien Studies.

    As to your two Tolkien blogs, I will definitely be checking those out. Perhaps we might put one another on our respective blogrolls. :)

  14. Is it too late to jump into the discussion? :) anyway, here's my idea, for what it's worth.

    First about the Chinese version: the two last lines read "The bright lamp comes from Westernesse (Weixiteneixi in transliteration), the Messenger/Herald of Brightness never rests". But sure it's not *the* Chinese translation? I've got at least another at hand, which ignores rhyme and meter altogether, and renders the phrase as "the Fire-light of the Royal House in the West" (西方皇族的焰火光).

    Westernesse is the easier one: it falls into a precedented pattern, it has Tolkien's approval and instruction in the Guide (or Nomenclature as you call it). If somebody opts to read it, (I'll assume) they'll pick a nice sweet translation for it consistently (hopefully) in all the books. But Flammifer? *Whether* should they translate Flammifer at all?

    Granted, Tolkien did say that "if it's not in the Guide, leave it alone!" But I've always assumed that means "if it's in Sindarin or Dwarvish or Black Speech and you don't know what you're doing, leave it alone". And Flammifer? Do we consider it an English word, albeit coined? Do we consider it Latin? Do we consider it a block of signifier that it's blasphemous to attempt to deconstruct?

    Now then: Tolkien doesn't say how to translate it in the Guide, but he doesn't specifically say "leave it there" either. While he does emphasize that you don't mess with "Hobbit" and "Orc", among others. At the same time he does note about words which may be mistaken for English: Rohan words Eastfold, Fenmarch. Then, if he takes "flammifer" to be an English word, which can be easily (?) deduced the meaning from the form, he may not feel the need to include it. (My other guess is that he worked with the Index to create the Guide, and since "Flammifer" seems not to be in my Index...)

    And Flammifer is treated as an English noun: "the Flammifer of". There's no Varda THE Gilthoniel or Luthien THE Tinuviel.

    The choice may depend more on the translator's personal taste, but I think it's remarkable that translations with "the good sense to leave the word alone" quoted above are mostly in languages closer to English, and the average reader, if not understand the Latin "Flammifer", may guess the general meaning from "Flame". While to speakers of a totally unrelated language, say Chinese, it's next to impossible to understand something like "to bear his shining lamp afar, the Guangming Shizhe of Westernesse" (from the image above :D). Not to mention it's a one-off occurence and not supported by context or story anywhere else in the text, as Westernesse may be.

    So what's a Chinese translator to do? They may keep while translate the word, as in Gruzberg version: "the Flammifer flame-bearer". But then it will be kind of awkward: imagine the Lonely Mountain Mount, the east Eastfold, the Bree-hill ;) Or they can keep the word only "the Guangming Shizhe of Westernesse", which is as good as omitting it altogether. Or they may provide a footnote, which in my idea looks quite clumsy. So maybe a translation, to whatever extent of poetic licence, is still better: it goes with Westernesse, with Harfoot, Cotton, Dwarrowdelf, Marish, Hollin.

    Well I've just talked myself into translating the word =D but then, thanks for the post and the effort you put into it. It's nice to know that many have been (more or less) through the path that one's struggling.