Monday, November 28, 2011

Tolkien’s translation conceit — new evidence?

As you probably know by now (and if not, read this), HarperCollins is publishing several new books, both this year and next, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit — “a literary party of special magnificence”, as it were. One of these, “the flagship book of the anniversary year” according to David Brawn, is The Art of The Hobbit, edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. I have had my copy for a few days now, dipping in here and there, and it is simply gorgeous!

It’s a beautifully produced coffee-table book, an oversized hardcover, slip-cased like the original Pictures by J.R.R. Tolkien (1979). The new book attempts to collect together in one place every known sketch, drawing, and painting Tolkien made with any connection to The Hobbit — more than 100 of them! Many have never been published before, and of those that have been, some are reproduced in color for the first time. Many are larger than the reproductions in earlier books.

The editors have written a short but valuable introduction, as well as running commentary on the works, which they present in the order of the events from the novel that they represent. This commentary is kept to a minimum, allowing the artworks to speak for themselves. Four gatefolds show the evolution of particular scenes — Hobbiton, Rivendell, The Elven-king’s Gates, and the Forest River. Another page brings together every known illustration of Bilbo for easy comparison. In a nutshell: it’s a must-have!

In perusing the artworks, I’ve noticed a few interesting things already. For instance, on the reverse of Death of Smaug, Tolkien wrote some calligraphic lines pertaining to the story, in one of which he refers to “Elrond the half-elfin” — quite a late date for the spelling Tolkien rejected (consistently preferring “elven” from this point on).

Another interesting thing is some Old English and Old Norse associated with Thror’s Map. Actually, there is some Elvish as well — a bit of ammunition for those who argue (as John D. Rateliff does) that The Hobbit was far more connected to Tolkien’s legendarium than many people believe — but I will leave that to the Elvish scholars!

As you will recall, Thror’s Map contains some ordinary runes, which say in English, “five feet high the door and the three may walk abreast”. In a pen-and-ink drawing of “Thror’s Map, Copied by B. Baggins”, Tolkien has added a mostly legible passage in Old English translating the same passage: “fif fóta heah is se duru and þrie mæg samod [?] þurhgangend” [1]. The question mark is a tiny scrawl which seems to have been meant for insertion, but I can’t even pretend to read it. Another word, above duru, has been erased. Leaving these out, the Old English literally means, “five feet high is the door and three may together going-through.” If this look ungrammatical, it’s because it is. The word þurhgangend (which actually ought to be þurhgangende) is a participle; I think Tolkien should have used the infinitive, þurhgangan.

More interesting, but more difficult, is an Old Norse translation of the Moon-letters. To refresh your memory, the moon-letters on Thror’s Map run, again in English: “stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks and the setting sun with the last light of Durin’s Day will shine upon the key-hole.”

The Old Norse is very hard to read, in places totally illegible — to me, at least. Have a look at the text (above) and see if you can add anything to my transcription. The best I can do is something like this:
Staltri[?] hjal{la}[?] steininum þeima[?] hvenar[?] grá[—?]
Þar sein[?] þrostr[—?] þa nein[?] sól
Søkkvandi[?] með nogh[?] lys[?] Durnis dags
L[?]j[?] [?] lykill[?] [?] [2]
As you can see, I’ve numbered the words in the image at the top of the post, leaving out a couple which are (partly) repeated in the main passage. Let’s see what we can make of it! Update: Make sure you read the comments below, where bits and pieces are teased apart and worked out. I’m not going to revise the numbered list below (at least, not for now), so that you can follow my first thoughts.

1) This should be a verb meaning “stand”, but I’m puzzled right from the outset. The Old Norse verb I would expect to see is standa “to stand”, but I’m not sure what we’ve got here. I can’t find anything in my sources to explain it. I could certainly be transcribing it incorrectly, but there’s no way it’s a form of standa.

2) This appears to read hja, but notice the extra squiggle below? It looks like this might be hjalla, a form of hjalli “a shelf or ledge in a mountain’s side”. This would be the ideal word-choice for the sheltered bay where the Secret Door is located, but if I’m reading this correctly, then the Norse word, an addition by Tolkien, doesn’t correspond to anything in the English moon-letters.

3) Surely steininum — and finally a word I am pretty sure I am reading correctly. This is the definite dative plural of steinn “stone”, but it’s often translated in the singular. Here, following the English closely, it means “near, by the stone”.

4) This could be þeima “to this, to them”, but it’s hard to be sure.

5) Not much more than a squiggle. Tolkien himself seemed to realize he was jotting too hastily and went back over the beginning of the word to clarify it. Based on where we are in the moon-letters, it looks like it might be hvenar “when”.

6) All we can read we any confidence is grá—, but since grár is “grey”, it must be something along those lines.

7) Legible again! Þar is “there, at that place”.

8) This probably should be the verb “knocks”, but it is pretty much impossible to read. This word looks like it might be sein, senn, seim, or something like that. To translate “knock”, Tolkien probably ought to have opted or of knía “to knock, strike (poet.)”, but he could have used drepa, banga, klappa, or another word of the same sort. If the word is something like senn, it would mean “chatter”, which I suppose could work as a substitute for the knocking of the thrush. But I doubt this is the right answer, because it would be hard to explain such a departure from the English. I’m at a loss.

9) Although the word fades away into a mere scribble, this is without a doubt a form of þröstr “thrush”.

10) The word appears legible, which is a problem, because it appears to read þa, and I know of no such Old Norse word. I am going to make a daring suggestion: that Tolkien inadvertently code-switched into Old English, where þá is a conjunction meaning “when, then”. This fits the moon-letters very well at this point in the passage, so I think it’s plausible. On the other hand …

11) This squiggle could be hvenar, if we allow Tolkien a totally misshapen h. This would do the job of the conjunction “when, then”, discussed in the previous point. But I really can’t read this word. It looks more like it begins with an n, not an h. Anyone have any idea?

12) Another clear word: sól “sun”.

13) In Old Norse, the “setting of the sun” is usually rendered sól at setri komin. But søkkrendi means “sinking”, which is perfectly a propos here as well.

14) Although difficult to make out, this is certainly með “with”.

15) Anyone? Anyone? I can’t make this out.

16) This looks like is must be a form of lýsa “gleam, shimmering light” or lýsi “lighting, brightness”, though the appropriate grammatical ending is lost or omitted.

17) This is clearly Durnis, the genitive of the proper name, Durin, meaning “Durin’s”, and …

18) This is clearly dags, genitive of dagr, meaning “of day”; hence, “of Durin’s Day”.

19) This is hard to make out. It seems to begin with an l, and to contain a j, but I’m not sure what the loopy ascender is. In any case, we are looking for something like ljóma “to shine”, which seems to be quite close to what Tolkien scribbled.

20) This word is scratched out, so I think we should conclude Tolkien rejected it and move on.

21) This word is scrawled well enough to make out lykill “key”.

22) I can’t read the last word at all: nothing but a descender, a scribble, and an ascender. It could be almost anything. But “hole” should be hola, or perhaps auga “eye”. Neither seems to fit this blob, but it must be the second element of the compound “key-hole”.

So, allowing for Tolkien’s untidy scrawl and a few mystery words, this is plainly pretty close to the original English passage represented by the moon-runes on Thror’s Map. Why would Tolkien bother to translate these Dwarvish instructions into Old Norse? Why is this significant? Was it merely a personal amusement, or was it perhaps more?

As we all know, the names of the Dwarves are Norse names, drawn from the Völuspá, but until now, there haven’t been any other significant signs of the elaborate “translation conceit” in The Hobbit. One could just as easily hypothesize (and I suspect it usually has been hypothesized) that the translation conceit Tolkien describes in the Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings emerged later, as a way to explain away the choice of Old Norse names from the earlier book, long ago committed to and unavoidable now in the sequel. But this jotting suggests the conceit might have begun to take shape earlier than previously thought.

I have had reason to suspect this before, actually. The real formalization of the conceit certainly must have emerged later, in fact, in February, 1942 [3]. But this translation into Old Norse suggests that Tolkien was playing with the idea of representing much more than just the names of the Dwarves in The Hobbit as Old Norse. As early as December, 1937, Tolkien admitted that “[Old] Icelandic was in a foolish moment substituted for the proper language of my tales” [4]. Not just the names, but also the language, it seems Tolkien is saying. And here, in The Art of The Hobbit, is a bit of hard evidence to back this up! The map, in fact, predates the letter to Selby by at least a few years, implying that a nascent translation conceit may have been swimming around in Tolkien’s mind for a good deal longer than previously thought. Amazing, isn’t it, the things you notice when you hold a map up to the light!

[1] Art of The Hobbit, bottom of fig. 25, p. 51.

[2] Art of The Hobbit, middle of fig. 30, p. 56.

[3] See The Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 70, where Tolkien first jots down the rubric of Old English for Rohan, Old Norse for Dale (and the Dwarves of the region), etc.

[4] Tolkien makes this rather significant admission in a letter to G.E. Selby, dated December 14, 1937. Christopher Tolkien quotes a selection from this letter in his foreword to The Return of the Shadow (p. 7) — but not the passage I have quoted. The complete letter to Selby was printed in the exhibition guide, J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit: Drawings, Watercolors, and Manuscripts, Patrick and Beatrice Haggerty Museum of Art, Marquette University, June 11–September 30, 1987, p. [4].

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Beware the Neekerbreekers

“There were also abominable creatures haunting the reeds and tussocks that from the sound of them were evil relatives of the cricket. There were thousands of them, and they squeaked all round, neek-breek, breek-neek, unceasingly all the night, until the hobbits were nearly frantic.” [1]
Neekerbreekers (as Sam calls them) are an incessantly noisy insect species inhabiting the Midgewater Marshes, about three days’ east of Bree. In the “Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings”, Tolkien explains that this is “[a]n invented insect-name” and that translators should render it by an “invention of similar sound (supposed to be like that of a cricket)” [2].

This is straightforward enough. Tolkien suggests the name is onomatopoeic. As Steve Walker succinctly puts it: “Neekerbreekers sound their name” [3]. My friend Mark Hooker has aptly noted a parallel in H. Rider Haggard. In his novel She, there are “sullen peaty pools” filled with “musqueteers”, “tens of thousands of the most blood-thirsty, pertinacious, and huge mosquitoes” [4]. What else can I add to these clear-cut comments? Maybe a bit more.

First, consider that the word mosquito itself, a Spanish diminutive of Latin musca “fly, gnat”, is thought to be imitative in origin too (cp. Greek μύζειν “to mutter”). Cognates in the Germanic languages include Old High German mucca, Middle High German mücke, Middle Dutch mugge, Old Saxon muggia, Old Norse , and Old English mycg, from which we derive the Modern English midge — as in Midgewater Marshes. That’s rather a nice coincidence, and possibly a bit of ammunition for Mark’s case that Tolkien may have had Haggard in mind.

Second, something else struck me recently. This is a bit more of a stretch, but I offer it as food for thought. Consider this passage from Laȝamon’s Brut
Þat is a seolcuð mere | iset a middel-ærde
mid fenne & mid ræode | mid watere swiðe bræde
mid fiscen & mid feoȝelen | mid uniuele þingen
Þat water is unimete | brade nikeres þer ba[ð]ieð inne
þer is æluene ploȝe | in atteliche pole.
For those whose Early Middle English is a bit rusty: “It is a strange lake, set in Middle-earth, with marsh and with reed, with waters exceedingly broad, with fish and with fowl, with evil things. The water is immensely wide, nickers bathe in it, there elves play in the dreadful pool.”

The passage has the Dead Marshes dead to rights, don’t you think? But perhaps there is a hint of the Midgewater Marshes with its neekerbreekers as well. After all, what are these Middle English nikeres, which I translated above as nickers?

The word usually means something like a water-monster, sprite, sea-goblin, siren, mermaid, etc., depending on the tale in which it appears. It is the source of the folkloric nixie (a kind of water sprite), and it has cognates in all the Germanic tongues — e.g., MD nicker, ON nykr, OHG nichus, and OE nicor. The latter has been glossed as hippopotamus and crocodile, but OE nicor, as well as the compound nicor-hús “nicker-house”, occur throughout Beowulf to describe sea monsters and their lairs. Indeed, the haunted mere in Laȝamon’s Brut is sometimes compared in the scholarly literature to the abode of Grendel’s dam in Beowulf. As C.S. Lewis put it: “[Laȝamon’s] nikeres and their pool might have come straight out of Beowulf.” [5]

The word survived into Modern English, spelled nicker, though it has been obsolete for a long time now. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a supernatural being supposed to live in the sea or other waters; a water-demon, a kelpie. Formerly also (in Middle English): a siren, a mermaid (obs.).” E.R. Eddison used it as late as 1922 in The Worm Ouroboros: “on the walls strange portraitures: lions, dragons, nickers of the sea, spread-eagles, elephants, swans, unicorns” [6], but otherwise, the word is all but dead.

Is there any reason to think Tolkien had this word in the back of his mind when he invented the neekerbreekers? Not a strong reason, certainly, though it’s fun to imagine he might have. Why not? The neekerbreeker is an abominable creature inhabiting a marshy region in Middle-earth — and precisely the same could be said of the nicker, nikere, nicor, however you wish to spell it. Admittedly, “evil relatives of the cricket” are not quite the same as water-demons, but the phonological envelopes of both the real-world word and the first part of Tolkien’s are identical. The second half is probably an imitative reduplication, not at all uncommon in English.

In any case, I think it’s fair to say neekerbreekers are best avoided. They might be no more than noisy crickets, but maybe not. Better safe than sorry. ;)

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings. 50th anniversary ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004, p. 183.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien. “Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings.” The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. Ed. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005, p. 760.

[3] Steve Walker. The Power of Tolkien’s Prose: Middle-earth’s Magical Style. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 23.

[4] Mark T. Hooker. A Tolkienian Mathomium: A Collection of Articles on J.R.R. Tolkien and His Legendarium. Llyfrawr, 2006, p. 148.

[5] C.S. Lewis. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966, p. 28. And for much more on the mythological background of the nicor, including older theoretical underpinnings in Roman and Greek mythology, see Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie, especially Vol. II, Ch. XVII.

[6] E.R. Eddison. The Worm Ouroboros. New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1926, p. 192.