Monday, June 30, 2008

Where is the Hindi Lord of the Rings?

In the news this week, the final installment of the Harry Potter heptalogy has been published in Hindi. Which begs the question, why hasn’t Tolkien ever been translated into Hindi? (I’ve pointed this out before.) There are a few possible reasons that leap to mind.

1) Some might argue that the Harry Potter books are more popular than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But that argument is hardly persuasive. The Peter Jackson films were an international success, in India as much as everywhere else. In fact, preliminary plans have been drawn up to film a massive Bollywood trilogy of The Mahabharata, and producer Bobby Bedi has Peter Jackson’s film trilogy in mind as his model. He even wants to enlist the services of WETA on his own project. Of course, this news is three years old, so perhaps the film adaptation will never be made. But it proves that Tolkien has a popular place in India today. At least as popular as Harry Potter.

2) Since nearly everyone in India speaks English already, why bother translating Tolkien into Hindi (or Telugu or Tamil or Bengali or Punjabi or ...). But then why has Rowling been translated into Hindi? Sure, many Indians have read Tolkien in English, just as many have read Rowling in English. But if there’s demand for Harry Potter in Hindi, there ought to be at least the same demand for Tolkien. Certainly enough for a commercially viable translation. Not to mention: collectors who don’t even speak Hindi would line up to purchase a Tolkien translation, just as they’ve done for the Rowling.

3) the British and Hindi cultures are too incompatible. But considering their previous colonial relationship — i.e., the profound cultural influence England has had on India — it’s hard to see how this claim can hold water. Nevertheless, some have argued precisely this. In an essay with the evocative title, “Love Song of the Dark Lord: Some Musings on the Reception of Tolkien in an Indian Context” [1], Andreas Bigger suggests that “[i]f one tries to translate the LotR into an Indian language, one is faced with serious problems of intercultural understanding.” Fair enough, but apparently Bigger goes further, all but suggesting that a translation ought not to be attempted. I have not read his essay, but if I may lean on René van Rossenberg’s review of the Honegger collection ... Of Bigger’s paper, he writes that it

[...] is a bit of a curiosity. It discusses examples of problems a translator may encounter if The Lord of the Rings were ever translated into Sanskrit. All these problems stem from the cultural difference between Christians and Hindi. For instance, the term ‘Black Rider’ conveys to Europeans something foreboding, evil, but for an Indian reader the opposite is true. The author concludes that for a Hindu the book will always deal about [sic] foreigners, and that “the normally hidden racistic strand within Tolkien’s world at once becomes painfully visible. The Lord of the Rings becomes a book with a plain colonialist view that is trying to reestablish the ‘superiority’ of the Europeans over all other races of the world.” (p. 177) This is ridiculous. It is not the translator’s job to change the cultural identity of a work, and a Hindu reader can be expected to realise that the author has been working from a different cultural background. It is hard to imagine, and has not been proven by the author, that a careful translation of The Lord of the Rings into Hindi will become racist and neo-colonialist, for if a translation alters a book in such a way, then it is a poor translation. This paper is an example of oversensitive Western political correctness [...] [2]

I couldn’t have said this better myself.

Finally, 4) it’s just too difficult. That may be. If Rowling provides an enjoyable challenge with her anagrams and magical nomenclature, Tolkien’s work would be ten times more difficult and (I would think) frustrating to translate. The Lord of the Rings, with its tests and trials on every single page, must certainly be one of the most difficult challenges a translator can ever face. Add to this the fact that Tolkien’s admirers must be pickier (by several orders of magnitude) about the final product than Rowling’s — and perhaps this helps to explain the lack of a translation into even one of the languages of the Indian subcontinent.*

Nevertheless, it is a shame, because (pace Bigger) I think there is a strong synergy between Hindi literature and Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth. For just one example, “Chandrakanta, written by Devaki Nandan Khatri, was considered the first authentic work of prose in the Adhunik kaal (modern period). A story of magical characters, kings and kingdoms, it reminds one of The Lord of the Rings series [...].” Indeed, the magical quality of many Indian stories, with their sense of a mythology alive and well, would seem in some ways ideally prepared to embrace Tolkien almost as one of their own.

[1] Published in Honegger, Thomas, ed. Root and Branch: Approaches Towards Understanding Tolkien. Zurich and Berne: Walking Tree, 1999, pp. 165–179.

[2] Variations [a literature magazine of the university of Zürich] No. 4 (2000), pp. 177–180. Peter Lang Publishers.

* According to HarperCollins, either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit (they aren’t specific) has been translated into Marathi; however, I haven’t been able to find any tangible evidence of this. HarperCollins’s “to our knowledge” doesn’t inspire much confidence. They go on to say, “Please let us know if you find any more!” Please let the publisher know?! Err, shouldn’t they be the gatekeepers on this? ;)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

WOTD: Obscurum per obscurius

Okay, this isn’t a single word but rather a phrase. But that’s perfectly acceptable for my occasional Word of the Day posts. Why? Because I make the rules. :)

You may find the Latin phrase obscurum per obscurius particularly useful in conversations about the subject matter of my blog. You are having conversations about my posts, aren’t you?! The phrase is used to describe an explanation which is even more obscure that the obscure thing it seeks to explain. It’s literally “the obscure by means of the even more obscure.”

A synonymous phrase is ignotum per ignotius, meaning “the unknown by means of the even more unknown.” This phrase may be found in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically in the second part of The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale. I won’t quote it, because it makes little sense out of context — and isn’t that the very picture of obscurum per obscurius? :) — but if you want to look it up, it’s about two dozen lines from the end of the tale.

I think you could safely apply the phrase to at least half of the posts I’ve written for Lingwë. Perhaps I should adopt it as a motto!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Chinese — radically different from English!

Okay, perhaps that’s a rather obvious statement. Ah, but then again, even radical means something else when applied to the Chinese language — or more specifically, to its orthography. And even though I have mentioned Chinese from time to time, the language is still largely a mystery to me. Allow me to explain.

For those who have been reading about my exploration of Tolkien’s Flammifer of Westernesse in translation (Part One and Part Two), I had something in front of me which I had no idea how to approach — the Chinese translation from earlier this decade. Footnote: the translator’s name is Lucifer Chu. How perfect is that? :) But what do I mean that I had no idea? Well, when it comes to brute force translation — i.e., looking up one word at a time in a dictionary — it helps to know how to use the dictionary. We tend to take for granted the fact that being able to look up a word efficiently implies some knowledge of the sequence of letters in the alphabet. Occasionally, some confusion can arise (e.g., do you put ð after d or after t?), but for the most part, this is the least of one’s worries when attempting translations of western languages. Even foreign scripts like the Greek, Cyrillic, and Hebrew alphabets can be memorized, and in any event, the Latin alphabet is clearly related to these scripts. It also helps that, in addition to a set order, alphabets contain a manageable number of distinct symbols.

But Chinese? How exactly does one look up Chinese ideograms in a dictionary?! I mean, there are thousands of them! The Kangxi Dictionary, in fact, records almost 50,000! Nowadays, one can use any number of machine translation services (e.g., Google Translate and Altavista Babelfish) — but these require you to be able to type the Chinese characters*, or at least cut and paste them. What do you do when what you have in front on you is a printed book?

This is the sort of thing to which I was referring when I wrote recently that I had no ‘foothold’ for approaching Chinese, so I decided to learn more about Chinese dictionaries. Apparently, you’re supposed to identify the “radical” — that is, the key graphical element of the character in question, then locate the radical among the headwords in the dictionary. But how exactly do you recognize the radical?

It’s supposedly easy, but I’m not so sure. Take 升, for instance. The radical, it turns out, is that little stroke at the top left. But why isn’t it the vertical stroke on the right, which also happens to be an actual radical? Why isn’t it the horizontal stroke, which is also an actual radical? And even learning the radicals is a challenge — there are about 100 of them!

To a native speaker (writer) of Chinese, I’m sure all of this is pretty self-apparent, but to me? Not so much. What about you? Here, try this. Follow this link for a demonstration of looking up ideograms in a Chinese dictionary, courtesy of Yale University, and tell me you don’t find it confusing as hell. And now imagine following this procedure for every single character in the text you want to translate. Insanity seems inevitable, illiteracy preferable.

So, in the end, despite a fascinating — if necessarily much abbreviated — crash course in Chinese orthography, I tackled the problem at hand from a different angle. I cheated. Yes, that’s right. I cheated. No one dropped me a line to help (I get more traffic from Egypt than from China), so I had to take matters into my own hands.

What I wanted was to get the Chinese characters comprising the last few lines of the Song of Eärendil onto my computer’s clipboard so that I could simply paste them into a machine-translator. Lazy and clever — who knew it was possible! :) How to do it? OCR, of course. With a little Googling, I found a freeware Chinese OCR utility which I have to say is really quite excellent — especially for the price, hahae. The utility, with the original scan on the left and the selectable post-OCR text on the right, is pictured above. The tool is slightly tricky to use, because you have to highlight each character manually, then select from the several suggestions the program makes — and if a computer program can’t recognize the characters automatically, what hope do I have? But with a little human assistance, the utility recognizes more than 10,000 characters!

So what happened with the Chinese rendition of Flammifer? I ran the text through Google Translate and Babelfish — and with the caveat that I may have made one or two mistakes in the semi-manual OCR process — here’s a more or less combined version of the two outputs (and I’ll include the selectable Chinese so that you can play around with it if you like):


Ancient years of dust,
Yu Jie [?] lives forever limitless.
The lunar crown obscure time passes,
The heaven on earth parting the sky.
West of White Light to the West,
The bright messenger does not stop.
It’s somewhat inscrutable and sounds a bit like haiku, but between the two machine translations, it looks like we’re on the right track, or at least getting close. I’d still like to know how a native speaker would translate this. Machine translation is clearly showing its limits here, but “White Light to the West” and “bright messenger” certatinly seem to approach the ideas of the Flammifer and Eärendil. But Lunar-crown-forever-limitless help me if I ever try to learn Chinese! And for native Chinese speakers, I’m sure learning English is just as great a challenge. :)

* Typing Chinese ideograms is not so difficult as it sounds, apparently, judging by the millions of text messages sent using Chinese characters every day. I heard just a little bit about this on NPR recently — in the aftermath of the earthquake in Szechuan Province.

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.

Friday, June 20, 2008

¡Olé, Tequila!

As regular readers will know, I will occasionally take a break from my musings on Tolkien, Lewis, philology, and other deep subjects, to write about my adventurous tastes in food and drink. It being a lovely Friday, and the first day of summer, today seemed ideal for another installment. Wednesday evening, I attended a tequila tasting where one was permitted to taste any twelve of the 35 bottles they opened. Does that sound like a lot of tequila? Well, I even snuck in an extra one for a baker’s dozen. Here they are, in order by the average price per bottle here in my neighborhood. (Your prices may vary.)

1921 Tequila Cream Liqueur ~$30
Tequila 1800 Select Silver 100 ~$39
Corzo Silver ~$51
La Certeza Añejo ~$54
Partida Silver ~$55
Partida Reposado ~$59
TequilaMe Extra Añejo ~$60
Patron Añejo ~$62
Partida Añejo ~$66
Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Reposado ~$85
Jose Cuervo Reserva de Familia ~$124
Don Julio 1942 ~$125
Patron Gran Platinum ~$226

As you can see, I chose the more unusual, harder to find, and expensive tequilas to sample. Wouldn’t you? They had several tequilas I knew well, and like very much, but skipped over so that I could try others that were new to me — e.g., Sauza Tres Generaciones Añejo and Chinaco Añejo. They also had a few cocktails on offer, like a Patron Margarita and Cabo Wabo “Pink Taco”. But while I do enjoy a good margarita, I can make a better one myself. And I certainly wasn’t up for anything as gauche as the Cabo Wabo concoction, obviously the official bebida of spring break revelers. All I can tell you is that it involved watermelon. Perhaps I’m being an elitist, but I don’t like the idea of drinking a tequila associated with Sammy Hagar. Maybe if I were still in college. Naah, not even then. ;)

I won’t bore you by reproducing all of my tasting notes here, but I will single out a few of the tequilas I tried for further comment — in the same order shown above. Right off the bat, some of you might be curious about the 1921 Tequila Cream Liqueur. Basically, it is to tequila what Bailey’s Irish Cream is to Irish Whiskey, only worse. It had a coffee flavor, suggesting the possibility of a partnership with Kahlúa, and the taste was just, well, let’s just say I wasn’t a fan. Not that I don’t ordinarily love coffee, Kahlúa, and tequila individually. Mixed together, I can’t imagine why anyone would drink it.

Next, the Tequila 1800 Select Silver 100. I tried this because it’s the only 100 proof tequila on the market today. Typically, tequilas are 75–80 proof. It was surprisingly smooth for its 50% alcohol content, only burning the throat a little bit, hahae. But what it offered in potency, it lacked in flavor. Effective, but not particularly enjoyable. Think faintly tequila-flavored moonshine, and you’re on the right track.

I tried the TequilaMe because it was the only extra añejo featured at the event. This is a relatively new categorization in Mexico, bestowed on 100% blue agave tequilas aged for three years or more. It was quite good, and very smooth; however, I found their childish advertising off-putting. “Abrázame. Bésame. TequíleMe.” Ugh. Even worse, the Q in their logo was composed of the two gender symbols, interlocked in some kind of sexual position only possible under the influence of tequila. You can see it for yourself, here. Give me a break. They may as well sell it with condoms and be done with it.

The Milagro Select Barrel Reserve Reposado was one of my favorite tequilas of the night. Very smooth and delicious, with faintly tropical notes. At the risk of sounding completely pretentious, I would say I detected a hint of mango and orange blossom. But equally good was Jose Cuervo Reserva de Familia, which I’ve had once before at a Mexican restaurant called Ciudad D.F., which is sadly now closed. The Reserva de Familia is 18-month añejo blended with privately owned tequilas that have been aging for thirty years. You can imagine how smooth it is. If money were no object, I’d have these two in my cupboard at home at all times.

The Don Julio 1942 was new to me, quite good, and different. As you may know, the best tequilas are generally categorized by their ages, from plata to reposado to añejo, and now extra añejo. But for the 1942, as the distiller told me, they simply do not care about the age. Rather, it’s about cultivating the flavor they want, and accordingly, it was like no other tequila I’ve tasted before. The strongest notes were of vanilla. It was remarkable and delicious. In fact, it reminded me of 1 Barrel, a Belizean rum. Strange comparison! Of course, 1 Barrel is about $10 USD for a 1.5L, less than a tenth the price of Don Julio 1942. :)

Finally, for all its hefty price and its triple distillation, Patron Gran Platinum wasn’t particularly impressive. It was a silver tequila, though they prefer to call it platinum for obvious reasons. In their marketing collateral they call it the “smoothest sipping tequila ever produced.” Hmm, well, I’ll grant that it was extremely smooth for a silver, but I would take the Milagro Barrel Reserve Reposado or the Cuervo Reserva de Familia over it any day of the week. The Gran Platinum was good, no doubt, but not worth its price. I bet it would make a killer margarita, though.

Finally, a word about the Partida tequilas, of which I tried all three on offer (what a pity they didn’t open a bottle of their extra añejo, which retails for $350). The word is — excellent. For the price, they’re hard to beat. Comparable to the Sauza Tres Generaciones and Chinaco Añejos, they’re also hand crafted at every stage of the process, from cultivating and harvesting the agave to the distillation to the bottling. If I ever make a trip to Jalisco, I’d like to visit them. In everything but the strictest legal definition, their entire operation is organic and sustainable as well. Give one of them a try. And learn more about tequila here and here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Flammifer of Westerness: From Latin to English to Italian and beyond

I’m acquainted, to varying degrees, with a few translations of Tolkien’s fiction, and I understand the challenges to producing a successful, faithful rendition of his work in another language. Indeed, several books have been written on the subject — if you’re interested in recommendations, drop me a comment. But up to now, my knowledge of these challenges has been at some remove. I’d studied some of the translator’s choices in Lo Hobbit (Italian), mainly in the matter of second-person address, but that was about all. But more recently, I came face to face with another of the thousand little (some, not so little) difficulties in translation. It happened in an unexpected way.

I was thumbing through one of our Italian cookbooks, Italy in Small Bites, a collection of merende of every imaginable variety. Think Italian tapas, and you’re on the right track. Or perhaps amuse-bouches. If you don’t know what any of these are, then I can’t help you. :) Anyway, I came across a delicious-sounding recipe for Zucchine a Fiammifero (“Matchstick Zucchini”). Naturally, as soon as my eyes fell on fiammifero I thought of Bilbo’s Song of Eärendil in The Fellowship of the Ring. The final line of the poem, for those who manage to read the entire thing (!), is “The Flammifer of Westernesse” — and this is Tolkien’s only use of that word. One word out of more than 500,000 — typical of the assiduous thought Tolkien put into every single word choice.

I had probably learned the Italian word fiammifero at one time, but if so, then it never struck this chord until now. Its etymology is pretty obvious, as is the English *flammifer which Tolkien invented for The Lord of the Rings. Both derive from Latin flammifer, meaning “fiery”, from flamma “flame, fire” + ferre “to carry, bring, bear”, thus, “fire-bearing”. Tolkien turned the word into a noun, and of course, the Italian word is a noun as well, but the original Latin word is an adjective, like fātifer “deadly”, sacer “holy”, and another word I daresay most of us know, lūcifer “light-bearing”. This latter is also attested as a noun, and probably provided Tolkien with the clearest linguistic model for his own coinage.

It seems to me that, from a purely philological standpoint, Tolkien might have wanted to use the word lucifer in reference to the Silmaril of Eärendil had it not acquired the negative religious hues that have colored the word since the Middle Ages. I broached this idea in a footnote to my essay in Truths Breathed Through Silver, but so far, I can’t recall that anybody (myself included) has pursued the possibility any further. So, in the event, Tolkien opted for the roughly synonymous flammifer instead. In English, I have found the adjective flammiferous “bringing flame” attested in Thomas Sheridan’s 1780 dictionary, and the OED cites the word from another dictionary a century earlier (though I don’t have an OED to look the citation up).

According to Peter Gilliver, et al., this adjective is the only form attested prior to Tolkien’s invention. [1] It’s pretty characteristic of Tolkien to resurrect a word like this from the bowels of obscurity. Where did he get it? One possibility is that it was suggested, or recalled to his mind, by lucifer. But there may be another likely source. I personally suspect that Tolkien borrowed it from Ovid. In the Metamorphoses, Book XV, Ovid writes:

[…] luna volat altius illa
flammiferumque trahens spatioso limite crinem
stella micat, natique videns benefacta fatetur
esse suis majora et vinci gaudet ab illo. [ll. 848–51]

The Horace Gregory translation I have on my bookshelf isn’t very literal at all, so I’ll just give you my own translation of the key phrase from the middle of the quotation (with whatever faults attentive readers might wish to point out): “a star sparkles, drawing after it in a spacious track its fiery hair (i.e., the tail of a comet).” The reference is to an actual comet seen in 43 B.C., and it was said that this comet was, in fact, the recently departed Julius Caesar, placed in the sky by the Gods. To me, this is evocative enough of Eärendil that I feel reasonably sure Tolkien drew on this legend for his own. Drew on it secondarily, I should add, as he was certainly thinking primarily of the Germanic myth of Aurvandil’s Toe. [2] At the same time, this specific use of flammifer by Ovid suggests the connection might be more than trivial. Am I onto something, do you think?

And actually, there’s another tantalizing thread one can follow. Centuries later, Alexander Pope echoed Ovid’s lines when he wrote: “A sudden Star, it shot thro’ liquid air, / And drew behind a radiant trail of hair.” Anyone know the source? Bueller? Bueller? It’s “The Rape of the Lock”, which suggests, albeit faintly, the “rape of the Silmarils” in The Silmarillion, passim. Lest this sound too far-fetched, I should point out that connections between Tolkien and Pope have been suggested before. [3]

Returning to the Italian, fiammifero is, today, an extremely common word, meaning a “match(stick)”. Even though its direct linguistic equivalent, such a familiar, colloquial word would hardly do for the Italian rendition of Tolkien’s Flammifer, would it? Actually, in the days before matches, fiammifero had the same meaning as its Latin forebear, as one finds it used in Boccaccio’s Decameron, e.g., fiammifere folgori di Giove “the fiery thunderbolts of Jove” — but even so, the word, today, would not be suitable at all. By the turn of the 20th century, the original meaning was already being marked in Italian dictionaries as lingua fuori d’uso “language outside use” [4]. So what is an Italian translator to do?

Tolkien had a recommendation of his own. In a letter to his publisher, he tartly complained:

In principle I object as strongly as is possible to the ‘translation’ of the nomenclature at all (even by a competent person). I wonder why a translator should think himself called on or entitled to do any such thing. That this is an ‘imaginary’ world does not give him any right to remodel it according to his fancy, even if he could in a few months create a new coherent structure which it took me years to work out. [5]

The quotation is reproduced in Tolkien’s Nomenclature, a guide meant to assist translators (as well as to convey Tolkien’s extreme displeasure at some of the efforts to date). Tolkien mentions Westernesse in the Nomenclature, but not Flammifer. But a translator who took Tolkien’s words to heart (if aware of them) would leave the word untouched. That is, in fact, just what the Italian translator has done, rendering the final line of Bilbo’s “Canto di Eärendil,” “Il Flammifer dell’Ovesturia” [6].

This is a good solution, but I find it interesting because of the relative paucity of fl in Italian. In fact, the poem also exhibits the retention of words like Nimbrethil — again, in accordance with Tolkien’s sage advice — but which is interesting because the th sounds in thin/then do not exist in proper Italian phonology. In the Italian translation of Appendix E, readers are advised, somewhat unhelpfully: “TH è il suono dolce del th inglese” (omitting Tolkien’s example of “thin cloth”), and “DH rappresenta il suono dolce del th inglese, come in these clothes” [7]. Both are called a suono dolce, which I would have presumed to correspond in this case to a “voiceless sound”, as opposed to a suono duro — isn’t one of these wrong? And do native Italians without first-hand English experience know how to pronounce these words? Perhaps not!

[1] Gilliver, Peter, Jeremy Marshall, and E.S.C. Weiner. The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 132–3.

[2] For a thorough examination of the most likely sources for the Eärendil myth, see Hostetter, Carl F. “Over Middle-earth Sent Unto Men: On the Philological Origins of Earendel Myth,” Mythlore 65 (Spring, 1991): 5-8. Carl has not discussed Ovid in this essay, however, so I believe I may have the makings for a nice scholarly note. :)

[3] See for example, Tolley, Clive and Raimund Kern. “Tolkien’s ‘Essay on Man’: A Look at Mythopoeia.” Inklings: Jahrbuch für Literatur und Asthetik 10 (1992): 221-39.

[4] See for example Edgren, Hjalmar. An Italian and English Dictionary, with Pronunciation and Brief Etymologies. New York: Henry Holt, 1901, which so identifies fiammifero = “flammiferous; kindling; burning”, p. 176.

[5] Tolkien, J. R. R., Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, pp. 249–50.

[6] Tolkien, J.R.R. Il Signore degli anelli. Tradotto per Alliata di Villafranca V. Bompiani, 2000, p. 301.

[7] Ibid., pp. 1329, 1327.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lem and Le Guin — ‘Two mutually correlated opposites’

I’ve been following, and to some extent participating in, a discussion over at Jake Seliger’s blog, The Story’s Story, on the subject of science fiction. Why so much of it is so bad, at least by the standards of the literary establishment — insert winking censure of ‘snobbery’ here — as compared to its popularity, and which science fiction (again, by those admittedly subjective standards) is actually good. I’m not going to engage in that debate here (though you’ll want to read this post as well its lengthier follow-up).

I have a different agenda today. I want to contrast two of the authors most of us agree are among the very best science fiction has to offer: Stanisław Lem and Ursula K. Le Guin.

If you haven’t read Lem or Le Guin, good starting points might be Solaris and The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin, as some of you may know, also writes fantasy, and the Earthsea Cycle is a must-read for fans of that genre. But today I’m thinking of science fiction specifically. If you move on to other books, as I’m sure you will, you might enjoy The Chain of Chance, in which Lem reinvents the crime thriller genre as a rumination on the Malthusian consequences of statistical causality — could anybody else have done that but Lem? I don’t think so! For Le Guin, readers should move on to the rest of Hainish Cycle, three of which won Hugo awards.

Now, thinking of these two excellent writers, I can’t help but regard them as both very different, but highly complementary. The Chinese concept of yin / yang springs to mind, where Lem and Le Guin strike me as 兩儀 /liangyí/, that is, ‘two mutually correlated opposites’ — hence the title of this post. Where Le Guin is warm, emotional, and somehow always ‘human’, Lem is cold, cerebral, and distinctly alien. Le Guin is sunny, Lem is overcast. Le Guin is lush, fertile, and fur-soft; Lem is barren, sterile, and gem-hard. Yet, for balance, you need both.

As a perfect example of this harmonizing contrast, set Lem’s novel, Solaris (1961), alongside Le Guin’s short story, “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” (1971). Without spoiling either, let me just say that each one brings human beings into contact with an enormous, collective alien species, planetary in size, and asks them — and us — to meditate on one of the oldest conflicts known to humankind: the Self versus the Other. Both stories have their share of brilliant moments, and to each can be applied the series of contrasting characterizations I gave above. Solaris is cold, cerebral, and frightening, while “Vaster than Empires” is warm, emotional, and ultimately welcoming. The protagonists, Kelvin and Osden respectively, have both suffered psychological traumas, but each relates to the Other differently. At the close of her story, Le Guin writes that Osden “had learned the love of the Other, and thereby had been given his whole self.” One cannot imagine Lem ever writing a passage like that. Where Le Guin finds the humanity in her extraterrestrial beings, Lem’s are and remain profoundly alien.

There is one additional point of contact between Le Guin and Lem that I find interesting. In 1973, Lem was inducted into the SFWA as an honorary member, even though actually ineligible according to the organization’s bylaws. Later, once he became technically eligible, the honorary membership was rescinded. Some American members, and apparently Lem himself, regarded this as a wrap on the knuckles for public criticisms Lem had made against much of American science fiction. (Criticisms which, I might add, are in the main perfectly true.) Because of the controversy, Lem declined to remain a member of the SFWA. Le Guin was one of Lem’s most vocal advocates in this imbroglio. Balance, Grasshopper. :)

And by the way, another honorary member (though technically ineligible at the time of his induction) was J.R.R. Tolkien. Might Tolkien and C.S. Lewis also be regarded as ‘two mutually correlated opposites’? They differ less than Lem and Le Guin, but the phrase — which I can’t help thinking Lem would have especially appreciated — still seems à propos.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Read the new Harry Potter short story

I’m coming to this story a little late, but it turns out to be just as well that I waited it out, as you’ll see by the end of the post.

In case you hadn’t heard it elsewhere yet, J.K. Rowling has written another short story set in the world of Harry Potter. This one, unlike the Beedle the Bard stories auctioned for charity last year, feels much closer to the ‘present’ day. Instead of a small collection of remote fairy tales (serving as background material for Harry Potter), this 800-word story tells us about a brief encounter between Sirius Black and James Potter and a paid of clumsy, buffoonish Muggle police officers. One of the officers even shares my last name! :)

The story was auctioned by Waterstone’s to benefit English PEN and Dyslexia Action along with twelve other stories — including contributions by Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Nick Hornby, Tom Stoppard, and winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, Doris Lessing. All are worth reading — if you can decipher their handwriting! — but I particularly enjoyed the Gaiman and Hornby stories (if that’s what you’d call Hornby’s strange little work). There’s even a competition where you can submit your own story, here, which could be chosen to appear alongside the baker’s dozen. But act quickly! The deadline is June 19.

Rowling’s story — one of only two that ran on the front and back of the note card — sold for £25,000 (about $49,000 USD), accounting for more than half the total proceeds of the auction. That’s about $60 per word! Nice work if you can get it, eh? And not terribly surprising. The story is cute, and as we all know, the real world hasn’t gotten nearly enough of the Harry Potter world yet. You can read the entire story, as well as the other twelve, here. The link requires Flash; alternatively, you can read the Harry Potter story here.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Some thoughts on the names, Marcho and Blanco

It’s always been taken more or less for granted that the two progenitors of the Hobbit settlements in the west of Middle-earth, Marcho and Blanco Fallohide, represent a kind of private joke on Tolkien’s part, playing on the legendary brothers Hengest and Horsa, conquerors of England in the Fifth Century. As indeed they clearly are, historically. But since we know that in such borrowings Tolkien invariably had a linguistic source in mind as well, what about that angle? (No pun intended! :)

It’s believed that the names of Hengest and Horsa are both Germanic, with the meanings “stallion” and “horse”, respectively (though the latter has been disputed somewhat). Tom Shippey has argued that the names Marcho and Blanco mean more or less the same thing, from “Old English *marh, ‘horse’, blanca (only in Beowulf) ‘white horse’” [1]. This has been taken up by other scholars, and has seldom been questioned. And why should it be? Bosworth-Toller indeed gives us mearh “a horse, steed” and blanca, blonca “a white or grey horse” [2].

However, we should remember that Hengest and Horsa were, after all, outsiders who traveled to English soil to capture the land from its native Celtic and Roman-British population. Why should they have English names? (Whether these names were bestowed later, by the subdued English population, is a possibility I will not take up, as this is clearly not applicable to the hobbits, Marcho and Blanco.) Their names are believed to be Germanic, but that allows for considerable geographical flexibility. Some say they were Jutes, others says Frisians — we really don’t know for certain. We only know they weren’t English, ab origine. And so, if Marcho and Blanco were modeled on them, could we look further abroad for the meanings of their names too?

Marcho need not be derived directly from OE mearh. Other possibilities that might readily suffice include Old Norse marr “horse, steed” and Old High German marah “battle-horse”, and these (according to Skeat) “are cognate with (if not borrowed from) Irish and Gael[ic] marc, W[elsh] and Corn[ish] march […]. Root uncertain.” [3]. I have also seen the Cornish form recorded as margh, and additionally, the Breton as marc’h, either of which seems phonologically convincing. It’s somewhat surprising, isn’t it, to see Germanic and Celtic forms so similar, but on the other hand, all of these forms ultimately derive from Indo-European *marko “horse”. On the basis of the linguistic source alone, I don’t think we can really determine a precise geographical locus.

The case for Blanco is similar. While the presence of blanca in Beowulf (and only in Beowulf) is suggestive, there are other possible sources for the word. One thinks immediately of French / Old French blanc “white”, from which we derive Modern English blanch and blank. The French word, however, comes not from Latin (as did most of its vocabulary), but from a Proto-Germanic source, *blenk, *blank “to shine, dazzle, blind”. There is also Old Norse bleikr “shining, white”. Also closely related is Modern English blond, from Old French blond, from Frankish *blund, Proto-Germanic *blunda. It seems pretty clear to me that blanca = “white horse” more precisely = “white (merely applied in this case to a horse)”.

So, what is the upshot of all of this? Am I saying Marcho and Blanco’s names are definitely not taken from Old English? No, nothing so definitive. But I am suggesting that since Hengest and Horsa were “outsiders” to England, as Marcho and Blanco were to the Shire, then it might be worth considering linguistic sources outside Anglo-Saxon. And in doing so, one finds some pretty strong candidates — especially among the Celtic languages. Did Tolkien intend us to follow these names so far down the rabbit hole — or in this case, hobbit hole? Perhaps not, but I can’t think he would disapprove of our digging the hole a little deeper.

[1] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth. Revised and expanded edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, p.102.

[2] Bosworth-Toller, pp.674 and 108, respectively.

[3] Skeat, Rev. Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Second ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893, p.353. See also Alexander McBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, Gairm Publications, 1982.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Attention Tolkien Scholars — Call For Papers [Updated]

Walking Tree Publishers has certainly kept busy lately! They’ve brought out some ten books in just the past two years, and what’s more, their books have generally set the bar pretty high for Tolkien studies. I’ve contributed to two recent Walking Tree collections myself, Tolkien and Modernity (Volume 1) and The Silmarillion: Thirty Years On. Please note that I intend no deliberate or implied connection between “setting the bar high” and publishing an essay by me! It’s just coincidence. ;)

I have just read a new CFP from Walking Tree. The planned publication comes with a pair of editors, Friedhelm Schneidewind and Heidi Steimel, and will be published simultaneously in English and German (by Walking Tree and the aptly named Stein und Baum). I presume that contributions submitted in one language will be translated into the other by the editors; the CFP makes no mention of any prerequisite knowledge of both. The subject is Music in Middle-earth — I wonder if the editors are aware of Brad Eden’s forthcoming collection on the same topic? It would seem not, given their confident statement that “[t]hough numerous melodies for his poems have been composed, sung, played and recorded, secondary literature on Middle-earth hardly mentions the subject.” [Update: I have just come across another book on the subject, published last August: Projecting Tolkien’s Musical Worlds: A Study of Musical Affect in Howard Shore’s Soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings, by Matthew Young. This book sounds interesting! Has anybody seen it?]

I refer interested parties to the Call For Papers (PDF format) for more details, including possible topics, the deadline for proposals, and so forth.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

WOTD: Anacoluthon

Inspired by Omniglot, I’ve decided to start periodically posting a Word of the Day. However, unlike those on Omniglot, I intend to limit myself to English words. Well, more or less. I mean, how English are most English words, really? Case in point, today’s word: anacoluthon.

Not in most people’s vocabulary, I daresay. Nor was it in mine; I had to look it up. Rather amazingly, the spell-check in Microsoft Word apparently knows the word! So what does it mean?

Those familiar with Greek combing forms might be able to make a guess at the meaning, as I attempted to do — with some small success. The forms in question suggest a meaning along the lines of “not following, not on the path.” Another hint: the relatively common English word acolyte, with its meaning of “following, on the path”, is more or less antonymic to it. Some of you might also guess it’s a term used in rhetoric, grammar, or linguistics, as are so many of these direct Greek borrowings.

So what does it really mean? It’s a grammatical construction in which the end of the sentence does not match up grammatically to the beginning. For instance, “the professor was talking about — I couldn’t really understand him at all,” or “I warned him that if he continues to drink, what will become of him?” Technically speaking, such a thing should suggest a poor command of grammar; however, by giving it a sesquipedalian name, one can call it a deliberate rhetorical effect. :)

Does anybody actually use this word?! Well, how do you think I came across it? In June 1911, in the King Edward’s School Debating Society Report, the young J.R.R. Tolkien is described as:

An energetic Secretary who does not consider that his duties excuse him from speaking. Has displayed great zeal in arranging meetings throughout the session and considerable ingenuity in advertising them. He is an eccentric humorist who has made many excellent speeches, at times rather burdened with anacolutha. Made one valiant attempt to revive Beowulfic oratory. [1]

Since Tolkien was the Secretary of the Debating Society, I think one can presume this description was self-imposed, tongue in cheek. Certainly the use of the plural anacolutha, as well as the eponymic adjective Beowulfic, suggest Tolkien might have been the author. That he was only 19 years old makes the use of this rare word all the more remarkable. Or at least, it would be remarkable today. Can you imagine the word on the lips of Paris Hilton or Britney Spears, for example? Their public speeches are certainly full of such anacolutha; however, I think it’s safe to say that any rhetorical effects were uninentional. ;)

[1] King Edward’s School Chronicle, Vol. XXVI, No. 187 (June 1911), p. 46.