“A translator is not free”: J.R.R. Tolkien’s rules for translation and their application in Sir Orfeo

— Curtis A. Weyant

5 October 2021 | Tolkien Studies, XVIII, 63

Amidst a description of many difficulties related to the translation of the Middle English poem Pearl, J.R.R. Tolkien complained in a letter to his aunt, Jane Neave, that a translator is not free” (Letters 317). While he did not delineate a set of rules by which translators are shackled, over the years of his career as a professor, author, language inventor, and, indeed, translator, Tolkien occasionally offered thoughts about what constitutes a good translation, and in some cases he even prescribed rules — or at least guidelines — which translators should follow to produce a worthy translation. Some of these thoughts are revealed in letters like the one to his aunt, while others are found in the notes of his translations of texts in Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, and other languages. Still others can be discovered in the narrative and apparatus of his fictional works, such as Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings. Pulling together these diverse thoughts on translation scattered throughout Tolkien’s writings affords an opportunity to better understand his varied works, both popular and academic, in a new light.…

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date recorded 📅2022-01-02
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