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Lord of the Rings in French

December 15, 2016


What have I done in 2016 that’s worth recalling, I wonder?  While the UK and the USA were self-immolating, just how trivial and depressing were my diversions?  What precise kind of fiddle was mine while Rome burned?

I watched every single Laurel and Hardy movie, from A Lucky Dog to Atoll K.  That’s something I don’t regret.  I’ll have a lot more to say about that initiative I’m sure.

And I read Le Seigneur des Anneaux.

This was done in an attempt to improve my own French, as well as to try to give myself a belated lesson in more general problems of translation.  How quickly can you habituate to the rhythms of a different language once you know absolutely what’s about to happen further down the page?

The tone of Le Seigneur des Anneaux, judged in terms of its fidelity to the mood of the original, varies according to context.  Gondor, given its chivalric centrality in Middle Earth,  works well in French, and the bitter and brooding Denethor proves a particularly eloquent Francophone.

Hobbits, for the most part, speak rather awkwardly in French.  Perhaps the hardest thing for me, was to try to figure out differences in register and social distinctions.  Conversations between Frodo and Sam in English always make it clear that a social divide is being variously breached and then reinforced.  My French will have to be far better, far more instinctual, if I can claim to be a good judge of how well Francis Ledoux has translated their relationship.

“Wizard” proves a problematic word to translate.  French offers two possibilities –  “sorcier” and “magicien”.   “Sorcier” sounds too sinister, too malevolent, whereas “magicien” sounds too much like Paul Daniels.  “Magicien” it is though, for the duration of the book.

Of course, it is the names that you notice.  Some of the translations of names feel very literal.  Samsagace is a rather splendid name, perhaps too splendid.   The landlord of the Prancing Pony (“Poney Fingant”) is Monsieur Poiredebeurré.  Perhaps least satisfactory of all is “Gripoil” for Shadowfax.

“Silvebarbe” is pleasant to say and you can imagine Treebeard the Ent saying it himself, slowly, and enjoying every syllable.

In order for me to judge Le Seigneur des Anneaux fairly, I believe I will have to read Lord of the Ring about four more times and then Le Seigneur des Anneaux  about twice more.  It’s not, after all, as though I’ve anything more important I should be doing.

Il respira profondément.

– Eh bien, me voici de retour, dit-il.



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