Being a Fan in a Whirling World of Words

The Inklings Roundtable of Houston, August 2005

The Inklings Roundtable of Houston, August 2005

The Inklings Roundtable of Houston held its monthly meeting at the Black Labrador tonight and our guests were members of the Houston Costuming group. The discussion and presentation were both lively and interesting. One hears all sorts of interesting anecdotes at costuming presentations. At one point, Kim Kofmel — who gave the presentation — held up a copy of a LoTR book with a picture of Gandalf and the Fellowship of the Ring standing outside the West-gate of Moria. I’ve seen copies of this printing through the years but haven’t really paid much attention to it as I always disliked the blue border around the cover image.

Nonetheless, when Kim said she didn’t know when the book was printed, I blurted out, “1983!” It was only a joke, but after the meeting a couple of us looked at the book out of curiosity and saw that the print date was March 1984.

When I blurted out “1983!”, most of the people in the room looked at me as if I was being an insufferable know-it-all once again. The regulars are used to it and I saw a few eyes rolling, even though I think they understood I was just joking. Nonetheless, when the subject of what to do next month came up, someone suggested a trivia contest. We’ve done trivia contests, and they can be fun, but…well, I am probably one of the few people in the world who is barred from every Tolkien trivia contest.

I kid you not. I have been publicly excluded from LoTR trivia contests at more than one convention or fan gathering. It gets old, people. I don’t really know all that stuff by heart, no matter how good some of my guesses may be.

Okay, I do sometimes criticize Trivial Pursuit for getting details wrong, but that’s beside the point. I mean, on the movie-related trivia version, any 10-year-old can pretty much whip my butt and make me look like an idiot.

It’s not easy being an insufferable know-it-all, as many Tolkien fans well know. During her presentation, Kim said that there are some fans who will point out every flaw in a costume without taking into consideration the fact that sometimes it’s just not possible to recreate a costume the way it was done in a movie.

In fact, she launched into a lengthy sidebar discussion about the fact that movies often use multiple costumes designed for different tasks. Aragorn had a costume for walking around and a costume for riding a horse. Part of the movie magic is convincing the audience that the people in the story don’t really have a change of clothes between every scene (or between every take) and that some fabrics really can sparkle in the moonlight.

I didn’t know that.

It was an enjoyable evening. I’m sorry I objected so strenuously to the suggestion of a trivia contest, but no one likes to be excluded, not even insufferable know-it-alls. So now I have to think of something to do that will keep people interested and motivated.

In other news tonight, I have decided to expand Tolkien Studies on the Web to include a section on university-level Tolkien courses whose instructors post their syllabi and reading materials on the Web. I’ll try to start it this weekend. I’ve been recovering from a bad case of bronchitis and told my friends I don’t intend to go anywhere this weekend. Much as I hate to sit at home and rest, I’d rather get over the bronchitis once and for all. So expanding the Tolkien Studies content will at least be productive.

I’ll also be working on a feature article about Matt Tinaglia, the gentleman who edited Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, 3rd Edition and Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Matt has other interests than just Tolkien and Middle-earth and he won a contest on the Endor Discussion List where one of the prize choices was a feature article about the contest winner.

Maybe I should have excluded Matt, but at the time, it didn’t occur to me to do so. Besides which, I don’t like contests where people have to be excluded just because they may know someone involved with the contest. Matt won it fair and square.

Going back to the Inklings Roundtable meeting, we had a special visitor tonight, a Tolkien fan from Argentina. He brought copies of a magazine called Mathoms, a Tolkien journal/fanzine which is published by the Argentinian Tolkien Society. These are annual journals and I must say they are amazingly impressive. I mean, I was just wowed by the quality of the work, both in designing the magazine and in its content.

I don’t speak Spanish, and I don’t write it very well, but I do read it and some of the articles were very well-informed. I didn’t even know Argentina had a Tolkien Society, but it makes sense.

At least some of the artwork was done by Vladimir Rikowski. This is professional quality stuff and, to be quite honest, it’s among some of the best Tolkien-inspired artwork I have ever seen. He is not necessarily the best artist I have ever seen, but his sense of composition and his attention to detail are just mind-blowing.

I don’t know how much crossover there is between English-language Tolkien research and other language-based research. My own research has, of course, been translated into quite a few languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian, Hebrew, Polish, Italian, and Greek to name a few. But how many other Tolkien researchers have been covered in multiple languages? There are whole schools of thought out there I really haven’t heard of, much less had the opportunity to look at. I can muddle my way through Spanish and sort of figure out Portuguese and maybe grasp some Italian but that’s about it.

I know that some of the English-language Tolkien journals reprint articles from each other, but translation presents a whole set of challenges you don’t normally encounter in normal Tolkien research. Think about all the disagreements people have over the meaning of Tolkien’s words in English. Now think about their varying opinions over the translations of his words. How faithful are the translations?

I can offer some examples of how difficult this kind of exchange of ideas is from my own experience. A few years ago, I began publishing a Glossary for Andre Norton’s Witch World on Xenite.Org. I had compiled a lot of notes when I was in college and decided it would be an interesting project for the Web. Andre herself looked at it and reportedly was very flattered.

Alas! The project was just too time-consuming and I never completed it. But another Andre Norton fan from Poland offered to help me with the project. I decided to give it a shot, but he was using the Polish translations of Andre’s books and I was using the English originals. We agreed we would use the English text as the primary text and he would offer a note for Polish fans explaining any discrepancies.

But there turned out to be enough discrepancies that I eventually just let the project die. I didn’t have time to figure out how to reconcile the English and Polish books. My collaborator agreed that most of the problem came from the Polish translations, but sometimes a translator has to cope with idiom (expressions) that just doesn’t work in another language. My Hebrew translator ran into this problem with a couple of my essays. He retitled “Is Your Canon On The Loose” — an English-language pun making a play on the old “loose cannon on deck” joke — as something equivalent to “Choir of a thousand voices”. The meaning was faithful to my intent, but the humor was lost.

When I published Flying Away On A Wing And A Prayer… on MERP at the end of December 2005, Elfa Arwena of Elfenomeno’s Spanish-language community asked for permission to translate the essay for their archive. Elfenomeno is the only Spanish-language site authorized to translate my work, so I agreed. She published Volando sobre un ala y un pelo… on February 6.

The translation is, I feel, very faithful — and my opinion is only based on my limited knowledge of the Spanish language. But Elfa also published a review of Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull’s Reader’s Companion — which inspired my essay — and Elfa and her collaborator took the opposite position to my own regarding the Balrogs.

They looked at the citation I provided from Christopher Tolkien’s letter to someone who had asked him an undisclosed question and concluded that Christopher was implying that the Balrog did not have wings. That is not what Christopher’s text says. He doesn’t offer an opinion one way or the other. But Christopher uses such a formalized style of English in his writing that I am not surprised some people — even native English language speakers — may derive a different meaning from his words than I do.

When you consider that this disagreement cuts across linguistic boundaries, however, how much of a disadvantage are both sides experiencing in not being able to fully communicate in each other’s native idiom? The exchange of critical ideas is hampered by the limit of our knowledge of each other’s native expressions.

As much as I would like to see more exchange between the international groups, such exchanges would be fraught with peril, as Tolkien might say. Many non-English papers no doubt look at the texts which are most readily available to and understood by their readerships — the translations. If the translations have made sacrifices or alterations in idiomatic points, the two reading audiences are seeing different stories.

Tolkien himself expressed frustration with some of the translations undertaken in his lifetime. He was a man far more qualified than I to comment on the decisions made by the translators, but many bi-lingual fans have through the years shared with me their views of the complex changes that Tolkien’s stories underwent at the hands of these translators. Sometimes, the fans show less consideration to the translators than Tolkien did.

Translation is no easy task. Tonight, one of the Roundtable members jokingly suggested I might translate the Mathomsarticles for the group. She knows I don’t speak Spanish, but I did point out that I can read Spanish far better than I write it. I also mentioned how my relationship with the community at Elfenomeno was established.

When we published the Parma Endorion eBook in 2002, I wanted to have it translated into several languages. I used Altavista’s Babelfish site in 2001 to write letters in French, Spanish, and one other language (I think it was Italian), inviting fans with a knowledge of English to work on the translations. Three teams were set up. In the end, only Elfenomeno’s group completed their task, and that required a year’s more work than originally anticipated.

To recruit the Elfenomeno team, my letter said I was looking for Tolkien fans to work with. “Fan” is a perfectly good English word, being shortened from “fanatic”. Of course, “fan” also refers to a device with several blades extending outward from a central motor. We use fans to blow air and cool ourselves and devices.

Altavista’s Babelfish substituted “ventiladores” for “fans” and I missed that when I proofread the translation. Of course, nothing could have made my need more clear. When the Spanish “ventiladores” (ventilators) stopped laughing, Leandro Pascual offered to put together a team of translators for me. And thus was the Spanish translation of Parma Endorion born.

I think that, as I expand the content on, I’ll be sure to include resources for the non-English Web as I discover them. I already know about a few good ones for several languages. I am sure there are many more out there. But it’s important that we Tolkien ventilators remember our friends in other languages. They surely will not forget us.