Renée Vink
ALLITTERATION, RHYME, METRE: The Toll of Translating Tolkien’s Poems, a personal account

«Poetry is what gets lost in translation», the American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) is said to have written. A quote used often by people discussing the art of translating poetry, as anyone who has googled these words can attest. I used it in an article analysing Max Schuchart’s translation of the poems in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (VINK 2020, p. 31). Strictly speaking, Frost never wrote this. What he did write was: «I like to say guardedly, that I could define poetry this way: it is that which gets lost out of both prose and verse in translation.» (see BROOKS, etc.). This shows Frost was not specifically referring to poetry translations, but to the much more general idea, that whatever is poetical about a text will most likely be lost when transposed to another language. The good news is, that he considers translating verse not per se more doomed to fail than translating prose. The bad news is, that he seems to agree with another phrase I will quote in my introduction, this one in the original Italian: ‘traduttore, traditore’. The English version manages to rhyme – translator, traitor, though I won’t claim that makes it poetry.

As a translator, and putting it mildly, I doubt Frost is entirely right and I especially dislike the phrase ‘traduttore, traditore’ (which I’m told originated in Italian discontent with French Dante translations). It seems to suggest some sort of insincerity on the part of the translators. This is not merely ungrateful towards a group of people who do others a service by making incomprehensible texts accessible to them. It also makes a mockery of, for instance, the Nobel Prize for Literature1, as the judges often need translations to decide which author or poet is most deserving of this honour. Did they award the [c]Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, the Prize based on a treacherous impression of his poetry? Or [c]Eugenio Montale, [c]Odysseas Elytis, [c] Jaroslav Seifert, [c]Wysława Szymborska? [c]Does the motto pull the rug from under the Prize itself? Some would undoubtedly say yes, but this looks like giving up too easily.

On the other hand, did Frost have a point? Yes and no. The poet John Dryden believed it was possible to translate poetry, but only if you were a poetic genius. Poet and playwright Eugene O’Neil thought that ultimately, a translation was successful when it did justice to both form and content of the original. However, Bible translator Eugene Nida feared that form was often sacrificed for the sake of content. [c]Linguist and literary theorist Roman Jacobson claimed that poetry was, by definition, untranslatable.2 I think all these men have good points, yet they still remind me a little of those blind individuals who all try to identify an elephant by touching the part nearest to them. But I was invited to this conference to speak about translating Tolkien. So, did he have an opinion about translations in general, or about translations of his own works in particular?Yes, he did. In a letter of 1956 (Letters, pp. 249-51) about the upcoming Dutch translation of The Lord of the Rings, he ranted about the proposed translations of the Shire nomenclature, or rather, a about the idea that these names would be translated at all. He scornfully dismissed the proposals of the translator, Max Schuchart, noting that Beatrix Potter «gave translators hell» (Letters, p. 251). I will not go into his arguments against translating the names here, but when it turned out that Schuchart’s Swedish colleague, Ohlmarks, also translated Shire toponyms and personal names into his target language, Tolkien realised he had lost this battle. This led to his decision to compose a guide for future translators of his Ring epic, a document now known as the Nomenclature (HAMMOND & SCULL 2005, pp. 750-783). Regarding Schuchart’s translations of Shire names, although admitting that he knew «little of the peculiar history of Dutch toponymy» (HAMMOND & SCULL 2005, pp. 750-783), Tolkien believed that as a rule, they did not sound Dutch (HAMMOND & SCULL 2005, pp. 750-783). He was wrong: take it from a native speaker of the language that as a rule, they do. Tolkien displays a tad too much ofermód, hybris, here. After his remark about Beatrix Potter he gives Schuchart some hell himself in a footnote (HAMMOND & SCULL 2005, pp. 750-783). Yet in another letter, he calls him less incompetent than his Swedish counterpart (Letters, p. 263). Everything is relative.

The Hammond & Scull Chronology also contains some comments by Tolkien on translation, like his recurring fears that the Dutch translator would not be up to his task (Chronology, pp. 515, 520, 524), and some negative comments on the German translation (Chronology, p. 712). Interestingly, he was against engaging a second translator for the verses, which «are an integral part of the narrative […]. For success a separate translator of the verses would need to have a detailed knowledge of the whole original text, and of the prose version. It seems to me highly improbable that such a special “lyric-writer” would bother to acquire this knowledge» (Chronology, p. 769). Once again, Tolkien’s opinion of translators turns out to be low. It does not seem to occur to him that they can be conscientious and have the best interest of the original at heart. After I’d been asked to translate the poems in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, I began by reading the entire book, not just the poems, and while working on the poetry I often consulted the commentary. Nothing special there: any translator worth their salt would do the same. Tolkien’s position seems all the more baffling, as he was a translator himself. Maybe he couldn’t imagine his novel would receive the same attention and care as he gave an Old- or Middle-English text. In any case, he lost the battle with Germany, too: a second translator was engaged for the verses. Margaret Carroux did the prose text, Ebba von Freymann did the poetry. Incidentally, the Dutch translation of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún was done by two people, too – though this was purely caused by the need to publish the Dutch translation not too long after the English original.

And then, the Chronology turns out to contain the most peculiar statement of all: that «any translation is better than none» (Chronology, p. 574). Was Tolkien suddenly that desperate to find a foreign public that he withdrew to the sandcastle of Anything Goes, If Only I Get My Foreign Editions? As a Tolkien scholar I’m inclined to throw the towel here. A translator, on the other hand, had better remain professional and say: what deserves my attention is the text, not the more or less informed views authors and poets may have of translating, even when their name is Tolkien.

What is obvious in any case, is that it was not just J.R.R. Tolkien who didn’t trust translators too much. When the rights of several of his posthumously published poems were sold, his son Christopher’s condition for selling them was, that the originals would be printed alongside the translations. This way, readers who knew English could see what his father had really written. This looks like a vote of non-confidence in translators, though it is not entirely uncommon. A couple of Dutch Dante translations, for instance, included the original text of the Commedia (VAN HECK 2010, pp. 95, 98, 101). One could argue that in the case of Tolkien, who has not quite achieved Dante status yet, the demand may seem presumptuous, but let’s consider it an act of piety on the part of a devoted son.

Past time to get closer to the point. After I had translated the poems in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún into Dutch, the publisher could apparently live with the result, because I was also engaged to translate The Fall of Arthur, The Story of Kullervo, a new edition (2014) of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Beren and Lúthien and finally, The Fall of Gondolin (which I won’t discuss here, as it contains only a few pages of poetry). The other works contain a great many verses. These verses are of three kinds: they have metre and alliteration (The Legend, Arthur, the three pages of poetry in Gondolin), or metre and rhyme (Beren & Lúthien and the Bombadil verses), or merely metre (Kullervo). There is always a metre: Tolkien did not do free verse.

Before a translator can tackle poems, a preliminary decision is in order. What will be best: sticking to the metres used by Tolkien for the sake of form, or taking liberties with them for the sake of content? It depends on which approach will do more justice to the original texts: strictly adhering to form and trying to preserve as much as possible of the content, or a faithful rendering of the content, though with an eye on style and poetic diction. In an ideal world, the answer would naturally be: both, but if choices need to be made, what is most important? What would have been Tolkien’s overriding concern? As he does not seem to be a fan of free verse, would he have given priority to maintaining the metre? That he repeatedly used verse for stories he also told in prose (The Lay of the Children of Húrin and The Lay of Leithian, both found in the Lays of Beleriand), suggests that form was an important concern for him. Also, he tried to organise the story of the Völsungs, as told in the Poetic Edda but also in the prose work known as the Völsunga Saga, in a single, overarching lay (LSG, p. 6), instead of just retelling the story in prose. This, too, points to the importance of form. Another reason for using the ancient Germanic metre, was «trying the art of writing alliterative poetry» (LSG, p. 6.). Again, the stress is on form.

What about style and poetic diction? Allow me to address the elephant in my room. I do not consider Tolkien a first-rate poet. He wrote some first-rate poems, but over all his poetry is uneven and works best in the context of his Legendarium. Too much of it is mediocre; gems like The Sea Bell are rare. Especially his long, narrative poems contain trivial passages, and he takes recourse to stopgaps. Nearly all his most memorable lines are prose (The Road Goes Ever On and the Ring Poem being the most notable exceptions). Prose allowed him to say what he wanted to say without any self-imposed formal constraints. All the same, Tolkien’s technical skills in composing poetry were considerable. Combined with the weight he attached to metre this would point towards a translation aimed foremost at preserving the formal quality of his verse – always provided such a thing is at all possible in the target language of the translator.

But now I need to make a confession: Back in 2009, when faced with the text of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, I gave it ten seconds consideration, at most. Setting aside Tolkien’s metres of choice was never an option. The above is merely a retrospective rationalisation of a decision I took in a few heartbeats. But I believe the reasoning to be sound; if it was instinct, it was the informed instinct of someone familiar with Tolkien’s work. Also, I like a challenge. For The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, Tolkien chose two metres, both found in the Poetic Edda: fornyrdislág and ljódahattr, arranged in stanza form. His son Christopher explains these metres in his commentary, so I’ll keep it brief here. A fornyrdislág line, divided into two connected half lines has four stressed syllables or lifts, with variable number of unstressed syllables or dips in between. The first, and/or second, lifts must alliterate with the third one. The fourth lift cannot alliterate with the third. An example: «No rest for the living, no room for tears / who with pride and purpose oppose their fate.» (LSG, pp. 264, 27; in Dutch: «Geen rust voor wie leeft, geen ruimte voor tranen / wie tartend en tergend trotsen hun lot.»). Old Norse lays usually consist of stanzas of eight half lines (with two lifts each), or four full lines, though stanzas can be longer. In a ljódahattr stanza, fornyrdislág lines alternate with lines that have three lifts, of which two must alliterate. But ljódahattr was less popular than fornyrdislág, and Tolkien restricted his use of it to three stanzas containing a dialogue of birds. Both metres are eminently suitable for languages like Old Norse and English, with their many mono- and bisyllabic words. In fact, English has so few endings left that an English phrase is often shorter than an Old Norse one. This is the reason why Tolkien uses so many gerund constructions like «Moon was shining, men were singing» (LSG, pp. 91, 37) – instead of «The moon shone, the men sang», a verse two dips short of the norm.

What problems did I run into? The worst horde I needed to take was, that Dutch has more endings and therefore more unstressed syllables than English; a Dutch text is on the average 10% longer than a text with the same content in English.

Now both these languages are stress-timed3, meaning that in speech, the time that passes between two lifts is always roughly the same. This explains why in Germanic alliterative verse, a lift can trail more than one dip, while the metre remains regular. But the more unstressed syllables you cram into the interval between the stressed ones, the more ‘unpoetical’ and rambling the result is, though this depends on the presentation as well. (Brief aside: Once, I got into an argument on a forum with a French Tolkien reader who complained that Tolkien’s iambs were irregular. I failed dismally at explaining to him that this was because the verses were not iambic at all, and that he was reading them the wrong way.4)

Compared to Old Norse, the language of Tolkien’s sources and models, Dutch also needs more words to say the same. For Marcel Otten, the man behind the latest Dutch version of the Poetic Edda (1994), this was a valid reason to refrain from a strictly metrical translation. «In the first place, because Old Icelandic, or Old Norse, is much more condensed than modern Dutch. […] It has many monosyllabic words that illustrate its terse character […] If a translator were to stick to the limited number of syllables found in the original, they would have to interfere with the content of the text» (Edda, p. 19)5. He preferred a more explanatory translation.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún was my first attempt at translating this metre and my first official Tolkien translation. I was convinced it could be done the way he had done it, despite Otten’s assertions and the fact that English can be very terse, too. How did I fare? It is always tricky to judge oneself, of course, but I did manage to limit the number of unstressed syllables; there are more of them than in the original, yet fewer than there could have been. But everything has its price. In my case it was mostly clarity and transparency.

The translation received one serious review by someone who knew what he was talking about: Jaap van Vredendaal, a Germanist, and familiar with the Germanic alliterative metre. His verdict? In the first place, Van Vredendaal was not impressed with the quality of Tolkien’s original text. As for my translation, it had good parts and bad parts. But basically, I should have opted for an explanatory translation, as Tolkien’s English was hard to follow (VAN VREDENDAAL 2010, p. 33). My version was just as weird, dense and difficult, which he considered a flaw. But to prove that the Dutch version was convoluted, he quoted two badly translated verses from my text, replacing them with an explanatory translation of his own in which he ignored the rules of the alliterative metre. I promptly sent a letter to the editor of the magazine in which the review had appeared, admitting my lines were just not that good and showing how Van Vredendaal’s version could be adapted to Tolkien’s metre while remaining clear and comprehensible. Much later, I later approached Van Vredendaal to ask him about this. His reaction was a bit vague… Interestingly, he had translated the Old Saxon Heliand a few years previously – into the Germanic alliterative verse of the original! I must give it to him that the result is not difficult to follow, but then, Old Saxon is closer to Dutch than Old Norse is. In any case, we did not have a row, as some people did at the end of the 19th century regarding the right way to translate Dante into Dutch (VAN HECK 2010, p. 98).

An ‘Italian’ aside: Speaking of this source of ceaseless grief, the most recent translation of the Commedia into Dutch (DANTE 2000) is both rhyming and metrical. The two translators had for purpose «to render the epic into comprehensible, not necessarily modern Dutch” in a way “that sounds natural» (DANTE 2000, p. 5). The translation was reviewed by Frans van Dooren, who was not enthusiastic, to put it mildly. The final passage deserves to be quoted in full:

Because the text on the Gate of Hell marks the beginning of Dante’s journey, it has occurred to me that the poet meant it as a warning to his translators: if you dare to enter this poetic domain, despair and misery will be your lot. The first terzina already throws it at you: you shall find yourself in the “città dolente” the community of the hapless who went before you; you shall experience the “eterno dolore”, the eternal frustration of having been unable to express what you wanted to; you shall end up among the “perduta gente”, the damned who made the attempt against their better knowledge. And after the divine intermezzo of the second and third terzinas, the hammer blow falls, lethal to any translator: «Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate!»6

But… Van Dooren had a horse in this race: he’d made a prose translation of the Commedia twelve years previously. Apparently, he was of the Robert Frost faction and had drawn the conclusion that if poetry is what is lost in translation, why even try? On the other hand, does opting for prose make him less of a traditore?7 Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I don’t pretend to have the answer.

Ultimately, it remains a matter of debate, whether to opt for prose or for verse and whether to make a convoluted original like The Legend easier to follow or not. Do I still think it was the right choice to stick to the metre Tolkien used? Yes, but I could have sacrificed the occasional alliteration on the altar of transparency, opted for a longer, but less old-fashioned word, restricted the number of inversions, etc. One reviewer called my translation of The Legend ‘compliant’ (Noorduyn 2009), which a friend considered belittling. Compliance was what I had aimed for, [c]but this comment made my translator’s ego wonder if a little more insubordination here and there would not have been an improvement. But I believe I can safely ignore the reviewer who discovered that Dutch had more unstressed syllables than English (Bouman 2009).

On to The Fall of Arthur. This one was easier. The original also had the alliterative metre, but it was the Anglo-Saxon version. This is less terse than the Old Norse one, and allows for more unstressed syllables. This meant that the text was metrically closer to Dutch, which made it easier to translate. The dilemma of a more ‘compliant’ versus a more explanatory translation did not arise. Also, I was more experienced now, thanks to having worked with this metre before. An unexpected upside of this was, that I enjoyed translating the Arthurian poem more, and I consider the result better than my translation of The Legend. What also helped, was that The Fall of Arthur is a better poem than the earlier, ‘Norse’ lays (FA, foreword): Tolkien had grown more experienced, too.

This translation got few reviews, and none of them in a major newspaper. A certain ‘not-another-posthumous-Tolkien-book’ feeling reigned in the Low Countries. In a comment to one of my Facebook posts a Flemish author of a monograph about Tolkien said the translation improved Tolkien’s poem, but as a friend he was undoubtedly flattering me, and I don’t believe it. [c]A Dutch fantasy blogger thought it was not as smooth as the original, but useful to have alongside Tolkien’s text, which I hope means it was clear and transparent8. A reviewer for a fantasy website considered the translation a success, because it «closely follows the original without loss of metre or rhyme»9. Which was exactly what I had been going for. The Anglo-Saxon alliterative metre is simply easier to get across in Dutch than the Old Norse variety.

A sample: «They felt the forest though the fogs veiled it;/ their fires fainted. Fear clutched their souls, waiting watchful in a world of shadow/ for woe they knew not, nor word speaking.» In Dutch: «Door wasem omwalmd was het woud toch voelbaar; hun vuur vervaagde. Vrees greep hun ziel,/ die waakzaam wachtte in een wereld van schaduw/ op onbekend wee, maar woorden meed.» (FA, I, pp. 24-5). I think I got across at least some of Tolkien’s vowel shifts and managed to compensate for their loss with an internal rhyme in the last line.

The Story of Kullervo was another kettle of fish. It contained ‘only’ about eleven pages of poetry, as against forty for Arthur’s Fall and 175 for The Legend. [c]The poetry does not alliterate or rhyme but is purely metrical. Tolkien took the metre from the Kalevala, the source of his story. The catch was, that the Kalevala is in Finnish, a language I cannot read at all. The metre seems simple: trochaic, with octosyllabic lines, not seldom with an echo-like repetition in the next line10. In theory, this may seem boring, but Finnish words tend to be long, and many lines consist of three, maybe four words of unequal length, which enlivens the rhythm.

In his lectures about the Kalevala, Tolkien describes Finnish as «far more primitive […] than most of the other languages in Europe» (SK, p. 116, see also p. 77). I was astounded at the extent of young Tolkien’s knowledge, as there are over 200 languages in this continent. One needs to know a great many of them to be able to make such a sweeping generalisation. His judgement that Finnish was «primitive» took me aback, though he tried to mitigate it by adding «therefore contrary to the usual superstition far more complicated» (SK, p. 116). The term «primitive languages» is a linguistic sin. But Tolkien wrote this more than 100 years ago, when such terms were used by all and sundry, and I assume he did not mean it in a derogatory way.

Tolkien also conceded that the metre sounded far more monotonous in English (SK, p. 117) – and in the poetry of his Kullervo story he sometimes trespassed against it. He repeatedly began a verse with a syllable unfit for stress: an article, a preposition, or the conjunction ‘and’, though this may have been meant as a safeguard against monotony. However, he also created names that look vaguely Finnish, but upset the metre if pronounced in the Finnish way, with the stress on the initial syllable. «O Palikki’s little damsel / And Telenda thy companion» (SK, p. 60), only scans well if you put the stress on PalIkki en TelEnda, but according to the Finnish rule, it should have been PAlikki and TElenda. Even the name of Kullervo’s father, KAlervo, taken from the original Finnish text, also gets this treatment (SK, p. 29) and becomes KalErvo. Yet it is only by the first syllables the two names are distinguishable from one another. Tolkien first read the Kalevala in W.F. Kirby’s translation11, but Kirby usually gets it right.

However, I decided not to be presumptuous; my task was, to translate the poetry the way Tolkien had written it, even though his grasp of the metre seemed incomplete at times, or his “reflexes” appeared to take over. So, I went by the stress patterns he had used. My reward, or punishment, was that translating this poetry turned out to be hardly more difficult than prose. It rarely felt as though I was doing something special, the way it did while I was working on the alliterative poems. At the same time, it felt a bit like translating the work of a fellow impostor, though Tolkien at least tried to learn Finnish.

A sample: «For the paths led ever deeper / Deeper deeper into darkness /Deeper deeper into sorrow / Into woe and into horror.» Dutch: «Want de paden leiden dieper / Almaar dieper in het donker / Almaar dieper in de droefheid / In ellende en ontzetting.» (SK, pp. 88-9). I may have lost an internal rhyme (sorrow – horror), but I gained a few alliterations. Sometimes, translating is transposing elements, in this case poetic elements, losing something in one place, winning it back in another. As for reviews: the few people who reviewed it did not seem to notice the Dutch text was not the original. As the saying goes in Dutch translators’ circles, the book had translated itself.

The revised edition of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (pp. 2-14) and Beren and Lúthien contain the remaining poetry to be discussed, all metrical and rhyming, and in the case of the Bombadil book, displaying a great variety of forms and metres, sometimes of Tolkien’s own invention (for instance Errantry). The Bombadil poems were published for the first time in the 1960s; in the revised edition, the editors published early versions for most of them. In a few cases, they included wholly different poems that only shared the subject matter with the later versions. The original poems in Tom Bombadil were translated by Max Schuchart. As the commentary by Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull made clear, sometimes his translations were erroneous. In those cases, I adapted them. My chief task was to translate the commentary itself, plus the earlier versions of the poem (incorporating the parts that Schuchart had already translated into my text), plus the new poems, including a doggerel by George MacDonald. Sometimes, the ‘new’ material in the earlier versions consisted of just a few different words in one or two stanzas, in other cases several stanzas were different, or extra, often it was somewhere in between.

Now many of Schuchart’s translations are characterised by a recurring problem (see VINK 2020): he remains generally faithful to rhyme and metre, but often one or two lines do not scan properly. The same applies to his own poetry. It could be intentional, or maybe Schuchart’s sense of rhythm was a bit off. This does not always matter; some Bombadil poems have a rather loose rhythm, and Schuchart had a lot of leeway. In other cases, the metre is stricter. Disliking such bumps, and also needless omissions, I sometimes tweaked Schuchart’s translations in my renditions of the early versions, even where the older and newer texts were identical in the English original. Experience had taught me that no one would notice, or mind, and it did not affect Tolkien’s original texts. An example: In stanza 4 of The Man in the Moon stayed up too late, Schuchart failed to include the cow’s tufted tail; in the same, identical stanza in the earlier version I took the liberty to put the tail back (be it not the tuft) and correct the metre. The price I had to pay was having to change a full rhyme to assonance, but I think it was worth it. In another stanza of this early version, I put back the word for “slowly” that Schuchart had left out, this time without paying any price at all.

Along with this, I smuggled a few hidden allusions to Dutch literary works into my rendering of the earlier texts. I doubt anyone identified them. It is merely what treacherous translators may do whenever correctors do not pay attention. They may even slip a frivolous neologism or two into their translation of Oliphaunt’s predecessor, Natura Iumbonis. Knowing in advance you will not be closely scrutinised, can be a liberating experience. I daresay this volume contains a couple of my more relaxed Tolkien poetry renderings. But most of the poems in Tom Bombadil are relaxed, too, and I feel no remorse. It is not as though such actions will affect the study of Tolkien’s works, for which true scholars are supposed to consult the original texts anyway.

There were no reviews. Nobody seemed to notice this was a new book, not a reprint of the original Bombadil volume.

Last, but not least… the verses from the Lay of Leithian reprinted in Beren and Lúthien: 120 pages of metrical, rhyming poetry. This was as much work as the alliterations of The Legend, though being more familiar with the metre I had an easier time. Rhyming, iambic tetrameters are as common in Dutch as they are in English. The rhymes can be male (round/found) or female (greeting/ meeting). Because Dutch has more unstressed endings, as I pointed out before, it has more female rhymes as well. But Tolkien’s text is not without them, and I used this as an excuse to slip in some more. What also made it easier is that Tolkien’s iambs often contain metrical variation. An example from Canto II: «His face was South from the Land of Dread / whence only evil pathways led, / and only the feet of men most bold / might cross the Shadowy Mountains cold. / Their northern slopes were filled with woe,/ with evil and with mortal foe;» (BL, p. 102). Three of these six lines have two unstressed syllables between two stressed ones, instead of merely one. Sometimes, there is a pattern shift. In «Many wild and potent words he spoke» (BL, p. 118) the first iamb is preceded by an extra stressed syllable. In «Hark afar in Nargothrond» (BL, p. 144) the initial iamb is incomplete; «Gorlim Unhappy, Angrim’s son» (BL, p. 259) starts with a trochee, before shifting back to iambic verse.

All this helps to make the poem less monotonous, but it also facilitated my work, giving me a better chance to concentrate on keeping the content of the poem intact while sticking to the metre. But there were moments when I had to sacrifice some of the content regardless. A few examples: in one of the lines quoted above, «might cross the Shadowy Mountains cold», I sacrificed «cold». The passage contains eight negative words to stress the horror of the situation: dread, evil, shadowy, cold, woe, evil again, mortal and foe. To save the metre, I decided that omitting one of these words would do no harm. «Cold» seemed the least essential, as shadows in high mountains imply chill. So, my translation has evil, dread, shadow, pain, foes, deadly and malevolence, in this order.

In another case, it did not seem a big loss to omit «ever» from «ever the nightingale doth sing to Melian and to her King» (BL, p. 115), for the simple reason that it doesn’t add much. In English, the use of the simple present can refer to something done habitually or repeatedly; if it happened just once at a particular moment in time, the gerund form is used. And Tolkien’s line is not perfect: «doth» is a stopgap. But two verses previously, I had replaced Lúthien’s voice that «rung / while stars in twilight round her hung» (BL, p. 115) with Lúthien’s voice ringing «from afar in a vault of twilight stars», which overdoes the effect. But I compensated for the loss of the nonstandard form “rung”, instead of “rang”, by using an archaic form of “far” in Dutch.

One serious challenge was Thû’s interrogation of the fake Orcs in Tol-in-Gaurhoth. For seven lines in a row, this passage does not only have end rhyme, but internal rhyme as well: «Where have ye been? What have ye seen? / In Elfinesse, and tears and distress / the fire blowing and the blood flowing, / these have we seen, there have we been», etc. (BL, p. 126). I’m still proud of having pulled this off with minimal manipulation. («Jullie, vanwaar? Wat zag je daar? / Van ‘t Elfenland, en moord en brand / en bloed en leed en tranen heet, /voorwaar, voorwaar, zagen wij daar» [BL, p. 124)].)

All in all, it was a wonderful experience to translate these verses from the Lay of Leithian, like it was great to translate the early Elephant poem. For some reason, creating rhymes that work felt better than creating correct alliterations. That the original was not published along with the translation, helped, too: if you know that future readers will have ready access to an original that most of them are able to read, it can be hard to shake off the feeling they are looking over your shoulder. The editor at the Dutch publisher had no idea why the original was omitted in this case. Deciding to let sleeping dogs lie, I refrained from prying any further. Maybe Christopher changed his mind about the issue, maybe different rules applied to works set in Middle-earth; the new Tom Bombadil edition was also published without the originals. Or maybe the stingy Dutch publisher decided to “forget” it, because it would make the book 120 pages longer and more expensive to produce.

The only reviews for this book were by individual readers, and those few who mentioned the translation had either no problem with the verses or liked them. One person mused about how much work it must have been but considered the result “worth the trouble”12. That’s the kind of person you do it for.


As a translator I am not in a position to say whether Frost was right in my own case: butchers do not get to certify their own meat. Poetry may get lost in literary translation, but it may also be added in unpredictable ways. All involved have their vulnerable spots: the poet, who fears that the work of his heart, whose like he shall not make again, will be wrangled; the translator, who must serve two masters faithfully but is under suspicion of being double-tongued; monolingual readers, who have the right to receive a dependable rendition but can never be quite sure it was actually delivered. Translators seem the most powerful, able to make or break a text; that is why translators of the interpreting type need to swear an oath. I am not among these, but I believe I can say that I translated Tolkien’s poetry to the best of my knowledge and ability in the time that was given to me.


BOUMAN HANS, Hoe Gram de draak Fáfnir doodde. Tolkien over de dood van de draak Fáfnir, in «De Volkskrant», 10 juli 2009.

ALIGHIERI DANTE, De goddelijke komedie. Vertaald door Ike Cialona en Peter Verstegen, Atheneum, Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2000.

Edda. De liederen uit de Codex Regius en verwante manuscripten, Vert. Marcel Otten, Ambo, Amsterdam 1994.

BROOKS R. CLEANTH; WARREN ROBERT PENN; FROST ROBERT; RANSOM CROWE JOHN, Conversations on the Craft of Poetry, Holt Rhinehart Winston, New York 1961.

HAMMOND WAYNE G.; SCULL CHRISTINA, The Lord of the Rings. A Reader’s Companion, HarperCollins, London 2008, pb edition.

Heck, Paul van, edited by, Glorie van de Muzen, lieveling van het volk. Dante in Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden 2010, pp. 90-106.

Noorduyn Mirjam, Gek op de Edda, in «NRC Handelsblad», 31 juli 2009.

Tolkien J.R.R., Beren and Lúthien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, HarperCollins, London 2017. Dutch translation: Beren en Lúthien, Bezorgd door Christopher Tolkien, Vert. Renée Vink, De Boekerij, Amsterdam 2018.

The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, edited by Christina Scull & Wayne Hammond, HarperCollins, London 2014. Dutch translation: De avonturen van Tom Bombadil, Bezorgd door Christina Scull & Wayne Hammond, Vert. Max Schuchart en Renée Vink, De Boekerij, Amsterdam 2015.

The Fall of Arthur, edited by Christopher Tolkien, HarperCollins, London 2013. Dutch translation: Arthurs val. Bezorgd door Christopher Tolkien, Vert. Renée Vink, De Boekerij, Amsterdam 2013.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, edited by Christopher Tolkien, HarperCollins, London 2009.

Dutch translation: De legende van Sigurd en Gudrún, Bezorgd door Christopher Tolkien, Vert. Piet Verhagen en Renée Vink, Mynx, Amsterdam 2009.13

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Allen & Unwin, London 1981.

The Story of Kullervo, edited by Verlyn Flieger, HarperCollins, London 2015. Dutch translation: Het verhaal van Kullervo, Bezorgd door Verlyn Flieger, Vertaald en bewerkt door Renée Vink, De Boekerij, Amsterdam 2016.

Vink Renée, A Somewhat Bumpy Ride: Max Schuchart’s Translations of Tolkien’s Poetry in The Fellowship of the Ring, in Vink Renée, (ed.), Gleanings from Tolkien’s Garden, Uitgeverij IJmond, Beverwijk 2020, pp. 31-45.

Vredendaal Jaap van, Recensie: De Legende van Sigurd en Gudrún, in «Filter», 17:2, 2010, pp. 27-36. Online version: (accessed 16-08-2020).

1 For which Tolkien nominated E.M. Forster in 1954 and was nominated himself in 1961 by C.S. Lewis.

2 See (accessed 10-08-2020) for an in-depth discussion of this matter.

3 For more information: (accessed 09-08-2020). The concept of stress timed languages versus syllable timed languages is debated, but it does explain why alliterative Germanic poetry works the way it does.

4 French is a strongly syllable-timed language; in it, each syllable is approximately of the same length. The prosody of French verse differs radically from that of Germanic alliterative verse. (accessed 09-08-2020); see under Qualitative versus Quantitative metre. The forum where this exchange took place does no longer exist.

5 My translation from the original Dutch.

7 Fun fact: all three translators have won prizes for their translations from Italian.

9 My translation. (accessed 23-09-2020). ‘Rhyme’ is not a mistake: another word for this sort of alliterative poetry is stave rhyme.

10 Recently I came across an English translation of a Kalevala fragment in a different metre. The translator remarks that reproducing the Kalevala metre in other languages has been claimed to be impossible. (accessed 14-10-2020)

13 In those cases where both the original and the translations are quoted, the citations are taken from the translated version.

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