A Tolkienian approach to translation

I’ve been reading Forest of a Thousand Daemons, which is an English translation by Wole Soyinka of the Yoruba novel Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀ by D. O. Fagunwa. I was quite interested in Soyinka’s approach to translating the names of some of the creatures from Yoruba folklore that appear in the story.

These beings who inhabit Fagunwa’s world demand at all costs and by every conceivable translator’s trick to be preserved from the common or misleading associations which substitutes such as demons, devils, or gods evoke in the reader’s mind. At the same time, it is necessary that they transmit the reality of their existence with the same unquestioning impact and vitality which is conveyed by Fagunwa in the original.

Fagunwa’s beings are not only the natural inhabitants of their creator’s haunting-ground; in Yoruba, they sound right in relation to their individual natures, and the most frustrating quality of Fagunwa for a translator is the right sound of his language. This most especially has been responsible for my resorting to inventive naming ceremonies for some of his unfamiliar beings. The other solution, that the names remain in their original, is not so satisfactory, as the names no longer possess the same non-exotic validity in a new lingual surrounding.

Thus, the ẹbọra, ewele, egbere, and eseku of the original become bog-trolls, dewilds, gnoms, and kobolds, respectively — all being species of ghommid, an umbrella term for those creatures in Yoruba folklore which correspond roughly to our ogres, goblins, elves, and such.

This is a rather motley onomasticon — some plain English terms (troll, kobold), some slightly modified (gnom, without the final e), and some pure inventions (dewild, ghommid) which nevertheless do sound more English than Yoruba. It is in this respect that it reminds me of Tolkien’s work. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are presented as being translations from a language quite unrelated to English, but the names of various creatures and even individual characters therein have been Englished to varying degrees to give them what Soyinka would call the requisite “non-exotic validity.” (Samwise Gamgee the hobbit, for example, is supposed to have “really” been called Banazîr Galbasi the kuduk. It is of course essential that Sam not seem at all exotic!) Like Soyinka, Tolkien employs a mixture of English (elf, dwarf, goblin, troll), modified English (oliphaunt) and vaguely English-sounding inventions (hobbit, orc, warg)Tolkien even goes so far as to give Old English names to the Rohirrim and Norse names to the dwarves, because those languages are supposedly related to English in the same way that the “actual” languages of the Rohirrim and dwarves were related to Westron.

Of course Tolkien’s work is not really a translation at all, but I’ve often wondered how feasible it would be to apply his principles to an actual translation from a foreign language. Forest of a Thousand Daemons gives some hint of what this would be like, though Soyinka is not as thoroughgoing as Tolkien. (The main character, for example, still bears the highly exotic and therefore unmemorable name Akara-ogun.) To the extent that Tolkienian principles are followed, though, they do seem to work. The gnoms and dewilds and other ghommids seem to be at home in the forest in a way that ewele and egbere would not be, and that makes the story feel more real. And while it would hardly be fair to expect Soyinka to be as gifted a namesmith as the incomparable Tolkien, I think ghommid is a fine piece of work. Soyinka doesn’t spell out his etymological reasoning the way Tolkien sometimes does, but the word was surely inspired by the Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰm̥mṓ, whence also hominid, and effectively conveys the uncanny not-quite-human-ness of these creatures.

One thought on “A Tolkienian approach to translation

  1. Pingback: The reality of the past (and the passing) | From the Narrow Desert

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