Tolkien’s Translator

Finland’s Gandalf is real. She forges fantastic fireworks, the like of which were never seen before. They dazzle the locals who’ve never been over the next hill – or heard of anyone under it.

“You shall not pass!” she cries, staff aloft. “I am a servant of the secret fire, wielder of the flame of Finnish. You cannot pass.” That’s far more than enough doggerel. But the battle is real here (see the recent debate on YLE, the Finnish BBC). For other languages, Anglicisms can be as ghastly as Balrogs.

Finland’s Gandalf is real. Instead of a pale grey horse, she rides a Vespa, a present for finishing her A levels. With her girlfriend on the back, she rode it to a party. There, she met a university lecturer who had been asked to translate a book about elves and dwarves…

That student in the sixties, Kersti Juva, ended up translating the Lord of the Rings. Fifty years later, she tells us how it happened in Tolkienin tulkkina: Tarina Sormusten herran suomentamisesta (SKS 2021, Tolkien’s Translator: The Tale of Finnicizing the Lord of the Rings).

The Gandalf comparison is not an exaggeration. Finns adore Juva for her fireworks. Orcs are unpleasant enough, but stick an umlaut on them – örkit – and they sound repellent. There wasn’t no word for them in Finnish before Juva, but hers is more evocative than the English. She says herself that when she went to Finncon in 2019, she was treated “like a bishop in the vicarage” (she was, I was there). She brought the world of Middle Earth into a new vernacular.

It takes a village to translate a book. Juva’s first chapter takes you back to the late sixties, where she got the gig that led to 50 years translating English literature. Another translator, Panu Pekkanen, did the verse. Her dad advised her on botanical terms. Juva includes phrases from her translation manuscripts with line-by-line improvements. These come from two dear colleagues: Alice Martin and that lecturer at the party, Eila Panannen.

Sometimes the village had too many cooks. The first volume is entitled the Knights of the Ring in Finnish, (Sormusten ritarit). Did the publisher find it more romantic? Juva’s choice for the Fellowship was Sormusten seurue (lit. the travelling companions or Company of the Ring), which alliterates. Tolkien himself knew some Finnish, of course, as he’d used it to create Elvish. Shocked by the Swedish version, he sent meticulous instructions to his later translators. But he didn’t check to see if Juva followed them. And by the time the Fellowship appeared in Finnish, he was no longer with us.

Juva devotes the bulk of her book to the people and places of Middle Earth, and the decisions behind their names. As Tolkien instructed, if the sound worked, she kept it with Finnish spelling (Took is Tuk) or left it (Rivendell is Rivendell). But Baggins is Reppuli (reppu is a rucksack), a Proudfoot is a Jalojalka (lit. noblefoot), and the Paths of the Dead are Kuolleiden Kulkutiet (lit. the ways the dead walk, again with that alliteration and expanding the meaning). Shadowfax is Hallavaharja (lit. pale grey mane), which Juva saw in a 1938 translation of the pale horse in the Book of Revelation. She can remember the birth of many names as if it was yesterday. Strider is Konkari, which sounds like sankari (hero) and “came to me mid-stroke in the swimming pool.” Some readers found all this wordsmithing too much to digest in one sitting. But the name section is crammed with delicious titbits. More than enough for second breakfast, elevenses, and beyond afternoon tea.

If you’re a die-hard Tolkien fan who can quote reams of the text (and mangle them at will), you will love this book. Juva brings you back into that world, but along a new path. If you are a translator, or love words, you’ll find her process and decisions fascinating.

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