Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Reading Tolkien in Chinese

Academic journal article Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts

Reading Tolkien in Chinese

Article excerpt

"To imagine a language," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, "means to imagine a form of life" (8). One of the strengths of J. R. R. Tolkien's works is the sense of a different form of life present in a language which despite its mannerisms is still ours. To make that form of life convincingly different meant, for instance, editing out explicit Christian references, though the stories are rooted in a Christian sensibility. The stories speak to us today without including obvious signs of modernity. Despite the jarring description of Gandalf's dragon rocket passing over Bilbo's party "like an express train" (Fellowship 27), Tolkien sustains the writer's conceit that we are reading (in English) words which could never have been spoken in English. A translation, such as Tolkien's work rendered into Chinese, inevitably evokes yet another form of life, with another set of exclusions. A Chinese translator has to exclude not only express trains but also Great Walls.

The "translation" from Tolkien's imagined world to his actual written words is in some ways like, and in other ways unlike, a translation from English to Chinese. Tolkien's words certainly evoke a vast world beyond the finite set of words he actually wrote down, and we might feel how much was "lost in translation" from that world to those words, but this feeling is surely an illusion. His words are not a flawed reproduction of the imagined world. The words constitute the world. So too, when we compare a translation to the original text, the inevitable sense of inaccuracy or loss of meaning should not obscure the new world that has been brought into being by this new set of words, in this other language. For Chinese readers, reading only the translations, the world in which Gandalf speaks Chinese is the real Middle Earth.

Aspects of a Chinese form of life subtly re-construe and reframe the narrative and create a new Middle Earth. This article concerns that different Arda, with particular focus on the lexicons of unreal beings, the afterlife, and the creation of the world.

The Translations

Mandarin Chinese translations of Tolkien's works are surprisingly recent. Two translations of The Hobbit, three of The Lord of the Rings, one of The Silmarillion, and one of The Children of Hurin, have appeared in Taiwan, but only since 1996; and only in 2001 was a Chinese translation of all five works published in the People's Republic. Because Chinese characters were simplified in Mainland China but not in Taiwan during the 1950s and 1960s, Taiwanese editions cannot simply be sold in Mainland China. I will occasionally refer to the Taiwan translations, but my focus here is the Mainland edition. Each of those five volumes has a different translator, probably to speed up the release and capitalize on the films.

I bought my set in a bookstore near Beijing University. The books were on sale sealed with shrink-wrap, to discourage extended in-store reading by children, which is a normal practice in China. Upon my removing the wrapper of The Hobbit, out fell two identical loose book covers, obviously included so that the reader could hold them in place over the book's real covers and appear to be reading a very serious book, not some frivolous fantasy novel. In this case, naughty schoolchildren would appear to be reading a book called Marxism: Principles for the Study of Political Economy.

Setting aside this re-covery, the entire opus is framed in a new way. As all readers know, The Hobbit was published first, in 1937; The Lord of the Rings later, in 1954-1955, as a set of three volumes; and The Silmarillion, though submitted for publication as early as 1937, only posthumously in 1977. The Chinese edition, on the other hand, presents all five--Silmarillion, Hobbit, LOTR, in that order--as a single set called Mojie, "Magic Ring." This was hardly Tolkien's plan, though "The Magic Ring" was apparently his first draft title for LOTR. Jie straightforwardly means ring. …

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