Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lost in Translation (the German one, specifically)

From one perspective, the idea of having one’s work translated into a foreign language is a kind of small but pleasurable honor, or at least it should be. It’s always nice to see one’s own work getting wider distribution, and in a language other than one's own. But with most scholarship (scholarship usually in the form of articles), this is all one gets.  With commercial work one usually benefits financially in a modest way from the sale of translation rights. Yet for me, most translations have been a source of problems and aggravations, and this has been a recurrent situation now for over two decades.

My Annotated Hobbit was first published in 1988, with a revised edition in 2002,   The first translation was into Spanish in 1990, an edition I learned about two years afterwards. I hadn’t been informed about it, nor was I paid for it. I complained to my publisher, Houghton Mifflin, and was given what became a usual run-around, but eventually I was paid my percentage for the translation rights.  In the subsequent twenty-odd years, the process has repeated itself numerous times.  Basically, the only way I’ve ever gotten paid for translations, is to complain about them many months after the translations have appeared, and even then I’m given various excuses that it was a mistake and various promises that it won’t happen again.  Hah. This seems the modus operandi for this publisher (and its UK associate, HarperCollins).  With my books from other publishers, not only have I been involved when the translation rights were first negotiated, but I have also been paid for them in a timely fashion and was even sent copies of the published translations. All the copies I have of translations of my Annotated Hobbit have been acquired on my own, including the Spanish (1990), Italian (1991, 1997, 2000, 2004), Japanese (1997) and Hungarian (2006) editions.

In the last year I have heard of four new translations of The Annotated Hobbit, all published in 2012 (and probably contracted the year before), and none of them have shown up on my royalty statements.  These include the German, Polish, French and a new Japanese translation.  A friend kindly gave me a copy of the new Japanese translation.  I haven’t seen either the French or Polish editions, but I recently received a copy of the German translation which I ordered for myself from an online bookseller.

The first reaction—short-lived—was that Hobbit Press/Klett-Cotta had done a nice presentation for Das Große Hobbit Buch [i.e., The Big Hobbit Book].  But the more closely I’ve looked at it, the more problems I’ve seen, and some of them are (to me) very serious. First, there is a tipped in erratum page, for the last four paragraphs of chapter eleven of The Hobbit were mistakenly dropped from the book as printed. 

Most translations of The Annotated Hobbit have some differences from the original—e.g., some notes on the various English texts of The Hobbit might be cut, and since they have little relevance to the language into which the whole has been translated, one can understand.  Also, the illustrations are often moved around, re-sized, and sometimes omitted.  Such cuts may be regrettable, but there is at least an argument as to why they have been made. 

With the Das Große Hobbit Buch, the first thing I noticed was an added afterword on “The Hobbit in Germany” by the translator, Lisa Kuppler.  It’s an interesting addition, and certainly relevant for the German audience.  And the book-covers of various German editions of The Hobbit have been added to the color plates in the middle of the book.  Again, a nice addition.

But when I turned to the translation of my “Foreword” I began to notice problems.  My foreword is dated (correctly) March 2002 in German, yet in the list of abbreviations I see a number of books that weren’t published until after 2002, like John D. Rateliff’s admirable History of The Hobbit (2007).  It is given an abbreviation “History” to correspond to citations in my text.  Of course, in 2002, there were no citations to it in my text, and my in-text reference “History” referred to the “History of Middle-earth” series.  In the German translation, this has been altered to the ugly acronym which I avoid, “HoME”.  There are other changes in the foreword, but with increasing aggravation I turn the pages to find further annoyances. 

There are new footnotes sprinkled throughout the book, and new paragraphs of information added frequently to existing annotations.* And the extremely irritating fact is that these additions all appear to be by me.  They are not.  Even worse, I look at the copyright page, and see several lines of permissions for the Tolkien texts, and lines of copyright notice for the German translation, but no acknowledgement of my copyright in the annotations or any permission acknowledged for their use. Which makes me wonder whether Klett-Cotta even licensed the rights for them. 

In compiling The Annotated Hobbit, I worked closely with the Tolkien estate, and I took especial care to make the annotations accurate and uniform in approach. This German translation eviscerates that care, and puts in material that was neither seen nor considered by me. (And it’s not like I’m difficult to contact—I am in touch with a number of German Tolkien-scholars who know how to reach me, not to mention having this public blog.)  Das Große Hobbit Buch is self-evidently based on my work, yet it has been re-edited on a line-by-line basis, with additions and subtractions that are not mine, and of which I had no knowledge of previously. This seems a process far and away from what is appropriate for an act of translation, and I feel it necessary here to disavow Das Große Hobbit Buch as not representing my work. It really appalls me that a publisher and translator would take such unwonted liberties.  

*To give just one example (not untypical of what I see throughout the translation), I note that with regard to my annotation 5 to Chapter 7 (p. 165 of the 2002 US edition), which concerns Beorn and an analogue Bothvarr Bjarki in The Saga of Hrolf Kraki, the German translation has some additional sentences (not written by me) about Tolkien’s unpublished story “Sellic Spell” as a retelling of the lost fairy tale of Beowulf (which isn’t an accurate description of what “Sellic Spell” is), also telling us that the manuscript of “Sellic Spell” is now preserved in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I did write of “Sellic Spell” elsewhere in The Annotated Hobbit (annotation 9 to Chapter 15, p. 324-5 of the 2002 edition), but the translator has removed those references, and taken some of my words from there to make a point I did not want to make in an earlier position, as well as pretending to know more than is relevant. The manuscript of “Sellic Spell” is indeed in the Bodleian (a fact I would not think that needs mentioning), but as it is in the restricted papers, it is not generally accessible to the public. I have read “Sellic Spell” and presumably the translator hasn’t. So why is the translator allowed to put words in my mouth about it that I would not say? 


  1. I think you missed a major point, which can be found in the bibliography part: your »Selected Criticism of The Hobbit« is translated as »Ausgewählte deutschsprachige Sekundärliteratur zu Der Hobbit und dem Werk Tolkiens« [i.e. Selected Criticism of The Hobbit and the Works by Tolkien in German]. Your compilation was completely ignored to get a list of secondary works existing in German language. Due to the fact that there are only a few works of criticism of »The Hobbit« originally written in or translated into German the bibliography includes books and articles linked only to Tolkien but not especially to »The Hobbit« (e.g. Carpenter's biography, two books by David Day, Foster's »Guide to Middle-earth«, Fonstad's »Atlas of Middle-earth« …). So it is totally unclear why exactly these works are part of the bibliography and in this form the list is entirely useless.

    1. No, I understand what was done with the bibliography, which is minor event but still one that out of line. My major complaint is that my annotations have materials added to them that I did not write, and did not approve. This is not "translation" per se, but the rewriting of my work, by someone else, under my name, and without my input or consent.

  2. I can see why you would be miffed, Doug. I would be furious, and that is putting it mildly.

  3. I have passed on your criticism to the German publishers and I am quite sure they will be in contact with you shortly. From many years of experience with both editors and translators working for Klett-Cotta I know the publishing house to work very diligently on any translation; however, their primary contact will have been the publishing house they bought the translation rights from. I know, for example, that specimen copies had been passed on but obviously did not reach you. There is more to say but I will leave this to the German publishers; I, for one, would expect them to be willing to work on a next edition according to your wishes.

  4. Thank you for this edifying post. I mailed the French translators about it. I hope they will have a look to it and answer you appropriately. They are, as a rule, very careful but I have not yet read the french translation with such a scrutiny as yours for the german one. I can just say that they are very rigorous and that the french edition is also very nice. I say "they" even though there is only one translator because he works with an important colleague who usually oversees the translation of Tolkien works in French since a decade or something.
    Beside, may I ask you why you think "HoME" an ugly acronym ? I ask you that from a personal interest since I thought it fortunate in my researches in french for some connections between "Middle Earth" and something like a territory for the stories of the Legendarium. In my personal notes, I have attempted to draw some parallel from this basis with the german notion of "unheimlichkeit"... But I didn't go far in this way and I am just an inexperienced researcher (not a real scholar).

    1. I tend to dislike any jargonish acronyms and references, but when you start mixing upper case and lower case they look even worse. Too many people drop abbreviations into the middle of sentences, e.g., merely writing LotR ---or even TLotR--- instead of spelling out the title as "The Lord of the Rings". That's sloppiness, and it gets very confusing if you start to use too many in-sentence abbreviations. The problem of citation is a different thing---by which I mean referencing a quotation in parentheses after the quote itself. For example, "I have never had much confidence in my own work" (Letters 366). The "Letters" refers to The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, and "366" refers to the page on which that quote can be found. Using "Letters" instead of something like "LT" "LoT" or "LoJRRT" leaves the source quickly apparent, without anyone playing the acronym game. When we devised the citation abbreviations for Tolkien Studies our rule was to keep them simple and easily apparent to the reader. A good rule of thumb, I think. Thanks for writing.

  5. Dear Douglas Anderson,
    I am sorry to hear that you have not received a copy of the French translation, published in September. I will check with the French publisher as soon as possible.
    Best wishes
    Vincent Ferré