I happened upon a university essay on the Swedish translations of The Lord of the Rings, which sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole of articles, analyses and letters. The original Swedish translation is, to put it mildly, rather infamous and the translator Åke Ohlmarks was a bit of a character (and later a complete nutter).
Most of the infamy comes from the many, many outright mistakes Ohlmarks made. The most well known is that the battle against the Nazgûl Lord is so confused that it reads as if it’s Merry who kills him rather than Eowyn, but the text is littered with dubious or just wrong translations. He frequently translated idioms straight to Swedish in ways that made no sense, and there are things like “the Firstborn roamed” [the forests] where he seems to have translated “roamed” into the Swedish “råmade”, which is the sound a cow makes, essentially saying “the Firstborn brayed/mooed” [in the forest]. Another pearl is translating “mount” into “mountain” when it referred to a riding animal.
And he took immense liberties with the language, extending and rewriting entire passages to make them more dramatic and descriptive. The style is very different from Tolkien’s fairly dry, declarative writing, and this is not an occasional thing; the entire text feels much more painterly and intricate to the point where it’s more adaptation than a straight translation.
Tolkien was not happy with it (the second translation made after the Dutch), especially the liberal changes to names seems to have annoyed him, and it wasn’t made better by the fact that Ohlmarks wrote a short biography of him for the book where he loosely speculated and outright made things up about both Tolkien himself and his books.
A couple of excerpts from Tolkien’s letters:
228 From a letter to Allen & Unwin 24 January 1961
Who is Who is not a safe source in the hands of foreigners ignorant of England. From it Ohlmarks has woven a ridiculous fantasy. Ohlmarks is a very vain man (as I discovered in our correspondence), preferring his own fancy to facts, and very ready to pretend to knowledge which he does not possess. He does not hesitate to attribute to me sentiments and beliefs which I repudiate. Among them a dislike of the University of Leeds, because it was ‘northern’ and no older than the Victorian seventies. This is impertinent and entirely untrue. If it should come to the knowledge of Leeds (fortunately unlikely) I should make him apologize.
229 From a letter to Allen & Unwin 23 February 1961
I now enclose a copy and version of Ohlmarks’ nonsense. In the hope that you may think it justifies my annoyance. I have not looked at his second outburst. I feel I cannot just now take anymore.
It is hard to believe that the deep-rooted native-born hobbit from Middle South England … would feel very much at home [in Leeds]. Inauguration into the Anglo-Saxon chair in Oxford was for him like coming home again from a trial expedition up to the distant ‘Fornost’.
This is O[hlmarks]‘s first serious piece of presumptuous impertinence. … I was devoted to the University of Leeds, which was very good to me, and to the students, whom I left with regret. The present students are among my most attentive readers, and write to me (especially about the Appendices). If O’s nonsense was to come to the notice of the University it would give offence, and O would have to publicly apologize. As for ‘Fornost’, a glance at the book would show that it is comparable rather to the Kings’ mounds at Old Uppsala than to the city of Leeds!
Here [in Mordor] rules the personification of satanic might Sauron (read perhaps in the same partial fashion [as other identifications Ohlmarks has made] Stalin).
There is no ‘perhaps’ about it. I utterly repudiate any such ‘reading’, which angers me. The
situation was conceived long before the Russian revolution. Such allegory is entirely foreign to my thought. The placing of Mordor in the east was due to simple narrative and geographical necessity, within my ‘mythology’. The original stronghold of Evil was (as traditionally) in the North; but as that had been destroyed, and was indeed under the sea, there had to be a new stronghold, far removed from the Valar, the Elves, and the sea-power of Númenor.
There are reminiscences of journeys on foot in his own youth up into the Welsh border-regions.
As Bilbo said of the dwarves, he seems to know as much of my private pantries as I do myself. Or pretends to. I never walked in Wales or the marches in my youth. Why should I be made an object of fiction while still alive?
204 From a letter to Rayner Unwin 7 December 1957
The enclosure that you brought from Almqvist &c. was both puzzling and irritating. A letter in Swedish from fil. dr. Åke Ohlmarks, and a huge list (9 pages foolscap) of names in the L.R. which he had altered. I hope that my inadequate knowledge of Swedish — no better than my kn. of Dutch, but I possess a v. much better Dutch dictionary! — tends to exaggerate the impression I received. The impression remains, nonetheless, that Dr Ohlmarks is a conceited person, less competent than charming Max Schuchart though he thinks much better of himself. In the course of his letter he lectures me on the character of the Swedish language and its antipathy to borrowing foreign words (a matter which seems beside the point), a procedure made all the more ridiculous by the language of his letter, more than 1/3 of which consists of ‘loan-words’ from German, French and Latin: thriller-genre being a good specimen of good old pure Swedish.
Before the German translation Tolkien wrote Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings where he set out rules and advice for future translators, along with a few jabs at the Swedish (and Dutch) translations.
Tolkien occasionally got things wrong as well though. For example:
From Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings
Greyhame. Modernized form of Rohan grēg-hama ‘greycoat’. By-name in Rohan of Gandalf. Since both Grēghamaand Greyhame would probably be unintelligible in a language of translation, whereas at least the Grey-is meant to be intelligible to readers, it would be right, I think, to translate this epithet: that is, to represent Éomer as translating its sense into the Common Speech (II 37). So the Dutch version has correctly Grijsmantel;but the Swedish wrongly gråhamn ‘grey phantom’. In German it might be Graumantel?
“Hamn” here does not mean phantom but more something like “visage” or “shape”. Not perfectly accurate as a literal translation but it certainly works.
Mirkwood. A name borrowed from ancient Germanic geography and legend, chiefly preserved in Old Norse myrkviðr, though the oldest recorded form is Old German mirkiwidu. Not preserved in English, though Mirkwoodis now used to represent Old Norse myrkviðr. Translate by sense, if possible using elements of poetic or antique tone. The Dutch version has Demster-wold. The Swedish has Mörkmården, the last part of which I do not understand, since the only mård known to me is the name of the fur-animal ‘marten’ (Danish maar). The translators of Norse mythology into German or Scandinavian languages must have desired something better?
“Mården” does indeed mean " the marten" in modern Swedish but the root Ohlmarks used comes from “marþer”, which means something like “forest on harsh ground”. It is an excellent translation and with the alliterration it sounds very good in Swedish.
And here’s the problem with condemning Ohlmark’s translation: Outright mistakes aside it’s a beautifully written text in its own right. It’s not faithful to the original but it’s also not bad; in some ways it’s actually more engaging to read than the original English. A lot of the names are ingeniously translated and sound very natural in Swedish, and all the characters have distinct voices. Places and events are described in a very vivid and painterly way. Some reviewiers praised the translation as sounding like it was written in native Swedish rather than being a translation, and it really does. Ohlmarks may have been a prick but he knew how to write beautiful Swedish.
When the movies came out a new translation was comissioned, to be done by Erik Andersson, and it was released in 2005. I’ve only read the first book (I’m not as into LotR now as in my early teens) and it reads almost like an opposite of the old translation. The language often feels even more dry than Tolkien’s, and it’s almost slavishly faithful to his original text. Andersson released some diary entries from his work and it’s clear that he was trying to stick very closely to Tolkien’s wishes in Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings and was anguishingy tying himself in knots to accomplish it.
And it turns out that sometimes that’s a detriment no matter how hard you try. As much as it’s laudable to respect the wishes of an author, Tolkien didn’t know how Swedish sounds to Swedes, so when he stipulated that:
Baggins. Intended to recall ‘bag’—compare Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug in The Hobbit --and meant to be associated (by hobbits) with Bag End (that is, the end of a ‘bag’ or ‘pudding bag’ = cul-de-sac), the local name for Bilbo’s house. (It was the local name for my aunt’s farm in Worcestershire, which was at the end of a lane leading to it and no further). Compare also Sackville-Baggins.The translation should contain an element meaning ‘sack, bag’.
…it created a problem. Ohlmarks simply translated “Bilbo Baggins” to the Swedified “Bilbo Bagger” and left it at that. It has nothing to do with bags or sacks but it preserves the allitteration and sounds fine. Andersson, striving to respect Tolkien (and Tolkien fanboys) was only left with terrible options for incorporating bag: Påse, Pung, Säck.
Pung is right out as that is also used to mean scrotum, and some variation on “Bilbo Ballsack” wouldn’t have gone over well. Påse just sounds bad and has connotations with plastic bags and the Swedish word for mumps. So he was left with Säck, and settled on the name Secker, which is better but only marginally. It sounds about as good as calling him Bilbo Sacker in English. Of course this created a problem with the Sackville-Bagginses, who had to be renamed to Kofferdi-Seckerna (“The Coffer-Sackers”?).
There are lots of examples like that, where the names and language are much more faithful to the original text but just plain sound kind of ugly in Swedish. So we’re left with two translations, the latter being a much better and more faithful translation but kinda boring with sometimes ugly names and prose, and the first being a lot more beautiful and intresting but deepy flawed. I found it an interesting example of different extremes of philosophies for translating and perhaps a bit of a cautionary tale about deifying and respecting great authors too much.
I said at the start that Ohlmarks became a nutter. For a long time he was an enthusiastic promoter of Tolkien in Swedish and translated more of his work, and even wrote a quite flattering biography of him. Despite their arguments and differences he seems to have felt some kinship with Tolkien. Something changed after Tolkien’s death and he fell out quite severely with Christopher Tolkien and the estate, to the point where they would only allow a Swedish translation of The Silmarillion on the condition that Ohlmarks was not involved in any way.
This seems to have turned him very sour and he wrote two more books about Tolkien, one about his conflict with Christopher Tolkien and another called “Tolkien and the Black Magic” in which he accused “Tolkienists” of being a cult engaged in sex orgies, narcotics, organised crime and devil worship, among other things. He also accused the Swedish Tolkien Society of trying to burn down his house and suggested Tolkien was a Nazi. Perhaps worth mentioning here is that Ohlmarks accepted a position at Griefswald University between 1941-1945, an… interesting time to go to Germany, although there’s no evidence he had any Nazi sympathies and German colleagues have said he fought to maintain acedemic integrity there.
Wow, that turned out long. I wrote it mostly to gather my own thoughts. Please resume normal operations.