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This Monday, January 3rd, was the 130th anniversary of Tolkien’s birth. Considering that, I’m sharing this article which is an adaptation of the version I presented during the Tolkien Society Seminar “Translating and Illustrating Tolkien”, back in November 2021.
The Silmarillion, published in 1977, is the seminal work by J.R.R. Tolkien when it comes to the Elder Days of Middle-earth. Although it is not without its faults—recognized by its own editor, Christopher Tolkien, in both the introduction to the original text and in others of his father’s post mortem works that he edited—it still remains a fundamental read when introducing new readers to Middle-earth’s earliest stories, as well as providing the most complete and coherent version of the main events that occurred during the first Three Ages of the World, before what was presented in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
In Spanish, there is only one translation of such an important text among Tolkien’s oeuvre. This translation—by Rubén Masera and Luis Domènech, from 1984—has never been revised or widely criticized by Spanish-speaking Tolkien scholars, as far as I am aware.
In spite of what it may seem, considering these facts, the truth is that the Spanish text of The Silmarillion is not perfect but, on the contrary, has a plethora of issues. This article will take a look at some of the most problematic of these issues, explaining why they are problematic, as well as analyzing potential alternatives on how to solve them.
Considering these problems, it is my belief that a new Spanish translation of The Silmarillion is not only a worthy endeavor but something sorely needed in order to present readers with as an accurate and faithful version of the work as possible.
The Problem of Gender
The first, and perhaps most self-evident of the issues in The Silmarillion’s Spanish translation is that of the name of the jewels at the center of the narrative: the Silmarils or Silmarilli in Quenya.
As you may already know, in Spanish every noun has a gender, either masculine or feminine. Because of that, when translating a phrase such as “the Silmarils” into Spanish, the translator needs to decide whether to use a masculine or feminine gender for the article.
Unsurprisingly, the Spanish translators decided to go for the masculine, rendering the official translation as “Los Silmarils”. This is most probably the result of the “rule” that the Real Academia de la Lengua Española or RAE (“Royal Academy of the Spanish Language”) has, which says that the masculine gender is the default and/or neutral. So, in case of doubt about gender—such as when translating a foreign work—the masculine is preferred.
Here allow me a brief digression to explain this situation in more depth. In contrast with other languages—and as a relic of their colonialist past—the Spanish language has an institution that is dedicated to regulating what the Spanish language is supposed to be. Following an outdated “prescriptive” approach to linguistics, this institution—the RAE—still to this day tries to dictate what is right (and wrong) when speaking and writing in Spanish.
Needless to say, the RAE has come under a lot of criticism in recent times for their decisions, especially when it comes to denying recognition to the rise of alternatives to represent a true neutral gender in Spanish. But that’s another story.
Going back to the translation of “the Silmarils” as “Los Silmarils”, this decision is at least questionable from the in-fiction perspective. The Silmarils are usually referred to by Tolkien as “the Great Jewels”, which in Spanish would translate as Las Grandes Joyas. Moreover, the whole conflict between the Noldor and Morgoth because of them (and the Oath of Fëanor and the subsequent Doom of Mandos, of course) is later referred to as “The War of the Jewels” which, in Spanish, would be (and has been) translated as La Guerra de las Joyas.
If you know a little bit of Spanish, you probably have already realized that the translation of “jewel” is joya, which is a feminine noun. Considering that the rule in Spanish is that both article and noun must have the same number and gender, the correct translation of “the Silmarils” into Spanish, then, should be Las Silmarils, because “Silmaril” is here functioning as joya, a feminine noun.
This is an emblematic example of a recurring problem in the 1984 Spanish translation of The Silmarillion: a lack of understanding and/or consideration by the translators of Tolkien’s work. They don’t seem to know—or care—why Tolkien chooses certain words and or ways of expression and, what’s worse, make no effort to incorporate those choices into their translation.
Let’s see some further examples.
“Ere” Is Not the Same as “Before”
The writing style of The Silmarillion is one of its most distinguishing characteristics. It has often been compared to that of King James’ version of The Bible, because of the use of archaisms and manners of speech that are not common in Modern English.
Just as an example: Tolkien uses (and abuses) the word “ere” in the text, almost never opting for the more common alternative “before”. This is so obvious and repetitive that it is not something that can easily be ignored, but something that I can only imagine a translator would have to address as one of its first translation decisions to make.
Here is a telling example from the very beginning of the Quenta Silmarillion,
It is told among the wise that the First War began before Arda was full-shaped, and ere yet there was anything that grew or walked upon earth.
In the Spanish translation, it reads,
Se dice entre los sabios que la Primera Guerra estalló antes de que Arda estuviera del todo acabada, y antes de que nada creciera o anduviera sobre la Tierra.
Regrettably (but not unsurprisingly, at this point), the Spanish translation ignores the difficulty and original stylistic decision and simply translates “ere” as antes, a very common word in Spanish that is most often used to translate “before”, even in the same sentence! How is it possible that the translators translated two totally different words in English with the same one in Spanish?
Now, the Spanish language has plenty of synonyms and even archaisms of its own to translate “ere” as something other than “before”, so the translation choice here is perplexing, to say the least. The only reasons I can think of that would justify such careless work would be a) that the translators don’t know and/or understand the use of the word “ere” by Tolkien or b) that they have purposefully ignored the writer’s word choice. As you will see later on—with another issue—there is enough textual evidence to believe, I think, that it is most probably this latter option than the former that explains this unbelievable oversight.
Be that as it may, I believe that you will agree with me that, in ignoring Tolkien’s stylistic word choice, Masera and Domènech made The Silmarillion translation into Spanish all the poorer.
The Loss of Formal Addressing
Another related example of this loss of writing style occurs in the case of formal addressing of one character to another. This appears often throughout the texts that make up The Silmarillion, but it is never clearer than on Ainulindalë or “The Music of the Ainur”, the book’s first section.
Ainulindalë is a text that is reminiscent in style and content to The Bible‘s “Genesis” section. Because of that, it should surprise nobody that, when Tolkien chooses to have Eru Ilúvatar/God speak with the Ainur/Archangels, he chooses to employ the now archaic, Early Modern English second-person singular and plural pronouns, exemplified by “thee”, “thou”, and “ye” and their corresponding verbal conjugations.
Here’s an extended example of most of these in use in the Ainulindalë:
Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’
In this case, the Spanish translation uses the common forms for second-person pronouns.
Entonces Ilúvatar habló, y dijo: —Poderosos son los Ainur, y entre ellos el más poderoso es Melkor; pero sepan él y todos los Ainur que yo soy Ilúvatar; os mostraré las cosas que habéis cantado y así veréis qué habéis hecho. Y tú, Melkor, verás que ningún tema puede tocarse que no tenga en mí su fuente más profunda, y que nadie puede alterar la música a mi pesar. Porque aquel que lo intente probará que es sólo mi instrumento para la creación de cosas más maravillosas todavía, que él no ha imaginado.
In the first three instances, the translators implied the use of the form vos, which is the equivalent of “thou”, “thee”, and “ye” in Spanish. The problem is that these formal forms are now common in Spanish from Spain, so Spanish-speaking readers cannot discern a difference between the way Ilúvatar speaks and any other character in The Silmarillion.
In this case, I consider that a great solution would be to translate all the text in Neutral Spanish—i.e., a Spanish that uses tú and ustedes (and derived forms) for the second-person pronouns singular and plural, respectively—and save these forms, vos, and vosotros, which are archaic and in disuse in all Spanish-speaking countries that are not Spain (the immense majority), for these instances in which Tolkien employs the archaic forms for stylistic reasons.
The last archaic form in the paragraph, “thou”, is grossly mistranslated by Masera and Domènech by using tú, which is the most common form of second-person pronoun in Spanish. This totally ruins the style of the paragraph and makes it so Ilúvatar speaks formally to all the Ainur, but disrespects Melkor or treats him especially warmly, which is most emphatically not Tolkien’s intention in the original.
This is probably the best example of how an obvious mistake changes the meaning/tone of the original which, in my opinion, is the capital sin one cannot commit as a translator.
Of course, this is just an example, but there are many more in the text, specifically any time “thee”, “thou”, and “ye” come into play.
Still, there is another more disturbing tendency in Masera and Domènech’s translation of The Silmarillion: that of just plain adding text to the translation that wasn’t there in the original.
Introducing New Text
All of the translation issues discussed before can be explained as either oversight or decisions which, even if I don’t agree with, I could understand. But when the translators start adding text that wasn’t there in the original for no apparent reason, then I cannot help but denounce their work as shoddy, careless, and even unethical.
Here is a telling example right at the beginning of the text.
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.
The translation, on the other hand, reads,
En el principio estaba Eru, el Único, que en Arda es llamado Ilúvatar; y primero hizo a los Ainur, los Sagrados, que eran vástagos de su pensamiento, y estuvieron con él antes que se hiciera alguna otra cosa.
As you may have already noticed, the beginning of the Spanish translation introduces a phrase that isn’t there in the original: En el principio, which means “In the beginning” in English. There’s no explanation or reason why Masera and Doménech stated anywhere that could at least explain—if not excuse—the translators introducing material in their translation that was most emphatically not there in the original.
The only reason I can think of why they did this is to imitate The Bible’s “Genesis” section which begins, at least in the Spanish version, with the same words: En el principio. Even if they did so because they were trying to emphasize the connection between Ainulindalë and “Genesis”, nothing justifies this unwarranted intrusion and, dare I say, lack of work ethics.
All of the aforementioned issues in the only Spanish translation of The Silmarillion, when considered as a whole, create a situation in which I am no longer comfortable recommending it to Spanish-speaking readers. I am now distrustful of The Silmarillion we have as Spanish speakers, and I am wary that someone reading it will get a wrong impression of what Tolkien was actually trying to say, thanks to the faulty work the translators did.
Because of this, it is my evaluation that this translation, perpetrated by Masera and Doménech in 1984—and that has never been revised or edited—is a text that must be retired and replaced by a new version as soon as possible. It is my hope that a new translation could not only solve the problems hereby presented, but also improve the general style of the text.
Although some could argue that if such a translation followed some of my preferences—such as translating English archaisms for Spanish archaisms—could create a text that is less accessible, I would argue that doing so would be in the spirit of remaining faithful to the original. Moreover, I would go as far as to say that it is better to have a more challenging but respectful text than an easier to read one. This is so because, in essence, an easier-to-read text is in reality a simplified version of the original, which loses many (if not all) of the intricacies the author intended.