Åke Ohlmarks (1911—1984) was a Swedish scholar and author. He wrote several books, mostly about Norse culture and religion, and also translated the Edda, Shakespeare, The Qur'an, The Divine Comedy, and Nostradamus into Swedish.
He is mostly known, though, for his "Blind Idiot" Translation of The Lord of the Rings. How is it that an experienced translator like Ohlmarks can fail so badly?
- He was unfamiliar with the fantasy genre: (In 1959, most people were.) Given that a work is more than the sum of its words, understanding the genre is fundamental to a successful translation.
- He just didn't like the book much: He complained about it to the publisher, calling it childish and boring. You probably can't do justice to a work if you don't appreciate it.
- He was careless and negligent: He didn't bother to read ahead or keep good track of names and concepts, and also didn't go back to fix errors later. This resulted in premature translations ("Lord Denethor" became "King Denethor" before it was made clear that Gondor had no king) and inconsistencies ("The Entwash" was first translated as "Loopy Creek", then as "Muddy River", and finally as "Entstream" when he had learned about Ents). No translator should work like this on a novel-sized work (of course, given a really inflated novel and a very tight deadline, it still happens; Ohlmarks seems to have had ample time, though).
- He had problems understanding English: No, really (he was better in other languages). He often mixed up simple words and was apparently unfamiliar with many common idioms. Given that Tolkien's text often goes beyond the simple and common, using carefully selected words and phrases to convey the nuances of culture and history, it's no wonder Ohlmarks was stumped. His lack of command of the language led to a number of jarring homophone errors such as "lair" being translated as "thigh" ("lår" in Swedish). It goes without saying that a translator needs to have sufficient knowledge of both the source and target languages to be able to translate well.
Another problem, unrelated to the Blind Idiot-ness of the translation, was the total clash of style. Whereas Tolkien wrote in a sparse and unaffected style, meant to emulate Norse epics, Ohlmarks felt the need to spice up the text with Purple Prose to make it look more exciting and readable. Ohlmarks' contributions, in all fairness, were usually of quite high quality... but the fact remains that they are in Ohlmark's style, not Tolkien's. It is said that on his bad days, Ohlmarks was an idiot and on his good days he was a genius. Unfortunately, Sagan om ringen (Swedish LOTR translation) has more than its fair share of his bad days.
Here are a few examples of the errors, which are intended to show how even very small mistakes can transform a text's meaning completely: this is the very essence of "Blind Idiot" Translation
. His text has been back-translated to English as faithfully as possible, and we are indebted to Martin Andersson for his compilation of translation errors
(in Swedish), from which we picked the following pearls (see also 
(in English) where he makes more or less the same points as in this article).
|"Then you are going to fly," said Pippin. "You won't cut straight on foot anywhere in this country."||"Then you are fleeing," said Pippin. "You don't take shortcuts in this land otherwise."|| |
|You do not know your own skill in healing||Can't you use your own healing skill to complete the cure?||Théoden to Gandalf|
|What's more, if you turn over a new leaf, and keep it turned, I'll cook you some taters one of these days.||What is it to you, if you pick a fresh leaf, and hold it in your hand — Then I'll cook you some taters one of these days.||Sam to Sméagol|
|An hour long prepared approaches||A whole hour I've investigated how to get there||Aragorn|
|Is Saruman the master or the Great Eye?||Is Saruman not the master of the Great Eye?|| |
|It is likely enough||It is not likely|| |
|Not in half a thousand years have they forgotten their grievance||In half a thousand years they have forgotten their grievance|| |
|Gandalf [made a pause,] getting the better of his mirth||Gandalf [paused to] give free rein to his mirth|| |
|I don't suppose we could give him the slip now anyway.||I don't think he'll be able to escape us now.|| |
|with her last strength [Éowyn] drove her sword between crown and mantle||with his last strength [Merry] drove his sword between crown and mantle||In Ohlmarks' translation, Merry killed the Witch-King, not Éowyn.|
|[A Nazgûl is] in charge at the Tower now.||[A Nazgûl is] in the service of the Tower now.|| |
|"It comes from Mordor"||"I come from Mordor"|| |
|[An arrow] passed through Aragorn's hood||[An arrow] passed through Aragorn's hauberk|| |
|So old that almost I feel young again, as I have not felt since I journeyed with you children.||So old that almost I feel young again, as I have not felt since I journeyed with my children.||Leading countless Swedish readers to believe Legolas has kids.|
|in which the Firstborn roamed while Men still slept||in which the Firstborn One mooed while the children of Men still slept||The Swedish verb "to moo" is "råma".|
|What's happened to your precious Nazgûl? Has he had another mount shot under him?||What's happened to your precious Nazgûl? Has he perched on another mountain?|| |
|Seven stars and seven stones, and one white tree.||Three stars and seven stones, and the whitest tree you could see.|| |
|Two hours swiftly passed, and now the king sat upon his white horse||Two swift horses passed, and then the king mounted his own horse|| |
|Stripped, eh?' said Gorbag. 'What, teeth, nails, hair, and all?'||Whipped, heh?' said Gorbag. 'What, with teeth, nails, hair and everything else?'|| |
Tolkien's reactionJ. R. R. Tolkien
was able to read Swedish with the help of a dictionary, and following the disappointing first (Dutch) translation he had asked the Swedish publisher for a list of translated names. He was unhappy with Ohlmarks' work and tried to reason with him, but Ohlmarks wouldn't budge. To avoid similar problems in the future, Tolkien wrote a translation guide which later translations to other languages profited from. When The Silmarillion
was published, Christopher Tolkien specifically asked for another translator, and the Tolkien estate and the Swedish Tolkien fandom carried on a low-key feud with Ohlmarks until his death. One of the lowlights of this was a screed Ohlmarks wrote wherein he accused Swedish Tolkien fans of being Satanists under the control of the Tolkien estate in Oxford. In 2004 a new translation of the books was finally made. Swedish LotR
fans now need to decide whether to be relieved that the errors are, at long last, corrected or to feel that They Changed It, Now It Sucks!