Does the study of Tolkien’s literary works count as an unusal topic for academic research?
It’s less unusual than it was a few years ago, but still there are plenty of people in the academic world, particularly in literature departments, who consider it not quite respectable. However, there was a time not so long ago when Dickens was considered too popular to be a proper topic for academics. After all, the literary canon is constantly being re-evaluated.
Has your interest in Tolkien and in linguistics developed independently or has one influenced the other?
If we’re talking about historical linguistics, or what Tolkien and his generation, including the people who taught me, always called philology, then the two have been intertwined as far back as I can remember. It’s remarkable how many people who now teach Old and Middle English came to through their interest in Tolkien. In my case, hours spent poring over the glimpses of Elvish philology in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings led to an interest in the history of the Germanic languages in general. My German teacher at school, who was also a Tolkien enthusiast to some extent, gave me my first introduction to Germanic philology, so that by the time I went to university I could already read Middle High German poetry. My interest in contemporary linguistics developed later, but I have applied it particularly to Tolkien by investigating the aspects of stylistics and translation.
What do you think of Tolkien’s passion for inventing words and languages?
No linguist could fail to be fascinated by it. The consistency of his linguistic invention in The Lord of the Rings is one of the main factors which help to compel belief. When you see the amount of time that he must have spent niggling over his Elvish languages and their relationship to one another, it’s quite breathtaking. We owe an awful lot to the people who produce Parma Eldalamberon and Vinyar Tengwar for making so many of Tolkien’s linguistic writings available to us. But of course a number of the unfamiliar words we find in Tolkien, like mathom or smial, are not purely “invented”, but are reconstituted from an earlier period of English, which is one of the features which lead readers to take an interest in Old and Middle English. Tom Shippey has pointed out the irony of the fact that, at a time when most university departments in Britain have abandoned any attempt at philology, more people than ever amongst the general public are interested in discovering the ancient texts for themselves.
What do you consider the greatest or most fascinating challenge for a translator of Tolkien's works?
This brings me on to a part of the topic of my talk in Budapest, so I’d better not give too much away in advance. But to put it fairly generally, the language of The Lord of the Rings is very carefully graded to make a distinction between those aspects of the invented world which are supposed to appear familiar to the reader and those which are exotic, and this is often difficult to convey in a different language. To give a concrete example, there is the famous difficulty of dealing with the names in the Shire. How can a translator come up with meaningful names which show the connection between the Brandybuck family (a rare but real English surname), their home Brandy Hall (which sounds like a word-play on Shandy Hall in Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy), the River Brandywine (also a real name), its Elvish equivalent Baranduin, and an ancient family ancestor, Bucca of the Marish? The answer is that it can’t be done, so the translator is left with the dreadful task of deciding which correspondences are important and which are not.
As a researcher which book by Tolkien would you say was your favourite? And as a reader?
It can be difficult to treat Tolkien’s works separately, since he tended to interlink them, often by references to his own mythology. However, there is no doubt for me that the most complex and therefore most rewarding text, both for the reader and for the researcher, is The Lord of the Rings.
What do you think about the influence of the movie versions of Tolkien’s world?
Sorry, I would have either to write a long essay or to say nothing at all on this topic. The danger for decades has been that people think they know what Tolkien is saying when in fact they are blinded, at least partly, by their own preconceptions. The film versions make the reception of Tolkien so much more complicated.