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Lost in Translation?
The Lord of the Rings in Russian

-- Taran

Living in remote city of Donetsk, Ukraine has its advantages and its disadvantages. One of the disadvantages is that I didn't even know they were making a Lord of the Rings movie until approximately three months before it came out. Another disadvantage is that when Episode 1 finally came to theaters in 2002, it was going to be in Russian, of which I had at that time only a limited grasp. But I'm beginning to sound like there are more disadvantages than advantages. Indeed, I wouldn't trade the 7 years of my 17 years of life in Ukraine for anything else.

I came to Ukraine in 1996. Ukraine is a very unique country, with many diverse landscapes, many of which I haven't yet seen. I've been to eastern Ukraine, where the mighty Carpathian Mountains reminded me of a mixture of the Golden Woods of Lothlorien and the Misty Mountains. Unfortunately, the city in which I live, Donetsk, is highly industrialized and when I first came, it reminded me more of the Shire after Saruman filled it with pollution and smoke. But it is changing and I believe that the change is for the better. Now there are at least 3 McDonald's!

Going to a Ukrainian movie theaters is a rather different experience than an American theater. For starters, my hometown is Denver, Colorado, and in that city alone there are probably more than 30 movie theaters. In Donetsk, which is only slightly larger in size than Denver, there are only two movie theaters that I know of. One is a nice, modern theater that stands out like a sore thumb in Donetsk (one of the signs of progress). The other dates to 1938 and is rather old and dark, because that is how buildings were made to be back during that era.

Each movie theater in America averages 8 screening rooms in which can be shown as many as up to 16 movies running simultaneously. Here, each theater usually has two screening rooms and may run up to 5 movies during a given time period. Also, in America, when a movie does well, it may be in theaters at Christmas and still be showing in July. Whereas in Donetsk, a movie is usually in theaters for a maximum of two weeks and then is replaced by another movie.

Movies premiers in Ukraine generally lag behind those in the States by a few weeks to several months. The Two Towers didn't get here until two months after it premiered in the States and Return of the King until late January 2004--and that's pretty good, considering some movies, for example Finding Nemo, didn't get here until December 2003, which is a six month delay.

Movies in general are pretty well-accepted in Ukraine. When I go to a movie, regardless of whether it is a fantasy or a comedy, the theater is usually jam-packed. But the Lord of the Rings in particular seems to attract larger numbers of people. And at the end of Return of the King, everybody cheered, which I had never seen here before (although I'm not 100% sure whether it was because they liked it or whether it was because an incredibly long movie was finally over).

I've only read a few reviews by professional critics in Ukrainian newspapers, but the ones that I've read weren't very enthusiastic. In Russian, the title of Lord of the Rings translates as "Vlastelin Kolets". One critic for The Kiev Bulletin titled his article "Vlastelin Konets" (Lord of the End) and stated: "Something absurd has conquered at the Oscars: eleven statues have been given to a reductive libretto of special-effects. [Although it is] not even the best of the trilogy, [it has] been crowned with laurels of universal praise. The libretto of Tolkien's cultic books and the expected special-effects are on the peak of the universal movie Olympics. Absurd!"

An article in The Komsomol Truth says: "But to be truthful, the basket of Oscars should've been given to Peter Jackson in 2001 for 'Fellowship of the Ring'. By essence, by implication, by production, and by tempo, the first pancake (film) was not a lump [in the batter], but appeared to be the most complete out of all three puddings (films). The motif of friendship (especially in its beginning) sounded powerfully. And in 'King' [the power was lost] and everyone is in tears, it seems, over one finger."

The Lord of the Rings books were not well known in the Former Soviet Union. During the time of the Communist regime, some of his books were available, but you usually ran into them by accident. There were no independent publishers at those times, so all the books published had to get official approval. That makes me think that the communist government was not opposed to what Tolkien wrote about in LOTR. The Chronicles of Narnia, on the other hand, came out only after the fall of the iron curtain.

Nowadays, or as far as I can tell, the Lord of the Rings books and movies are mostly popular with the Ukrainian youth. Although my Russian teacher, who is in her late forties, read most of the first book Fellowship and all of the Hobbit, enjoyed Tolkien's detailed descriptions and compared them to those of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the majority of people with whom I've spoken are youth. As in the rest of the world, the books became more popular after the movies were released.

I introduced my best friend to the books a year or so after I first came here. Here is what he says about his first impression of them: "Something weird, but in the same time interesting. They were different, not like other fantasy books that I had read. It seemed like Tolkien took all that we wanted and needed from fantasy and put it in to his Middle-Earth books. In comparison with the movies, I liked the second movie better then the second book. The other two I prefer to read than watch."

My friend Olya has read the books in both Russian and English and seen the movies only in Russian. Here is what she has said about them: "The first time I ever saw a book by Tolkien was when I was 11. It was Fellowship of the Ring. Someone I knew was reading it. Neither the name of the author, nor the title sounded familiar or interesting, so I ignored it. Later, I ran into The Smith of Wooton Major in a children's magazine. It was the first work of Tolkien that I had ever read and I fell in love with it. I was probably 14 when I read the LOTR in Russian for the first time. However, I like to stick to the book (I complain about EVERY deviation from it). If you don't compare but look at the books and movies separately, then both are fine work." A few other people said the same thing.

It is vitally important how a movie or a book is translated into Russian. In the recent movie Pirates of the Caribbean many characters speak using, shall we say, "pirate slang', with words such as "aye", "savvy", and "Davy Jones locker". When we use "aye" instead of "yes" or "savvy" instead of "is that clear", it sounds to us more sea-faring. However, the translators used the normal word for yes and the normal word for "is that clear" and etc. So, it doesn't sound as piratish in Russian as it does in English.

The same goes for the Lord of the Rings. In the English version, to show the differences between the cultures, the men of Gondor and the elves often roll the r's in words such as Sauron, Gondor, Mordor or Elrond, whereas the hobbits speak more rustically, not rolling the r's. I find that this is very effective. Yet, in Russian, all r's are rolled by everybody, so this nuance was lost, especially when the hobbits are calling each other by name.

Often in movies the translator will translate a phrase or sentence differently than what is actually said in the original. Sometimes this is done so an English idiom is easier to understand in Russian, other times it is just done for no apparent reason. Sometimes the central idea or feeling is lost. For example, in Pirates, when the pirates break into Elizabeth's home, the leader says to the butler, "Hello, chum" and shoots him. Yet in the Russian version, he says, "Dolgo zhdal!" ("We waited a long time!") and then shoots him. This is actually funnier than the original.

A few interesting translations from the Lord of the Rings are: "What's this? A ranger caught off his guard?" (in Russian: "Aren't you looking for the wrong footprints?"); "Great, now where are we going?" (in Russian: "When do we start?"). When Merry is swept off the ground to be plopped practically in Eowyn's lap and grins with very male pleasure and says, "My Lady!" the Russian translation is actually "My mistress!". That one got some major laughter in Ukrainian theaters. The name Worm-tongue in Russian is Gnil-oost, which means "Rotten Lips"; and Strider in the movie is Strannik, which means "Wanderer," and in the book it is Brodyazhnik, which means "Tramp".

The titles of the first two movies are in themselves interesting translations. Fellowship of the Ring is translated as "Bratstvo Koltsa" which literally means "Brotherhood of the Ring" and The Two Towers is translated as "Dve Kreposti", meaning "The Two Fortresses". So the ideas were certainly not lost, but just slightly changed. At the moment there are about 5 different translations of the books and each one that I've seen seems to have a different translation of the titles (I've seen 3). Olya, who has seen all five, said: "I've noticed that one translator kept all English names of characters, another tried to come up with the Russian equivalents, and the third one used the name Babbins instead of Baggins for some strange reason."

In a way, the Lord of the Rings books and movies have helped me in making friends and finding something to talk about of which I know much in a culture of which I hardly know anything. Sharing the books with my best friend and then talking about them for hours at a time has strengthened our friendship. Discussing different ideas within the books with my Russian teacher has strengthened my Russian skills.

In a way I am like Pippin in Minas Tirith, where everyone stared at or wondered at him because of his small stature. Because I was born in India, the color of my skin and that of my sister have often drawn the stares of many, since people from Asia are uncommon in Ukraine. In a way I am like Merry, when he explains to Theoden that his people are called "hobbits" and Theoden is surprised. My name, Taran (not named after the Taran in Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, but actually based on a Welsh name that means redemption), is very strange to Ukrainian tongues.

In a way I am like Frodo in a new land such as Rivendell among strangers, but a similar interest (such as the Ring) has bound me to some of them. I hope that when I leave Ukraine, I will have a better understanding of how Frodo felt in new lands and new cultures and how he found friends among them. As Gandalf the Grey says, "Even the very wise cannot see all ends."

-- Taran

If anyone would like to ask me any questions about life, culture or Lord of the Rings in Ukraine or would simply like to discuss Lord of the Rings (I love talking about the movies and the books with anyone who wants to. It is one of my favorite pastimes), feel free to write me at Taran244@hotmail.com.

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