Interview with Anders Stenström (Beregond), Swedish Tolkienist

Eduardo Boheme

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Sweden occupies a peculiar place in Tolkien’s readership. His first book ever to be translated was into Swedish: The Hobbit, famously translated by Tore Zetterholm as Hompen in 1947.

The Lord of the Rings was also translated relatively early, by the controversial Åke Ohlmarks, whose translation was published in 1959–1961. It was precisely his translation, along with the Dutch one, that prompted an upset Tolkien to write the Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings, aiming to guide the translation of proper names in the book. In 2004–2005, The Lord of the Rings was retranslated by Erik Andersson and Lotta Olsson, who tackled the poems of the book.

Our interviewee today is the Swedish Tolkienist Anders Stenström, known to everyone as Beregond. Besides his many published articles on Tolkien and his editing of the Arda and Arda Philology journals, Beregond is also the translator of Bilbo’s Last Song (2014) and The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (2017), not to mention his consultancy work on the translation of The Lord of the Rings itself.

Please, tell us about your story as a reader of Tolkien’s works.

I have been a Tolkien reader since before I was ten; it was Ohlmarks’s Swedish translation of The Lord of the Rings that I encountered (The Two Towers first, as it happened, and The Fellowship of the Ring only after I had reached the end of The Return of the King). A sister gave me the one-volume British paperback for my thirteenth birthday. The Silmarillion was published just before I reached twenty, so I have had the fortune to read that and all the following posthumous volumes one by one as they came out. Since I have also been involved in Tolkien fandom and scholarship this interest has very much shaped my life.

In your article Tolkien in Swedish Translation, published in 2004, you regretted that Tolkien’s Letters had not been translated into Swedish. They had to wait another 13 years for a translation, prepared by yourself. Could you comment about the process of translating this complex book?

What I saw as the greatest challenge, and I dare not say to what extent I succeeded, was to make a Swedish text that sounds like it could have been written by the brilliant, caring, opinionated, humorous, learned, busy twentieth-century professor, father and author that is so present and alive in the original. One aspect of that is the discernible shift from the young writer of the first few letters to the more familiar Tolkien in the bulk of the book; I actually tackled those first letters last.

One cannot talk about Sweden and Tolkien without mentioning Åke Ohlmarks. Despite having translated many of Tolkien’s books, after Christopher turned him down, he started maligning the author himself, Christopher, the Swedish Tolkien Societies, and fans… In your 2004 article, you even mention you heard Ohlmarks claim that Tolkien had not in fact written The Lord of the Rings, but reworked a manuscript by E.V. Gordon. Why were Ohlmarks’s attacks so vicious? Was it to cause sensation or do you think he really believed his claims?

Tolkien said it well in Letter 228: “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.” My impression is that the preference of his own fancy involved a great deal of self-convincing; he quickly persuaded himself that things he said were true. He was a combative person, who would lash out at those he felt slighted him.

Even though the author himself criticized Ohlmarks’s translation, it reigned for more than five decades in Sweden until the 2004–2005 retranslation. What do you think explains the delay? In general, what shortcomings of the old translation do you think were successfully addressed?

No doubt the publishers saw no reason for a new translation as long as the old one sold well enough. A new translation creates new interest, but it is also an investment. The opportune moment arrived when the interest it would create could be put on top the interest created by the movies.

Apart from various mistranslations, Ohlmarks was guilty of adding lavish colour to Tolkien’s descriptions, and of annoying inconsistencies (for instance, many Shire places and families that appear in The Fellowship of the Ring get a new translation when they reappear in The Return of the King, but sometimes translations change over the span of a few pages). Andersson’s translation avoids all these errors.

In his Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien suggests some Swedish translations. Were they all adopted by Erik Andersson or were there instances in which Tolkien’s suggestions were not that good?

Your question made me look through “Nomenclature” again, and while there are many assessments of translations by Ohlmarks I cannot find many independent suggestions. Brännavin for Brandywine is one that is good, but a little askew; Andersson’s Brännevin is a natural-sounding version of the construction. Snöbrunn for Snowbourne is one that does not work; brunn in Swedish means ‘(constructed) well’, never ‘stream, brook’.

So Andersson did not adopt all of Tolkien’s suggestions. In particular, some terms that Tolkien says can be left untouched (like smial) were instead translated by philological construction of Swedish parallells (so smial :: smuga), which I also think was the right choice.

In Sweden, as in Brazil, The Lord of the Rings was translated and retranslated after some decades, thus creating two different generations of readers. In your country, where Tolkien Societies have been active for many decades, do you notice the participation of younger people? Is there a healthy “rivalry” between generations?

The new translations have not created a new separate wave of fans. As elsewhere, Jackson’s movies to some extent did that, but in the circles I move in I think that the 21st century fans have merged with us from the 20th century. But it is hard to know what happens in the vast sphere of social media — perhaps a lot of young people are hanging out on their own somewhere where I do not see them.

Some of Tolkien’s academic articles, such as English and Welsh, have been translated very early in Sweden. Do you think the Swedish readership had an appetite for this kind of work? What about Tolkien’s readership in general, do you think it has been growing over the years? Concerning the academic environment, has Tolkien been a common object among researchers?

Tolkien’s books are no longer on the top list for library loans as they used to be thirty years ago. On the other hand, they certainly have an established presence in the collective consciousness; I hear casual references to Tolkien in all kinds of contexts. Sweden’s largest newspaper will apparently devote several pages to cover the start of Amazon’s Rings of Power (I know because one writer asked me to look and comment on his article).

The collection of translated articles you mention has not had a second edition, so I fear the demand was not enormous; here as elsewhere it is the fictional texts that attract a wider readership. There have been a number of academic works on term-paper level, and there have been a few doctoral theses on fantasy literature including Tolkien (like the one by Stefan Ekman that became his book Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings), but not one entirely on Tolkien.

Anders Stenström (Beregond) is a Swedish Tolkien Scholar

Eduardo Boheme holds a Master’s in Literary Translation at Trinity College, University of Dublin, and works as a translator for HarperCollins Brasil

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