Tolkein in Tangier
The Lord of the Rings trilogy played on two Arab-language satellite channels in March: The Fellowship of the Ring one week, The Two Towers the following week, and The Return of the King the final week.
I had a great time watching because the films were subtitled in formal Arabic, and since I already knew most of the dialogue, I was free to pick up the Arab glosses quickly and compare them to the dialogue. Most of these observations were illuminating: dwarf was glossed qazam, the same word for "midget" or "little person," while elf was glossed jinn, which has a meaning closer to "spirit" or even in some contexts "demon."
I thought I had identified one indisputable mistranslation, however. In Theoden’s final scene in The Return of the King, he calls Eowyn "Niece." She responds by calling him "Uncle." These words were glossed into Arabic as bint akhi and 'ami. Now, the problem here is that bint akhi doesn’t mean merely Niece but more accurately "daughter of my brother." In the same way, 'ami means "my paternal uncle." The Arabic language distinguishes between maternal and paternal relations.
I knew from Tolkein's books that Theoden called Eowyn not "Niece" but "Sister-Daughter." In other words, we can understand that among the people of Rohan (or at least in Rohan's royal family), not only did they distinguish between maternal and paternal relations (like most Arabs), but there was also some sort of modified matrilineal system at work, such that the position of Sister-Daughter has a modicum of formal status (unlike in most Arab societies). Indeed, Eowyn and her brother Eomer had official status in the court. Further, when Theoden died heirless, Eomer took the throne, but this transition of the throne from a brother's lineage to a sister's lineage already had precedent, I believe, in Rohan's royal lineage. (Perhaps this comes from the appendices, and I may be wrong, but I seem to remember that Helm Hammer-Hand did not inherit the throne from his father but from his mother's brother.)
In any case, in Arabic, Theoden should really have called Eowyn bint ukhti ("daughter of my sister"), and she should have called him khali ("my maternal uncle").
So I immediately noted a poor translation, obviously done by people who hadn’t read the book, and moved on. But not so fast... Now I've been thinking:
First, the point of translation is not be precisely correct, but rather to communicate concepts to audiences. A literal translation can be confusing and even useless (unused), so most translators choose to produce a "dynamic equivalent" that seeks to communicate meaning.
Second, Arab viewers who were also readers of the text (I’m assuming that Tolkein has been translated into Arabic?) would already know the difference. Even if Tolkein hasn’t been translated, the point still holds for Tolkein-readers versus non-Tolkein-readers, speaking any language. In other words, viewers who were unfamiliar with Tolkein's textual world wouldn't know about Rohan's modified matrilineal system.
(Digression No. 1: Non-English-speaking Arabs who had read Tolkein in French, Spanish, or some other language would be dependent on the subtitles, that is on the movie’s dialogue, but only as much as any of us who read the book and then watched the movie.)
(Digression No. 2: In contrast to Arabs, many English-speaking viewers--among them Americans, Australians, etc.--don’t figure kinship this way, so "sister-daughter" might hold no semantic content for them beyond a poetic way of saying "niece." In this sense, their cultural baggage prevents a fuller understanding of the text. I’ve always felt something was wrong with Laura Bohannon’s Shakespeare in the Bush, where my title comes from. In the 1960s, Bohannon translated a very rough and sketchy plot of Hamlet for some back-woods Nigerians. Upon hearing the story, her listeners rejected the logic behind almost all the plot points and decided the story was poorly written. Now, I myself don’t think Hamlet makes for good fiction or good drama: It’s too far-fetched for good fiction (Hamlet’s actions don’t make a lick of sense), and it’s too static and ponderous for good drama. And I’m not alone in thinking this. But Bohannon concluded from her experiences that some things aren’t translatable. I’m not so ready to arrive at this conclusion, and I am moreover unconvinced of the competence of Bohannon’s English-Tiv translation. Here we can see, though, that understanding is always incomplete, there is always something missing.)
Finally, my own gloss to T.E. Lawrence in the introduction to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom: Explaining why he followed no rules at all in transliterating Arabic words, Lawrence argued that those who know Arabic don't need to told how to pronounce the words, and those who don't know Arabic don't need to care how they pronounce them. In much the same way, those who know Tolkein's text don't need to be reminded of Rohan's descent patterns, while those who don't know Tolkein's text can be unaware that a change has been made without it distracting from their appreciation of the story.
In fact, the story might actually be clearer to Arabic-speaking audiences (who are also unfamiliar with Tolkein) this way. Presenting Eowyn as Theoden's bint ukhti (sister's daughter) might confuse audiences: "Why is he so close to someone from whom he should by all right be much more distant?" There’s not enough time in the film to go into Rohan's storied past and the patterns of its culture. In contrast, presenting her as Theoden's bint akhi (brother’s daughter) draws out and explains the direct and close ties between them much more immediately, even though it's exactly wrong. While technically the exact opposite of a correct literal translation, "brother's-daughter" might be the more correct "loose" translation--the most appropriate dynamic equivalent.