How do the characters talk?

Chris Durston

New Member
As was touched on by our excellent and intelligent hosts, there's a bit of an issue with language when adapting Tolkien to screen. Do we have everyone talking in archaic English, or go full hog and do the entire thing in subtitled Elvish languages?

I suspect Game of Thrones might not be a terrible place to look for ideas on this one. The different houses can be fairly well identified, or at least sorted into classes and vague alllegiances/ geographies by their use of idiosyncratic English accents, and I think that might not be a terrible idea for representing Elvish speech: that way, the different races and sorts of Elves can be distinguished by their speech without resorting to doing the entire thing subtitled. The Valar would perhaps have slightly foreign-sounding accents, as might the Calaquendi from their time in Valinor. I think Jackson's films did a decent job as far as register and tone of speech: not overly archaic, but not modern-sounding either and generally free of idiom.

Any more thoughts on how to represent dialogue and perhaps how to deal with the issue of differing dialects/ languages?
 

ouzaru

Well-Known Member
I quite enjoy the idea of having Quenya be represented as a Shakespearean accent. Never mind that it was the common man's tongue!

 

Kyle Fox

New Member
Call me crazy, but I really am for the subtitling and attempting to use the languages themselves. I understand that these are adaptations, but language was so foundational to Tolkien's creative process that I feel like avoiding the use of them would be a mistake.
 

Turin Turambar

New Member
I think the same, Kyle. It's a pity that conlangs of this magnitude ll be hidden from the audience. The problem is that it's a utopic to expect that all the talk in the project ll be in the correlated language (Sindarin most part, Quenia, Adunaic, Westrom and Khuzdul). I think that the best solution is make everyone "bilingual" speaking english (westrom) most parts, but in some cases they speak the correlated language, like in the LOTR movies. I have some friends that their parents speak portuguese most of time, but some time they speak in Arabic... My brain "accept" this a regular situation and I think that the same applies for the LOTR movie and for this project. With this manner, we ll have english most part (easier to "produce") and in the "important" parts, the corresponded language. What do you guys think?

As a homework, I ll pay attention in these "changes" and try to understand better when and why they happen.
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
A film project done entirely with subtitles is possible. There is, after all, a market for foreign language films in English-speaking countries, and English films in other countries.

True, this interest in subtitled work is not nearly as widespread as interest in English, but there is interest. Many anime fans prefer Japanese versions with English subtitles over English dubbed versions of the show (in part because 15 years ago the English dubs were typically poorly done or skewed the meaning of the original). When 'La Vita Bella' came out, many Americans preferred the original Italian with subtitles because the dubbed version (Life is Beautiful) just didn't fully capture the main character. Watching the original version, the Italians speak Italian, the Germans speak German, and the American soldier at the end speaks English, and that seems quite natural and well done. The opening scene of 'Inglorious Basterds' makes good use of different languages, with not all characters speaking/knowing the same languages. The viewer follows along with subtitles, but that scene would fail if it were done entirely in English (with the German soldier speaking with a German accent, and the French farmer speaking with a French accent).

Granted, there is a difference between subtitled foreign language films and films made in dead/imaginary languages.

Mel Gibson has tried this twice: The Passion of the Christ is in Aramaic (with the Romans speaking Latin), and everything is subtitled in English (except for one of the more controversial lines, which is not translated for the viewer). Apocolypto is in Mayan. Both films are rated R for violence. So, there is a limited audience for this type of thing, but not *no* audience.

I would be willing to consider keeping the frame story in English and doing the actual story in Sindarin/Quenya. However, there are a few issues with this. The main one being that we don't have enough available vocabulary in Quenya or Sindarin to actually write the script!
 

Phillip Menzies

Moderator
Staff member
Two things I remember .....
  • how much I hated the over use of Black Speech in the Hobbit movies, and
  • how difficult it was for Bret McKenzie who played Lindir in the Hobbit to deliver a few lines of Quenya (AUJ EE Appendices)
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
Oh, I agree that this would be an extremely daunting and difficult approach! You'd need to hire a language team, not just a translator and dialect coach. I merely point out that films like Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ exist to demonstrate that making a film entirely in a language that no one in the audience knows (and that the actors do not speak) is not (apparently) a complete dealbreaker.

The more English the better, in general. Tolkien had his orcs speak the Common language, so the hobbits could understand them, thus making the overuse of Black Speech a bit inaccurate! (Well, okay, for orcs from the same clan, maybe, but......)

'Inglorious Basterds' is a mostly English film. (It is also wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy with copious amounts of gratuitous violence, because...Tarantino.) It has several scenes in other languages (French, German and Italian), but even these often switch in to English for portions. I mentioned it as an example because it so often CALLS OUT the language differences between the characters. So, yes, the Americans are terrible (ie, comedic) at attempting to speak another language. They are passed off as Italians in the hope that no one will speak with them, but of course this fails, and the German soldier they are introduced to speaks fluent Italian. They manage 'Buonjorno, Grazzi, Arevidecci' and their names, with terrible accents. A British spy who is fluent in German gives the game up when he uses three fingers rather than a thumb and two fingers to indicate the number three. His accent was suspicious, but passable, but his cultural ignorance gave him away. I learned this distinction on my second day in mainland Europe, so immediately picked up on his error the first time I watched the film. It's that major of a faux pas. The German spy furiously points this out for the benefit of the audience, though. The opening scene is the most significant. It's really impressive cinema. A Nazi soldier visits a French farmhouse, looking for some missing Jews. It is revealed to the audience that the Jewish family (the farmer's neighbors) are hiding under his floorboards. The conversation switches to English, which the farmer understands, but his neighbors do not. The Nazi soldier pressures him to admit that he is hiding the Jews......
I am sure that the production team wanted to lampshade all the American-made WWII films that just have everyone speak English with accents and ignore the language complexities of Europe.

Here is a comment from the actor who played the Nazi soldier - he had scenes in English, German, French and Italian in this film:
As you can see, he was not upset by the multi-language script....but then, he wasn't asked to do Quenya, either.

We will have cases of characters speaking different languages and not understanding one another (I mean, if we preserve *any* of Tolkien's underlying linguistic history). The Shibboleth of Fëanor may be difficult to work in, but Thingol banning the use of Quenya is an essential plot point. We could use English for Quenya up to that point, with Sindarin in subtitles, and then when Thingol makes his decree, switch to English for Sindarin with Quenya in subtitles. That would likely confuse the audience and fall flat, but we have to do *something!* As for the 'spy' business - during the Tale of Beren and Luthien, we will have several good guys trying to sneak past enemy lines. Finrod and company ultimately fail, but what gives away the fact that they are not actually orcs? Their disguises are good, but....they didn't follow protocol of checking in at Sauron's tower, and in the interrogation, Finrod reveals knowledge of elven realms and ignorance of what is happening in Morgoth's territory (in the Lay, anyway). I don't recall what gives Luthien away in Morgoth's hall.

We can rely on cultural differences beyond language to differentiate different groups. But not making use of language at all, when Tolkien put so much effort into developing that? It seems absurd!

There are sci fi films that have a modest use of invented language with subtitles. Star Wars has it with very little explanation, having major characters not speak an identifiable language or have subtitles (Chewbacca, R2-D2). The audience relies on the responses of those who do understand them (Han, C-3PO) to decipher what they must have said. Jawas and Ewoks speak, but often without translation. Minor characters (such as Jabba the Hutt and Greedo) are entirely subtitled (or translated). And of course, all of the main players speak English.

I think it would be beneficial to recognize what works and what does not, and what would improve a scene or detract from it. I agree that actors are unlikely to do an awesome job of delivering *all* of their lines in a language they have no knowledge of. And I am not suggesting we go 'Attack of the Killer Tomatoes' and have the villains mutter in gibberish sounds with no attempt at conveying meaning. (Even in that, they had a character 'infiltrate' the enemy camp by dressing up as a tomato and learning to speak their language. His lines were subtitled. Sadly, he gave himself away by accidentally blurting out in English, 'Can somebody pass the ketchup?')
 
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Gereordwyrhta

New Member
The thing that makes me really resistant to English is how Tolkien so explicitly equated it with Westron, which doesn't exist until the late Second Age (at earliest). I think presenting the Elvish languages authentically, as they are (attempted) in the Jackson films, would be a daunting, but exciting (for those of us interested in Tolkien linguistics) opportunity!
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
To be sure, Tolkien was meticulous in establishing the languages and dialects of his characters.

But, as a note, he did not *equate* English with Westron. Rather, he established that Westron was the common language of the Third Age, being the native language of hobbits, and the lingua franca of everyone else (even orcs!) And then, in Lord of the Rings...he translated Westron into English. Having the language of the Rohirrim be Old English was meant to be a consequence of this choice, as their 'actual' language was an older version of Westron....but really, we know Tolkien just wanted them to speak his favorite dialect of Old English ;). He comments on this briefly in the Appendices, and in more detail in his 'Note to Translators'.

So, we could 'translate' one language into English. We could keep it Westron, and use English for the frame narrative (except for when the elves speak Sindarin).

OR, we could choose languages within the Silmarillion to 'translate' in this way. For instance, we know (at most) 20 words in the language of the Valar, and they are weird and alien sounding. This entire first season, everyone should be speaking Valarin. So, we would need someone to write the script (in English), and then give it to a language team to not just 'translate' it, but to essentially invent it AND translate it. This seems like a lot of work for very little payoff, so....why not just have the Valar speak English and not even deal with the language issue until the elves show up?

I realize you didn't suggest making the show in Valarin. And I for one would be VERY sad if we didn't use a significant amount of Sindarin and Quenya. The question is just....how much? And how to do that well, enhancing and adding to the story, not just creating confusion in the audience and more work for the actors and crew. No one will argue (or they'd better not!!!) that Hurin's battle cry must be 'Aurë entuluva!' not 'Day shall come again!' Subtitles can inform the audience, but I want him to shout that in Quenya.

The question is if the season in Valinor is entirely in Quenya or not.


Also - which of the Valar do we think would be most interested in languages?
 
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Gereordwyrhta

New Member
Well yes, you're right that 'equate' isn't quite accurate, but I was actually thinking of the 'Note to Translators.' I think, especially if the frame narrative is from the POV of Westron-speakers, that we should keep with Tolkien's system in LotR and keep Westron English like you said.

As for Valarin... I really don't know. As a conlanger I'm personally doing backflips internally at the prospect of using Tolkien's notes as a base for a fuller Valarin, but again, you are right to put the audience first in this case, and I also worry at what point are we not even telling Tolkien's story anymore and just using our own conlang for fun (though I do have some ideas for Valarin that make it less seditious with regards to Tolkien's creation).

I think a bigger question is whether the Valar should speak before the coming of the Elves at all. Clearly the published Silmarillion has dialogue, but Tolkien was very back and forth with whether or not they even had 'speech' (e.g. in 1958 he said "the Valar had no language of their own, not needing one" (Letters, 282)). I don't believe we can have them mime everything, and we've established we don't want voice-over from the narrator, so...
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
I would maintain, strongly, that Tolkien did not leave anywhere near enough notes to compose anything in 'Valarin', let alone dialogue for an entire season of a TV show. It would be, essentially, pure invention with maybe some nods to the linguistic flavor of the handful of words he gave us (warning - they're all a mouthful!)

Seriously, this is what we know:
http://folk.uib.no/hnohf/valarin.htm
Unless there is more elsewhere?

And while Tolkien may have toyed with the idea of not giving them 'speech' that was no doubt because he was envisioning them as having direct mind-to-mind communication. So, we could do that, with the actors speaking, but no mouths moving (just record the dialogue in a separate take). It can get stilted when you do it that way, and would be a lot of (apparently) unnecessary voice-over, but I think we could have at least a few examples of this long-distance communication or 'private' communication within a group setting. It would help to emphasize the other-ness of the Valar (though would likely remind the audience of Elrond and Galadriel's conversation in LotR).

For instance, Corey Olsen has suggested (at different times) that Nienna just cries, she doesn't talk...and ALSO that she interacts with people individually, not in group conversations. So, it would be possible to make all of her dialogue a voice in people's heads. This would preserve her alone/otherness without making her a silent character whose point of view is never expressed.

An actual silent character can be very well done, in the right setting. You have to hire the right actor, of course - preferably someone with some mime or dance experience. And the music conveys the meaning. The best example I can think of is the titular character from 'The Empath' episode in the Original Series of Star Trek.

Here are two excerpts:


As should be readily apparent, this was an extremely low-budget episode, and a non-speaking role means less $$. I don't want to pretend that there was solely an artistic reason that went into making her mute, but the episode depends, strongly, on characters observing one another, often without speaking. And since we learn something of who she is, and yet she never speaks...it can be done.
 

Gereordwyrhta

New Member
I'm with you on Valarin needing to mostly be an invention, which is why I lean toward not using it for the series. (I am intimately familiar with the paucity of Valarin words, but I also believe there is more to go on than just this small wordlist, especially given other things Tolkien wrote about Valarin; of course, I only mean this in the context of a conlang expansion effort, not in any way for the purpose of us in the Silmarillion series).

I also am fond of Corey's idea about Nienna; I just think that there obviously needs to be some dialogue spoken by actors (as you pointed out)... we can't get away with no dialogue. I'm still not sure how to approach this.

At the same time, I feel very strongly that the Elvish languages at least should remain in-tact, not for the sake of 'purism', but rather seeing as that is (at its core) the entire point of the Silmarillion. What good is a history of the Elvish languages if we're not getting Elvish languages. It would be a lot of work, but I don't think there is a complete absence of Quenya and Sindarin enthusiasts who would jump at the opportunity.
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
What good is a history of the Elvish languages if we're not getting Elvish languages?
Pretty much.

The question is *how* to include Quenya (and later Sindarin) in the film adaptation. NO English is a bit much to ask of our audiences, after all.....and having Quenya before there are elves is *almost* as bad as no Quenya at all. I'm not really sure what would be best, or how well the project can tolerate subtitles.
 

Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
Well, basic greetings and pleasantries can easily be inserted without any loss of understanding on the part of the viewers. I occasionally thank people in Mandarin Chinese (I taught English over there for a while and the habit never went away), and it is very rarely that someone doesn't realize what I'm saying.
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
Okay, so, here are my current thoughts:

Frame narrative is in English (Common Tongue/Westron), except for any times when we need to toss in some Elvish. Estel (Aragorn) will be fluent in Elvish languages, after all, so we can teach him some if we need to teach the audience. The meaning of the name 'Estel', for instance.

Season 1: The Valar will also speak English. We can imply direct mind-to-mind communication sometimes (over a distance, between individuals in a group context, when Melkor shuts himself off from the others, etc). So, this will be an English-as-Allspeak, where they aren't actually speaking 'English', but there is implicit translation for the audience of the tale. Aulë will be seen to teach the dwarves Khuzdul in one scene.

Season 2: Once the Elves awaken, they can start talking. And they can speak Proto-elvish with subtitles at first! As the Valar change forms to 'adapt' to the appearance of the elves, the language can also adapt. So, once the elves get to Valinor, we can consider doing away with the subtitled Proto-elvish. We can then choose - English or subtitled Quenya or some combination?
 
The language question is endlessly fascinating. I think it's fundamentally linked to the anatomy question - literally, HOW do the Valar talk? To what extent are they anthropomorphized?
I think the less they appear to be "human," the more familiar we will need to be with their speech. Having both the appearance and the sound be totally foreign would probably be too much for most viewers to stay with it. I certainly couldn't keep up with 13 episodes of water shouting at rocks in an invented tongue ;). But when we talk about 'depicting them in 'elemental' forms, that's what comes to mind.
This could be shifting sand, of course - no need to have a single answer that applies at all times.
 

Atanvarno

Member
Since this language question hasn't yet been resolved, I thought it might be good to throw another possible solution into the mix. In any given episode, be it in the frame or the main narrative, the language of the protagonist is represented as English.
This has the benefit that most dialogue will naturally be in English, but allows Tolkien's languages to showcased occasionally. In the season 1 frame, Estel (or arguably occasionally Gilraen) is the protagonist, hence most dialogue is in English, but there will Elf on Elf conversations in Sindarin. In the main narrative, everyone will speak English as they are all Ainur (or Ilúvatar). This also sidesteps us coming down one side or another on whether Valarin is a spoken language or not.

In later seasons, when the Noldor (Quenya speakers) return, they return to hear Sindarin (subtitled). Then when Quenya falls out of general use, Quenya becomes subtitled.

And honestly, there isn't enough of any Tolkien's languages extant, other than Quenya and Sindarin, to even contemplate having significant chunks of on-screen dialogue.
 
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ouzaru

Well-Known Member
I think that might be a little tough for the average viewer to wrap their head around, but for me that sounds super wonderful.
 

Haakon

Administrator
Staff member
I agree, this is an alternative that needs to be considered seriously, the best so far.
 
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