I Lost My Heart In Middle Earth

Who can say the first book they had to read in high school turned out to be the beginning of a life-long love for the author’s work?

Asking around amongst friends and family it seems most can’t even remember what book they read first, the rest remember all to vividly – and still hold a grudge.

For me, having to read The Hobbit in Year 5, my first year of high school, opened the door to Middle Earth, and I was hooked ever since. (Yes, Germany is one of the few countries in the world that sends most of their children off to high school at the tender age of eleven.)

Even though I also began learning English in Year 5, The Hobbit was read in German lessons, chosen by a teacher who loved Tolkien. The year after I read The Lord of the Rings, immediately followed by The Silmarillion, all in German. I confess, The Silmarillion was a bit of a struggle, but I loved Tolkien’s world enough to persevere.

Now, you may say that reading the most popular book of the 20th century (after the bible) in anything other than its original language is a no-no, think again. While The Hobbit certainly was a small paperback, an edition made to be read by school children, my copy of The Lord of The Rings was translated by none other than Margaret Carroux. Who is she you ask?

Margaret Carroux was born Margaret Bister in Berlin in 1912. Her father was a German-born Frenchman, making her bilingual. She began studying economics, English and French, but was forced to break off her studies: Nazi Germany discriminated against her because of her mother, who came from a family of Jewish faith, but was baptized Christian herself. Margaret instead worked as a commercial clerk and foreign language correspondent, before working for the military government in the US Sector of Berlin after the Second World War. With an US friend, she founded a German branch of the Overseas Weekly article service. The New York agency sent her articles for translation, which then were offered to German newspapers. This was at a time where foreign correspondents were largely non-existent.

In 1948 she moved to Frankfurt, founded a newspaper, married civil engineer Carroux (a short marriage), had two children, and began her career as a translator for non-fiction and fiction literary works from English and French into German.  

Amongst the books she translated are works from authors like Edna O’BrienChaim PotokFrançoise Sagan, Nadine Gordimer, Marcel Proust,  Sébastien Japrisot and Nikita Khrushchev.

Her most famous translation is that of The Lord of the Rings (published as Der Herr der Ringe, 1969/1970), which she translated with the poetess Ebba-Margaret von Freymann.

Instead of a purely literal translation of the books, which the editor wanted, Margaret Carroux tried to capture the literary style of Tolkien’s original work, to create the same atmosphere in the German version. During her translation work, she used the Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings. Names of characters, and places, were translated. It is not common practice in modern literature, but Carroux found that in a book where names really mean something, it had to be done. She painstakingly and incredibly thoughtfully turned the Misty Mountains into Nebelgebirge, Mirkwood into Düsterwald, Baggins into Beutlin, Shire into Auenland. While character’s names have not been changed, there are a few odd nuggets, for example Bill the pony turned into Lutz, and Rivendell into Bruchtal, although the Elfish Imladris is still employed.

Carroux contacted Tolkien in 1967 through his publisher, sent him her translation of his Leaf by Niggle to evaluate her work as a translator of his literary works, met him in person in Oxford and engaged in correspondence to discuss some hurdles while translating LOTR. Tolkien, who was fluent in German (having learnt German, French and Latin from his mother, and Middle English, Old English, Finnish, Gothic, Greek, Italian, Old Norse, Spanish, Welsh and Medieval Welsh while at school) both praised and elated her.

I should certainly not have taken the trouble that I took with your speci­mens, if I had not felt that you had the sympathy and understanding required, and only needed a little help and some encouragement to per­severe in what is a very difficult task.

― Fragment from Tolkien’s letter to Carroux September, 29, 1968

That’s definitely a thumbs up from the Professor. The poems gave Carroux a headache, even with Tolkien’s assistance, which is why she engaged Ebba-Margaret von Freymann to help.

Ebba-Margareta was a poetess and translator, born 1907. Father Austrian, mother Swedish, husband Finnish, she lived in Germany until her death in 1995. Besides the songs and poems of LOTR, she also translated the poems of the anthology The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (published as Die Abenteuer des Tom Bombadil in 1984, and Bilbo’s Last Song (Bilbo’s Abschiedslied) in 1991.

Tolkien differentiated all characters from each other through different levels of language, from the formal archaic speech to the everyday speech. Carroux used the old-language style almost consistently, for which she was criticised by some. Fans, however, like exactly that old-fashioned rendering of the original books.

The “Carroux-Translation” of The Lord of the Rings was the first German translation of the book. A second was made by Wolfgang Krege, published in the year 2000. Krege fans don’t like Carroux’ work, and vice versa. I have not read Krege (and I’m not sure I want to), but I’ve read it’s no better just sounds a bit more modern.

The point should be made that Carroux’ translations of names and places have become standard in German translations of all of Tolkien’s works regarding Middle Earth. You’ll find them on calendars, mugs and tea towels. If you’re a native English speaker and have never read a book in another language this might come as a surprise to you, but accurate translations of names and places are just so important and make or break a translation. The same goes for puns. Ok, no puns in Tolkien’s works, but I wanted to bring in Harry Potter as an example for the difficulties translators face. This article shines some light. For the record: I have read the German translations of the first Harry Potter book. Don’t like it. Doesn’t do it for me at all. The puns are weird, mostly I cringed, and somehow the whole atmosphere of the story is different. Since that’s been some years ago I might have to give it another try.

Anyway, me cringing is definitely not the case with the Carroux translation. There was a time I would have found a comma out of place in a non-Carroux translation of LOTR, these days I am so familiar with her translation and the originals that they are almost interchangeable in my mind. A bit like my shopping lists, which inadvertently almost always end up bilingual.

The only criticism I have about the Carroux edition is that it does not include any of Tolkien’s watercolours, unlike the English edition back in the 70s. But it at least contains a map with the German equivalents to replace the English (or Elfish/common tongue) names of places.

In 1991 and 2008 revised editions of the Carroux translation were published, containing Appendix E (Pronunciation of Words and names) in German, and some errors in the spelling of Elvish or Old English words were corrected.

If you’ve lost your heart in Middle Earth as well, snuggle up with this pillow while reading.

PS: the book in the picture is the Exclusive Collector’s Edition of The Silmarillion from the Folio Society  #treasures

PPS Looks like this blog post boosted the hits on Red Bubble and promptly triggered a copyright infringement notice. My design has been taken down, unfortunately. I had been under the impression the rights still belong to Tolkien Enterprises, which have ever been lenient with fans and fan artwork. However, Red Bubble has acted on behalf of Warner Bros. No matter my puzzlement, I will not pursuit this further, because getting my account disabled is not worth the risk.


  1. Garrulous Gwendoline

    How delightful! Without television, I read so much as a child that I despair I can no longer identify closely with just one book. I feel as if I have to start all over again, at the same time as trying to keep up with other works.
    Your article about translation is very interesting. Recently, I read Patrick Modiano’s The Pedigree, and when comparing my understanding with a French friend, she was very doubtful the translation from French to English had conveyed the correct meaning. Or, maybe, I just didn’t understand his moodiness.
    That same friend also recommended I read W. G. Sebald. I just finished ‘Austerlitz’. Phew! Again, maybe the translation made it complicated, but goodness me, one of his sentences went on for seven pages. I got there in the end, but it took all my powers of concentration. If there had been a break in the sentence, I’m sure the translator would have included it.

    1. azpictured

      Thanks, Gwen. I’m glad I struck a chord with this translation business. I’m fortunate I still have most of my favourite childhood books and have read them again over recent years. Still, no matter how much I still love many of them, none can be compared to the world Tolkien created.
      Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a chore in English, but I loved it in German, and I’ve always wondered which version is more accurate to the Italian original.
      Anna Burns’ Milkman is a frustratingly agonizing roundabout of words in English, I cannot imagine reading it in a German translation! Since you managed Austerlitz, maybe you’ll find Milkman easy 😉
      Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is terrible in German; the jokes and word plays just don’t work. But maybe I think so because I read the English version first?
      I’m not a fan of Stefan Zweig’s Die Schachnovelle in English (The Royal Game). The polished conventionality of Zweig’s writing doesn’t come across, I find.
      Since I was praising a woman translator in my blog post: Dr Erika Fuchs is another woman who rocked the translation world, namely with her German version of the Mickey Mouse comics. Yes, look her up, a fascinating woman who created a whole new language in German comics.
      Anyway, lovely to ‘hear’ from you, Gwen, hope you’re well xx

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