The earliest translation of The Lord of the Rings was in Dutch, by Max Schuchart. He translated the title as In de Ban van de Ring, which translates back to English as "under the spell of the ring" or "obsessed by the ring".

The original title could very well have been translated in Dutch as "de heer der ringen". In fact, where that name for Sauron was used in the book, that was its translation.

"And even if we could, soon or late the Lord of the Rings would learn of its hiding place and would bend all his power towards it."
The Lord of the Rings, chapter "The Council of Elrond" (emphasis mine)

is translated as

"En ook al zouden we het wel kunnen, de Heer der Ringen zou zijn schuilplaats weldra te weten komen en zou al zijn macht erop richten."
In de Ban van de Ring, chapter "De Raad van Elrond" (emphasis mine)

Also, the German translation was titled Der Herr der Ringe; German of course being somewhat related to Dutch.

So why wasn't the title of the book translated as "De Heer der Ringen"?

Has Max Schuchart or anyone else involved in its publication ever commented on it?

I'm aware that Tolkien was unhappy with some of the liberties Max Schuchart and other early translators took with the nomenclature.

In principle I object as strongly as is possible to the 'translation' of the nomenclature at all (even by a competent person). I wonder why a translator should think himself called on or entitled to do any such thing. That this is an 'imaginary' world does not give him any right to remodel it according to his fancy, even if he could in a few months create a new coherent structure which it took me years to work out. [...] May I say at once that I will not tolerate any similar tinkering with the personal nomenclature. Nor with the name/word Hobbit.
— Tolkien in a letter to Rayner Unwin, 3 July 1956

But has Tolkien himself ever commented on the translation of the title?

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    I'm no expert in Dutch, but is it possible that the term "De heer der Ringen" (The Lord of the Ring/s) might confuse people with Alberich, the primary antagonist of the Wagnerian 'Ring Cycle'? He's also the Lord of the Ring and much more widely known in Holland than in Britain. – Valorum Sep 15 '17 at 10:50
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    @Valorum The title was correctly translated as "Der Herr der Ringe" in Germany, where the same argument can be made. – Annatar Sep 15 '17 at 10:59
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    @Valorum Unless Wikipedia lies (I know that can happen), Schuchart's translation is from 1957, one year after the quoted letter from 1956. Ironically enough, the 1957 German translation of The Hobbit ignores the letter as well and is titled "Der kleine Hobbit" ("The little Hobbit"). – Annatar Sep 15 '17 at 11:35
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    'Mistranslating' the title is not always the poor translators fault. Often it is the decision the publisher makes, assuming the target audience would be attracted more to the new, 'improved' one. 'Under the spell of the ring' sounds more mysterious. They probably thought it'll sell more. – user68762 Sep 15 '17 at 11:54
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    @Valorum I can verify that. The German translation I have at home is by Margarete Carroux from 1970 (I myself have the fourth edition of the book from 1987). The only other German translation that I am aware of is from 2000 by Wolfgang Krege, which was heavily criticised. Prior to the Carroux translation, Tolkien had composed a commentary on translation of names which Carroux followed. They also exchanged a few letters and he proposed changes to names (the direct translation for Shire is Gau, somewhat not fitting given the negative connotations since WW2). – Narusan Sep 17 '17 at 18:53

The letter that you quote was published in The Letters of JRR Tolkien. It is introduced like this:

[In June, the Foreign Rights Department of Allen & Unwin sent Tolkien a list of Dutch versions of placenames in The Lord of the Rings that had been made by the book's Dutch translator, with the request: 'Will you please send them back with, we trust, your approval?']

The Letters of JRR Tolkien. Letter 190 (to Rayner Unwin 3 July 1956)

Note that in this case, he had only been asked to review placenames used in the Dutch translation, and not the title of the book.

I searched Letters an could not find "In de Ban van de Ring". The only mention of Max Schuchart by name is an aside in a letter where Tolkien is complaining about the Swedish translation.

The impression remains, nonetheless, that Dr Ohlmarks is a conceited person, less competent than charming Max Schuchart, though he thinks much better of himself.

The Letters of JRR Tolkien. Letter 204 (to Rayner Unwin 7 December 1957)

If he was asked to comment on the title of the Dutch translation, then either it was not among the letters reviewed by Humphrey Carpenter (the editor of Letters), or his comment was not considered significant enough to include in the collection of letters (which seems unlikely to me).

Of course, a previously unpublished comment of Tolkien's could show up at any time. After all this time, I think the chances of that are small (but stranger things have happened).

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  • Certainly no comment that's been widely published. Don't forget that Tolkien sent hundreds (if not thousands) of letters to his publishers discussing finance, editing, contracts, etc that have never been made available to the public. – Valorum Sep 29 '17 at 15:57
  • @Valorum I agree, but as I said in the answer, I think a comment on the Dutch title would probably have caused Humphrey Carpenter to include the letter. He did, after all, include many letters commenting on translations and adaptations. – Blackwood Sep 29 '17 at 16:01
  • TI the best of my knowledge there are zero letters in the published archive discussing Tolkien's banking. If, for example a note about the translations was in one of those letters, it might never surface. – Valorum Sep 29 '17 at 16:04
  • @Valorum Okay. I take your point. Unpublished letters could show up at any time, although I think the chances are small. I have edited the answer to acknowledge that. – Blackwood Sep 29 '17 at 20:28

Probably for the same reason why Peter Jackson changed a couple of things in the movies. Many of those who edit/adapt someone else's work feel the urge to "correct" things if they feel that they could be "improved" and "make more sense" in their way. Or that "the public will like it more this way".

In this case, I can vividly imagine that Max Schuchart read and translated the books, and when he was done and about to send them back to the publisher, the thought struck him that the title is not the best description of the events in the books: They do not focus on the Lord but on his enemies, and not on the multiple Rings, but on THE Ring and his influence ("spell") on Frodo, and by extension the people he meets. So wouldn't that be a much more appropriate title?, he thought.

..and boom, he changed the title.

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    @SQB Your question is speculative itself, you don't need to be that rude to people who try to answer it anyways.. – Annatar Sep 15 '17 at 11:01
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    I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude. However, I fail to see how my question is speculative. Answers (such as yours, frankly) can be, but the answer would be either "this is the reason, Max Schuchart explains it here > quote" (or something similar — perhaps it was a request by the pubisher), or "the reason is unknown, no one has ever commented on it". – SQB Sep 15 '17 at 11:05
  • @SQB I'd say stating "no one has ever commented on it" is speculation, it's possibly just a matter of finding it – Edlothiad Sep 15 '17 at 11:06
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    @Edlothiad true, but if a Tolkien scholar were to state that, of course listing a number of standard works on Tolkien that they were sure do not mention it, that would be good enough. Note that we have several answers on this Stack on various subjects stating "we do not know, it was never mentioned". – SQB Sep 15 '17 at 11:13
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    @Edlothiad - There are many questions on here that were assumed to be canonically unanswerable, right up to the point that they were answered. – Valorum Sep 15 '17 at 11:38

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