Over on the German Language StackExchange, RDBury asks Is Gandalf really on 'du' terms with the Balrog? (Odd 'duzen' example)

I don't speak German, but I get the impression from their question:

Gandalf says "Du kannst nicht vorbei!"
The grammars say that the 'du' form is used for friends and family members, sometimes children and pets. So I would have thought "Sie können nicht vorbei!"

However, I do not care what is or isn't the correct translation, only the intention behind the decision

As the exact line doesn't exist in the books, it seems like it was either a deliberate translation with an explanation, or a mistranslation by somebody working on the film. This answer implies it comes from 'Margaret Carroux's German translation of Tolkien's books' but I would like to know if the movie translator can confirm that?

Are there any behind the scenes interviews or other information as to what went into making this choice of words in the translation to corroborate that?

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    Don't apply modern day grammar to archaic speech. If anything, you should wonder why the line isn't "Er kann hier nicht durch", which would have suited the pseudo-medieval setting a lot better. Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 15:18
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    @EikePierstorff From a translator's standpoint this is quite interesting. Tolkien's standpoint was that the dialogs are in entirely different languages anyway, and that he is only "translating" them; translating them, naturally, into then-present-day English. That's why he apparently uses archaic language quite rarely and then only to emphasize what was archaic to the protagonists. Krege consequently said that a German translation 80 years later should not emulate Tolkien's old-fashioned English but simply use contemporary German for the dialogs. Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 4:34
  • @Peter-ReinstateMonica well I think that Krege is wrong here (and looking up the controversy, a lot of people seem to agree - not so much as a matter of principle, but more because of a feeling that he went overboard with his modernisation (just as Carroux apparently went overboard with leveling the language )). But his has now been the "official" translation, so it would be very interesting to see how current readers feel about this (not me, but it seems some older fans prefer Carroux since the translation follows partly instructions from Tolkien himself). Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 8:15
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    The translator may also have considered the visuals and lip movement. We have Ian McKellen shouting an iconic line in a close-up. You would notice the difference between the seen/mouthed "you" and the heard/spoken "Sie". Also, a fight to the death is quite a personal thing, so using "Du" looks fine to me.
    – Hermann
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 10:18
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    related question on French stack exchange: french.stackexchange.com/questions/51116/…
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Aug 25, 2022 at 14:30

3 Answers 3


Some people in the translation business certainly seem to think so (although I personally could not vouch for them, I just found this on the internet).

First, there might not even a mystery to explain or mistranslation to deal with. The Balrog is not addressed with "Sie", because in the books and the movies nobody is. That would simply not be German appropriate to the setting. If anything, it should either be "Ihr" (if Gandalf feels that he own a fellow Maiar at least some respect) or more likely "Er" (but even "Erzen", which is actually a word, might be too modern). However I have not read the Krege translation, which might be relevant (since it is "modernized" and might have used modern forms of addressing people).

(As pointed out in the comments, Krege actually did use the formal "Sie" and other modernisation to get closer to Tolkiens original pretense that LotR is a translation from an ancient language. I disagree with that for a number of reasons, but obviously the Krege's professional judgement carries much more weight than my personal taste).

The sentence as spoken is just as appropriate to the setting. As the Germans say, it lacks the necessary "Schöpfungshöhe" (originality, basically) to make it identifiable as the creation of a specific author.

However the German dialogue was written by Andreas Fröhlich, who also more or less by accident became the German voice of Gollum (as he tells it, they forgot to book a voice actor for Gollum and he took over the role so successfully that he repeated it for parts two and three).

A search for "Fröhlich/Carreaux" did not find any immediate connection (they both know/knew German critic Denis Scheck (not at the same time, as Carreaux died in 1991), but that seems to be the level of their personal connection), but led me to a message board frequented by people "in the industry".

One of the users there writes:

Ein weiteres Beispiel in dem die Frage einer freien oder literaturgebundenen Übersetzung für die deutsche Synchronisation zur Debatte stand, ist zwar kein Klassiker ansich, aber auch erwähnenswert: Peter Jacksons Der-Herr-der-Ringe-Trilogie. Die Drehbuchschreiber verwandten eine Vielzahl von buchinternen Zitaten bei der filmischen Umsetzung, änderte manche minimal, oder setzten sie an eine andere Stelle im Handlungsverlauf.

Problematisch war hierbei vor allem, dass die Verantwortlichen der deutschen Fassung zunächst eine Entscheidung zu treffen hatten, welche Übersetzung der Bücher als Basis der Synchronfassung, so notwendig, dienen sollte. Im Jahr 2000, also noch vor dem Erscheinen des ersten Filmes (Die Gefährten) war eine neue Übersetzung der Bücher erschienen. Wolfgang Krege (1939–2005) versuchte durch Modernisierungen und sprachliche Belebung einen neuen Zugang zu dem Buchstoff zu schaffen. Inwiefern ihm das gelungen ist, muss jeder selbst entscheiden. Der Verlag nahm daraufhin die erste Übersetzung Margaret Carrouxs (1912–1991) und Ebba-Margareta von Freymanns (1907–1995) vom Markt. Da es aber diese Übersetzung war, die ein Großteil der Fans eher zusagte, stand der zuständige Verleih der Trilogie (Warner) vor einem Problem.

Man entschied jedoch zugunsten der alten Fans und damit für Carroux (womit man Krege jedoch nicht komplett fallen ließ). Als Berater soll damals Stefan Servos fungiert haben. Da er einiges veröffentlicht hat, und Forumsleiter von herr-der-ringe-film.de ist, nehme ich an, dass er maßgeblich an der Entscheidung beteiligt war. Andreas Fröhlich arbeitete als Dialogbuchautor sehr genau. Er schaffte es zum Beispiel bei Passagen, die inhaltlich aus Eigenformulierungen und Buchzitaten zusammengesetzt waren, das entsprechende Zitat in den Büchern zu finden und, soweit möglich, wortwörtlich zu übernehmen. Dabei entschied er auch, ob er Carrouxs Übersetzung wörtlich übernahm, diese abwandelte, oder sogar manchmal Formulierungen Kreges einflocht. Dabei schien nicht nur die Lippensynchronität entscheidend gewesen zu sein, sondern auch die Atmosphäre der Szene.

I will translate a bit more later when I have time, but the bolded parts say that the movies use a lot of quotes from the books, that the people in charge needed to decide which translation to use and that to appeal to long standing Tolkien fans they would use the "traditional" translation (i.e. Carroux, the Krege translation being new and more "modern"). However some elements of Krege were included.

The last bolded bit seems especially relevant. It says, in a very rough translation:

Andreas Fröhlich is very precise when he creates dialogue for a movie. For example, in passages that are partly original creation and partly quotes from the books, he manages to locate the corresponding quote in the book and, if at all possible, use it verbatim. This includes a decision between using the exact phrase from Carroux's translation, modify it somewhat, or even uses phrases from the Krege translation.

Nikolaos Aslanidis wrote the thesis for his magister artium on "The difficulty of translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings into German". As part of the thesis, he compared text text from the book and the dialogue in the move. Regarding the passage under discussion here he writes:

Chapter 2/9 concludes the voyage through the mines of Moria with Gandalf fighting the Balrog. Most of Gandalf’s lines here are taken from the original text.

T 433‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’

J 2/9GandalfI am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn! Go back to the Shadow. You shall not pass!

Note that Peter Jackson tries to have Gandalf sound even a little more old fashioned and possibly even more mystical by changing Tolkien’s plain ‘You cannot pass’ into ‘You shall not pass’.

(Source. "T" and "J" in front of the quotes refers to Tolkien (ie. the book) and Jackson respectively).

So this is very much a case of book quotes intermixed with Jacksons own interpretations. Fröhlich locating the phrase in the translation that corresponded closest to the phrase used in the movie would certainly fit the workflow outlined above.

So my opinions on originality notwithstanding, it seems perfectly possible that the sentence was taken from Carroux's translation.

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    That's a really promising answer! Awesome!
    – AncientSwordRage
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 17:45
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    It turned out that there was more to the question than I thought (which is usually the case when the question is about something tolkien-related). Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 17:47
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    From here: "So verwendete Wolfgang Krege konsequent, statt des klassischen „Ihr“ das zeitgenössische „Sie“. (The modern translator Krege used "Sie" instead of the archaic "Ihr".) But independently of the Ihr/Sie question: Gandalf and the Balrog are peers! There is also no need for politeness in this setting -- "Du" is, like the English "thou", the direct and unadorned address. Thou shalt not kill, in German Du sollst nicht töten. The typical "Du is informal for friends and family" statement in text books is only a half truth. Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 4:17
  • FWIW, I asked a professional translator of fantasy works (he did the translation of the Malazan books and Hobbs' Rain Wild Chronicles, so IMO the opinion counts for something) about his opinion. He shared an anecdote about an evening at the German Tolkien society where the gathered luminaries were half of the time unable to tell which passage came from which translation. He also said that he prefers Krege's approach (since in the old translation basically everybody sounds the same, which is not the case in the original), but that he has doubts about the actual execution. Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 15:29
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    I think you missed the possibility of using "du" to express scorn. You might address a stray dog with "du", or a policeman might address a criminal this way.
    – Spencer
    Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 16:59

The film translator made the choice that is manifestly correct, so it's hard to determine if he's deliberately following a previous translators correct choice or independently arrived at the same correct choice

Especially in the past using "Sie" was a sign of respect, which is the reason why teachers are still adressed with "Sie" by the kids but the teachers uses "Du" to address a child. In particularly lopsided social relationships (like factory owner to worker) it wasn't uncommon for the superior to use "Du" and the inferior to have to use "Sie".

The point here, Gandalf using a "Sie" here would have been him being polite and respectful to the Balrog, particularly as Gandalf's previous statements seem intended to establish Gsndalf's authority over the Bslrog.

EDIT: also, yes "Du kannst nicht vorbei." is a direct quote from the Carroux translation. But Krege uses "Du" for adressing the Balrog also. I am not completely from the sure which intentions you care about here: original translator or movie translation? But in either case it would be extremely weird for Gandalf to use a polite form here and "Du kannst nicht vorbei" is a fairly direct translation of "You cannot pass." So it's unlikely that the original translator would go into any details on her intentions here.

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    This does not answer the question about the intention behind the decision made by the film translator.
    – AncientSwordRage
    Commented Dec 5, 2021 at 15:25
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    No german speaker would address a despised adversary, a non-homan one to boot, with a respectful "sie". It would have sounded extremely weird if the translator had decided to use it, avoiding that will have been his intention.
    – ths
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 18:48

The reason that Gandalf addresses the Balrog with du is quite simple:

Sie is reserved for people. Germans never address non-human beings* with Sie. As the Balrog isn't a person†, it is addressed with du.

* In real life, Germans never address non-human beings with Sie. In fantastic literature – fairy tales, courtly romances, ballads, fantasy novels – Sie is reserved for beings that have personhood, that is, beings that have human nature (emotions and motivations like our own), live in some kind of society that resembles our own, etc. A fairy that lives at the court of the fairy queen would thus be addressed with Sie, while a fairy that lurks in a swamp or river would be addressed with du.

† In the English original, the pronoun for the Balrog is "it", clearly indicating that it is not a person in the same way that the hobbits, dwarves, elves, and humans are:

The Balrog reached the bridge. ... It raised the whip, and ...

The real question then becomes: Why is the Balrog an it if it is a Maiar like Gandalf?


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