Writing

Lessons From the Purple Writing of The Witcher

A shirtless man with white hair stands in front of a castle
The Witcher book series, written by Andrzej Sapkowski and translated to English by Danusia Stok, started a popular video game franchise and now a popular TV show on Netflix too. I’ve seen the first season of the show, so that gives me some story context that I don’t have for most critiques. I think the show is really bad, but I enjoyed it anyway.

The books actually start off as short story collections, so I’ll jump in at the beginning of the first novel, The Blood of Elves. Since this is a translated work, I won’t assume Sapkowski is responsible for every foible of wordcraft. While a translator’s job is to be faithful to the original text rather than to improve it like an editor, translators have to make lots of judgment calls.

Let’s start by getting a real view of the cover. I cropped the image up top so unsuspecting visitors to the site wouldn’t be besieged with body horror they didn’t ask for. But just look at this thing (or don’t, if blood and more blood isn’t appealing to you).

A man with white hair with deep cuts on his bare back, blood from them pouring over his buttA whole river of blood is pouring down Geralt’s fine butt like syrup. I’m guessing it can’t be blood from people he’s killed since it’s on his back side and his shoulders are surprisingly clean. So this is meant to tell us how manly he is. A real man can lose pints of blood and keep fighting I guess.

Also, a real man goes to battle without his shirt, or he tears it off mid-battle. You decide which.

All right, let’s cover the book’s first scene.

Help Readers Keep Track of What You’re Talking About

Here’s the opening paragraph of chapter 1.

The town was in flames.

This first sentence is not particularly unique or interesting, but it does have lots of conflict, so I’ll give it three out of five stars. And yes, it’s a paragraph of its own and for no reason other than dramatic effect because the next paragraph is clearly an elaboration on this topic.

The narrow streets leading to the moat and the first terrace belched smoke and embers, flames devouring the densely clustered thatched houses and licking at the castle walls. From the west, from the harbour gate, the screams and clamour of vicious battle and the dull blows of a battering ram smashing against the walls grew ever louder.

This is some nice imagery. I like the belching, devouring, and licking. However, it’s also a lot of layout information at once. We have to map out a whole city with a wall, houses, moat, terrace, and castle, and a harbor and gate specifically on the west side are thrown in for good measure. After some thought, I’m guessing the houses are outside these castle walls getting battered, so the town around the castle is on fire but the castle itself isn’t. I’m not sure though.

Readers are easily disoriented in the first paragraphs, and this is asking for a lot of work. Plus, the second sentence is long and the action of the sentence, “grew,” doesn’t show up until the end, making it difficult to sort through.

Since we haven’t been introduced to a point-of-view character yet and the town is described like we have a bird’s-eye view and not like we’re in it, this must be omniscient narration.

Their attackers had surrounded them unexpectedly, shattering the barricades which had been held by no more than a few soldiers, a handful of townsmen carrying halberds and some crossbowmen from the guild. Their horses, decked out in flowing black caparisons, flew over the barricades like spectres, their riders’ bright, glistening blades sowing death amongst the fleeing defenders.

What is happening here? First, “their” attackers surround “them” unexpectedly. I guess “their” and “them” must refer to the yet unmentioned townsfolk, since in the next clause, we learn the shattered barricades are being defended by a handful of townsfolk. But then the meager handful of town soldiers have horses that are flying over the barricades like spectres?

What we have here is a classic case of pronoun misattribution. In “their horses,” the word “their” is supposed to refer to the attackers in “their attackers.” But grammatically, it refers to what was last mentioned, either the crossbowmen or the town soldiers altogether. Even if that weren’t an issue, expecting readers to link this mid-paragraph “their” to a subject at the beginning of the paragraph is unrealistic. After all the tangent and description stuffed in that first sentence, readers will lose sight of what it was originally about.

Hilariously, the same sentence then uses “their riders.” So the town’s attackers have the town surrounded, the attacker’s horses fly over the barricades, and the horses’ riders’ (the attackers’) glistening blades are sowing death. Wow.

While in this case the pronoun issues could have been created in translation, native English speakers writing in English are perfectly capable of creating passages like these.

Give Characters Proper Introductions

Ciri felt the knight who carried her before him on his saddle abruptly spur his horse. She heard his cry. “Hold on,” he shouted. “Hold on!”

Other knights wearing the colours of Cintra overtook them, sparring, even in full flight, with the Nilfgaardians. Ciri caught a glimpse of the skirmish from the corner of her eye – the crazed swirl of blue-gold and black cloaks amidst the clash of steel, the clatter of blades against shields, the neighing of horses—

Shouts. No, not shouts. Screams.

“Hold on!”

After floating above the city, we’re abruptly in Ciri’s perspective. Everything in these paragraphs is what she’s seeing and feeling, when that wasn’t true before. Many stories written in third person start with omniscient and then transition to a point-of-view character, but an actual transition is necessary. That transition might look something like:

Example

The back gates of the castle burst open, and a score of mounted knights in the blue and gold of Cintra raced out, pounding over the blood and cinders on the narrow streets toward the town’s outer gate. At their center, a knight rode with the princess Ciri before him on his saddle.

The princess clutched the reins, squeezing her eyes shut against the sting of smoke and the sight of slaughter. She felt the horse under her jolt as the knight abruptly spurred it forward.

Above, I introduce where and who Ciri is in this large conflict. Then I narrate what she’s doing and, finally, what she’s feeling – since that requires more than just watching her from the outside.

After we suddenly meet Ciri, the knight she’s with repeatedly shouts, “Hold on!” Is he trying to tell Ciri to hold on tight so she doesn’t fall, or is he calling out to someone ahead? It’s possible this one is a translation problem. In English, “hold on” is used for both physically grabbing something and as a metaphor for persevering until help arrives – that may not be true in Polish. If the “hold on” is meant for Ciri, it’s a little strange that he’s shouting when she’s right next to him. We could chalk that up to the battle being loud, but then why does he keep repeating it? Is she rebelliously refusing to grab onto something?

Lest you think that vaguely shouting at who-knows-who to “hold on” is out of the question, you should know that the pitched battle between Cintra and Nilfgaard on the Netflix show has laughably generic lines like “we’re losing!”

Then the other knights of Cintra somehow overtake Ciri and her rider, even though these other knights are sparring, and the sparring is happening in the corner of Ciri’s eye instead of ahead of her. And while Sapkowski names the Cintrans and Nilfgaardians, he doesn’t say that the princess is on the side of the defenders, so a reader without context would have to figure that out. Also, are the Cintrans wearing blue-gold cloaks and the Nilfgaardians black cloaks, or is it the reverse? Or are all cloaks both blue-gold and black? And what exactly is blue-gold? Is it blue and gold, or is it a type of metal that’s blue? I have so many questions about this passage.

Since this is not the first story in the series, it’s possible that Sapkowski expects his readers to already know all about Cintrans and Nilfgaardians. But usually, even a later book in a series is designed so readers can start there without too much confusion. Plus, sometimes it’s been a while since readers finished the last book, and they need reminders.

Last, there’s this “not shouts, screams” bit, dramatically stated on its own line. Sapkowski has already described lots of screaming and slaughter so… yeah, what else is new? I’m also having trouble imagining that as Ciri is dashing for her life through a burning town, she specifically hears what she thinks are shouts instead of screams and then corrects herself.

All You Have to Fear Is the Word “Fear” Itself

For context, I’ll repeat the last two lines.

Shouts. No, not shouts. Screams.

“Hold on!”

Fear. With every jolt, every jerk, every leap of the horse pain shot through her hands as she clutched at the reins. Her legs contracted painfully, unable to find support, her eyes watered from the smoke. The arm around her suffocated her, choking her, the force compressing her ribs. All around her screaming such as she had never before heard grew louder. What must one do to a man to make him scream so?

Fear. Overpowering, paralysing, choking fear.

Melodrama. With every word, every letter, every single-word sentence and single-line paragraph, it will suffocate you, choke you, compress your ribs as they have never been compressed before. Overpowering, paralyzing, choking melodrama.

Okay, but really, we just have the word “fear” sitting there in italics. What about fear, exactly? The preceding sentence was a line of dialogue from the knight. Even if I thought this single word sentence was a good idea, the narration has to be focused inside of Ciri’s head already for readers to understand that this is supposed to be an emotion she’s experiencing.

With that context, this “Fear” wouldn’t be as jarring, but it would still be melodramatic. Here’s a tip: if you have to name the emotion your character is experiencing, you’re barking up the wrong tree. To make readers feel Ciri’s fear, Sapkowski needed to describe why Ciri should be afraid, not just tell readers that she’s afraid over and over again. If you’d like to know more about this, I have a whole article on melodrama. As for naming emotions, that only makes sense if, for instance, your point-of-view character is trying to figure out what emotion they are feeling.

Also, I just gotta say, what is going on with Ciri’s legs? Why are they contracting? And if she’s sitting on a saddle, why would they need more support? Or is it her eyes that are unable to find support? Without an “and,” the sentence could be interpreted either way.

It’s Okay to Tell Readers What’s Happening

Next, we have four paragraphs of disembodied violence. Here’s an abbreviated version.

Again the clash of iron, the grunts and snorts of the horses. […] All at once the knight at her back was wracked by a strange wheezing cough. Blood spurted over the hands grasping the reins. More screams. Arrows whistled past.

A fall, a shock, painful bruising against armour. Hooves pounded past her, a horse’s belly and a frayed girth flashing by above her head […]. Grunts of exertion, like a lumberjack’s when chopping wood. But this isn’t wood; it’s iron against iron. A shout, muffled and dull, and something huge and black collapsed into the mud next to her with a splash, spurting blood. […]

A jerk. Some force plucked her up, pulled her onto another saddle. Hold on! Again the bone-shaking speed, the mad gallop. Arms and legs desperately searching for support. The horse rears. Hold on!… There is no support. There is no… There is no… There is blood. The horse falls.

I love how Ciri meets a second knight who also shouts at her constantly to hold on. It’s just what Cintran knights do.

This whole sequence, with its disjointed falls, hands, blood, and all the rest, reminds me of a shaky cam. In intense action sequences in movies, such as car accidents, sometimes the camera will shake and the video will switch between random disjointed cuts in quick succession. This is meant to represent the chaos of the situation and boost adrenaline.

I think it’s a fine tactic when used in moderation, but it quickly becomes irritating. After a couple seconds, the audience just wants to know what’s happening. In these paragraphs, it’s hard to feel the danger that Ciri’s in while wondering whether those hands on the reins are Ciri’s or the knight’s or trying to sort out what that horse belly is about. And without consistently narrating about the characters and what they’re doing, we can’t appreciate the struggle these knights are going through to keep Ciri safe. They aren’t people in this sequence, just hands and heads ready to be chopped off. It’s all gore and no emotional power.

However, I wouldn’t object to a few sentences of this when, for instance, Ciri falls off her horse and has to get her bearings again.

Also, lest you think we were done with all that fear stuff, next Ciri sees the silhouette of a dark rider in front of the burning town, staring down at her.

And she is frozen in fear: a terrible fear which turns her entrails inside out, which deafens Ciri to the screams of the wounded horse, the roar of the blaze, the cries of dying people and the pounding drums. The only thing which exists, which counts, which still has any meaning, is fear. Fear embodied in the figure of a black knight wearing a helmet decorated with feathers frozen against the wall of raging, red flames.

The rider spurs his horse, the wings on his helmet fluttering as the bird of prey takes to flight, launching itself to attack its helpless victim, paralysed with fear. The bird – or maybe the knight – screeches terrifyingly, cruelly, triumphantly. A black horse, black armour, a black flowing cloak, and behind this – flames. A sea of flames.

Fear.

The bird shrieks. The wings beat, feathers slap against her face. Fear!

It’s easy to spot melodrama by the sheer number of times dramatic emotions are named in the text, as though every time the word “fear” is used, the narration gets scarier. Okay, I admit it does get scarier, but only to editors.

And what the hell is happening with this bird? It’s just feathers on a helmet, and then it takes flight as though it’s been a bird all along. We’re in Ciri’s point of view, so what is she seeing? Does she see the helmet or the rider morph into a bird, or does she see something else? At least this strange sequence explains why in the show, Ciri says this guy has a bird on his head when his helmet only has two feathers sticking up.

This is fantasy, so it’s entirely possible that something magical is happening, but the narration needs to describe that. This “the bird – or maybe the knight” bit might work with a more playful omniscient narrator, but here it doesn’t fit. It feels like Sapkowski is making fun of his narration instead of fixing it, and that’s frustrating.

Now, raise your hand if you know why this strange bird-rider thing just happened.

If you guessed “it’s all a dream,” then you guessed right!

Writers often have trouble fitting an exciting conflict into their opening, so using a dream is a way of including conflict without actually having to include it. But it makes many audiences feel like they were lied to, because, honestly, they were. Asking your readers to get emotionally invested in a dangerous sequence only to reveal it doesn’t matter is a violation of trust. This doesn’t mean all dreams are bad, but dreams must matter to the story as a whole, not just give a thrill in the moment.

If Your Main Character Seems Invisible, Try This One Weird Trick

“Ciri!”

She woke, numb and drenched in sweat, with her scream – the scream which had woken her – still hanging in the air, still vibrating somewhere within her […]

“Ciri. Calm down.”

The night was dark and windy, the crowns of the surrounding pine trees rustling steadily and melodiously, their limbs and trunks creaking in the wind. There was no malevolent fire, no screams, only this gentle lullaby. Beside her the campfire flickered with light and warmth, its reflected flames glowing from harness buckles, gleaming red in the leather-wrapped and iron-banded hilt of a sword leaning against a saddle on the ground. There was no other fire and no other iron. The hand against her cheek smelled of leather and ashes. Not of blood.

So someone calls out to Ciri, and she wakes up. First, she feels the current state of her body – sweaty, numb, her scream fading. This makes perfect sense. The whole paragraph there is a little dramatic, but it doesn’t have “fear” ten times, so that’s a win.

Then another unattributed line of dialogue tells her to calm down, and she… thinks about the trees? Is this a disembodied voice coming from the night sky? Then Sapkowski describes a campfire and a sword, but still not the person right there talking to her. Well, after that she finally realizes there’s a hand against her cheek, so describing the person attached to that hand is probably next.

“Geralt—”

“It was just a dream. A bad dream.”

Ciri shuddered violently, curling her arms and legs up tight.

A dream. Just a dream.

Nope. After describing tons of fire and guts everywhere, and then waxing poetic about the trees and the campfire, there’s still no description of Geralt, who may or may not have blood pouring down his butt right now.

The campfire had already died down; the birch logs were red and luminous, occasionally crackling, giving off tiny spurts of blue flame which illuminated the white hair and sharp profile of the man wrapping a blanket and sheepskin around her.

“Geralt, I—”

“I’m right here. Sleep, Ciri. You have to rest. We’ve still a long way ahead of us.”

Well, by carefully reading that really long sentence, we discover he has white hair. Also, a profile, the most distinctive of features. Of course, it’s not possible to go into more detail because it might distract from those immensely important birch logs.

Update: A number of people in the comments have stated that Geralt shouldn’t need description because readers will know what he looks like from previous books. But that mistakes the biggest reason description is needed in this case: not for establishing exactly what he looks like, but for scene setting. Geralt is the most important item in Ciri’s view, so neglecting description of him makes him feel conspicuously absent from the scene. This is magnified by the embellished description used for everything else.

Think of description as your way to point the camera. A scene that takes a long shot of a couple logs but never looks at the main character would be weird.*

To describe Geralt while not being repetitive for familiar readers, Sapkowski could have focused on how Geralt looks in the moment. Maybe he has shadows under his eyes after going without sleep or there’s a new rent in his leather armor that he’s repairing.

No, Really, What Is Happening?

I can hear music, she thought suddenly. Amidst the rustling of the trees… there’s music. Lute music. And voices. The Princess of Cintra… A child of destiny… A child of Elder Blood, the blood of elves. Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, and his destiny. No, no, that’s a legend. A poet’s invention. The princess is dead. She was killed in the town streets while trying to escape…

Hold on… ! Hold… 

This passage is really unclear. Ciri thinks about how she hears music instead of the narration telling us she hears music. Since Geralt just told her to go back to sleep, she might be drifting off here. Plus, they are outside around a campfire, so where would the music come from? So on my first read, I assumed this was her imagination.

But the next scene features a bard that’s just finished singing, so… maybe he’s somewhere nearby? That would also explain why the wording is so over the top. But the bard is surrounded by people, not out in the woods. Maybe magic allows Ciri to hear music from a distance because destiny?

Then we’re back to our good friend “hold on.” Is the bard singing that? It would at least explain why it appeared so often in her dream. Altogether, this is a real confusing way to stick in some exposition.

“Geralt?”

“What, Ciri?”

“What did he do to me? What happened? What did he… do to me?”

“Who?”

“The knight… The black knight with feathers on his helmet… I can’t remember anything. He shouted… and looked at me. I can’t remember what happened. Only that I was frightened… I was so frightened…”

Look folks, I know dialogue tags aren’t real popular, but when choosing between them and having your characters speak each other’s names all the time for no reason, choose the tags. It’s okay; a few tags won’t hurt you.

So that dream was a memory? That at least makes it a little more relevant to the story. And now we have a little mystery about what happened to Ciri.

The man leaned over her, the flame of the campfire sparkling in his eyes. They were strange eyes. Very strange. Ciri had been frightened of them, she hadn’t liked meeting his gaze. But that had been a long time ago. A very long time ago.

His eyes are strange? Horses are “decked out in flowing black caparisons, flying over the barricades like spectres” and the woods have “crowns of the surrounding pine trees rustling steadily and melodiously, their limbs and trunks creaking in the wind,” but the main character’s eyes are just strange?

Sapkowski even tells us they’re frightening while refusing to describe why. This has to be on purpose. My best guess is that Sapkowski wants Geralt to be mysterious and thinks that this will somehow accomplish that. It’s either that or he just hates describing people.

Occasionally, writers want their main characters to be mysterious – usually as a form of candy. This is generally a bad idea. The main character’s purpose is to get the audience emotionally invested in the story, and making them mysterious lowers that investment. However, since we’re in Ciri’s viewpoint, it’s hard to say thus far whether Geralt is functioning as the main character. If she’s older than she is in the show, he could be a mysterious love interest.

Either way, not providing a description of him when the point-of-view character is looking straight at him is disingenuous and adds confusion instead of building atmosphere.

“I can’t remember anything,” she whispered, searching for his hand, as tough and coarse as raw wood. “The black knight—”

“It was a dream. Sleep peacefully. It won’t come back.”

Wait – was this a dream or a memory appearing in her dreams? Before, when Ciri was asking what the black knight did to her, that seemed like a pretty serious question. “It was a dream” is not an answer if it really happened, but if it didn’t, why is she asking? Does she really need to be told that dreams aren’t real? Going back to the perhaps imaginary music – she said the princess was dead. Does she not know she’s the princess? Or like the bard’s lyrics, was it supposed to be other people speaking about how the princess was dead?

Ciri hearing things via magic could be fun and mysterious. Ciri having meaningful dreams could be fun and mysterious. Ciri not remembering her past could be fun and mysterious. This is confusing.

Consider Saying It Just Once Per Paragraph

Ciri had heard such reassurances in the past. They had been repeated to her endlessly; many, many times she had been offered comforting words when her screams had woken her during the night. But this time it was different. Now she believed it. Because it was Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, the Witcher, who said it. The man who was her destiny. The one for whom she was destined. Geralt the Witcher, who had found her surrounded by war, death and despair, who had taken her with him and promised they would never part.

She fell asleep holding tight to his hand.

So before, I thought maybe all that overdone stuff about destiny was the bard embellishing things. But nope, this sequence about Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, the Witcher, is how Sapkowski wants it. It is his destiny. The narration for which he is destined. It’s funny how often purple prose involves redundant phrasing. If we only say it once, it’s not a big enough deal!!!

I enjoyed a lot of the description in this opening, but overall the narration is too embellished. If you trying to make every small thing into a big deal, the story starts to feel belabored and melodramatic.

Sapkowski is eager to tell us about meaningless blood, gore, fire, and death while the important parts of the story are shoved off to the side. Interesting or nuanced characterization is neglected in favor of simple dramatic statements or rants about destiny. The narration is pretty, but it demands the audience work to figure out basic things the storyteller should just tell them, as though being obtuse is clever.

In other words, it’s exactly like the show.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Passerby

    You’re missing out by not reading the short stories… Just sayin’. The show didn’t really do a good job of adapting them, and they are meant to be read before the series. It’s unfortunately not an uncommon practice in Polish adult fantasy to first get 2 books of short stories and only then a tightly plotted series, since a lot of authors debut via short stories. They then write with the assumption you read them.

    Also, for all it’s worth, stylistic rules are different in Polish. I feel like in this case translating too closely to the original was a mistake (though for the record, I don’t remember this specific part that well). What sounds purple in English is totally OK in Polish. There are different things to avoid. For instance, you shouldn’t repeat words too often (I imagine that why it’s “attackers” once, and then “riders” the second time). There probably weren’t any “theirs” in that paragraph, or if there were, it was clear what they were referring to, because Polish grammar.

    But I say it as a bilingual reader – Sapkowski’s writing is one of the best out there in Polish, but here in English it just didn’t sound the same. The voice got lost. I don’t know. I also know that it’s meaningless to an English consumer, since all you get is the translation, but I guess I felt like defending the guy a little.

    • SunlessNick

      If memory serves, Polish pronouns have a lot of conditional forms that make it much less ambiguous what they’re referring to.

  2. Cay Reet

    I’m not defending any of the writing, mind, but since you started with the first novel, may it not be reasonable that Geralt is already introduced well in the short stories which came first and most readers will already be familiar with his looks and skills at that point, so he, as a recurring character, doesn’t need reintroduction?

    • Elga

      Indeed, Geralt was introduced in first novel, Last wish. And in Ukraine, for instance, book that is discussed – Blood of elves – is number 3 thus it is not strange that author did not describe his MC again.

  3. GeniusLemur

    “The Princess of Cintra… A child of destiny… A child of Elder Blood, the blood of elves. Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, and his destiny.”
    “Because it was Geralt of Rivia, the White Wolf, the Witcher, who said it. The man who was her destiny. The one for whom she was destined.”
    Laying on the “chosen one” stuff extra thick, I see. Well, at least we can be sure we won’t get any of that awful “suspense” stuff on us.

  4. Paul C

    That was a completely wonderful melodramatic description of melodrama!

  5. Jeppsson

    I liked the short stories a lot, but not so much Blood of Elves. My main issue was it felt like it was just the beginning of a story. That’s normal when you’re actually at the start of the book, of course, but I still felt like I was at the beginning of a story in the middle of the book and even at the end. Others are like “but it IS the beginning of a story because it’s the first novel in the series!” (like the first actual novel, while the short stories are a little more self-contained). And that’s true, but I normally don’t feel like this about the first novel in a series; normally, I still feel like I’ve actually read a whole novel when the first book ends.

    YMMV and all that.

    Also, Geralt felt like a cardboard character. (I guess he wasn’t that distinct in the short stories either, but it didn’t feel like a problem in them.)

  6. Jeppsson

    Husband and I discussed whether purple prose and melodrama is something that might depend on the translation, and Husband said “remember Åke Ohlmarks!”

    Right.

    Ohlmarks translated the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Swedish long ago. It was initially praised by reviewers, but then Tolkien read his translation and was pissed off about all the additions and changes he’d seen fit to add, plus a whole bunch of straight mistranslations. (Turns out Tolkien knew Swedish! He knew SO many languages.) Tolkien and Ohlmarks became real enemies after this, and other translators did The Hobbit and Silmarillion.

    When the movies came out and the books had a new surge in popularity, a new Swedish translation was made with the attempt to stay really true to the original and follow Tolkien’s own instructions for how to translate his novels. I haven’t read it, but I might do so out of curiousity some day (I’ve read both Ohlmark’s translation as a kid and then the English original novels as an adult).

    • Cay Reet

      That reminds me of the German translation of Bram Stoker’s “The Jewel of Seven Stars”. They completely changed the ending during translation.

      Spoiler warning for a 100+ year old story.
      At the end of the novel, the group of heroes decides to perform a ritual Queen Tera (the villain of the piece and an ancient Egyptian sorcerer queen) has laid out in order to be reborn. They do this in order to remove the queen’s influence on Margaret Trelawny, the daughter of the archaeologist who found the mummy and the fiancé of the narrator. In the English version, the ritual backfires and all except for the narrator, who staggers out of the basement in time, are killed. In the German version, the ritual works, even though the queen’s body isn’t viable, and there’s a happily ever after for the narrator and his fiancé.

      • Jeppsson

        Haha, Ohlmarks is most “famous” for changing the killing of the witch king so that it’s Merry rather than Eowyn who does it (motivated by misogyny, I guess?). This was actually something the publishing house changed back after it got a lot of attention. They continued to sell this translation for decades though.

        Other highlights are how Ohlmarks translated “the firstborn [the elves in this context] roaming the forests” to “the firstborn [in masculine singular, so now it’s suddenly one particular dude] bellowing in the forests”. All Swedish readers are like ????? Who is this guy? Why does he just disappear from the plot after having bellowed in the forest?

        Apparently Ohlmarks thought it would befit the orcs to curse in their dialogue. He used curse words that are very common in Sweden, but derive from Christianity (our curse words aren’t traditionally sexual, but it’s different names for Satan, devils, hell). Also, at one point he throws in an idiom that derives from the old Norse religion.

        You can see why Tolkien got pissed off…

        • Cay Reet

          Yes, I can see where that would piss Tolkien off.

          The strange thing about the translation of Jewel is that it’s not just in a book I read a long time ago, but also in a relatively recent radio drama. I didn’t even realize there was a change until I bought the English version a long time after the German one and was surprised at the different ending, comparing the two and realizing the German one was the wrong one.

      • Luke Slater

        I believe ‘The Jewel of the Seven Stars’ isn’t a change in translation. There was a revised edition, published in 1912, where Stoker changed the ending so Tera was defeated and all ended in marriage and crumpets. It’s the version I first read – in English – so I was also surprised to learn that there was another ending.

        https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3781/3781-h/3781-h.htm

        • Cay Reet

          Thank you. I guess the German translation was made from the revised edition, then, whereas TOR had the original – and so does, I assume Forgotten Books.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m here for old timey beefs over Swedish LotR translations!

      • Jeppsson

        And there’s more to it! Many years after he translated LoTR, Ohlmarks house caught fire. He blamed Tolkien’s Swedish fans, and then wrote a book where he laid out a weird conspiracy theory according to which Tolkien and his fans had some secret society for black magic and nazism.

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          This is amazing and I love everything about it except changing who killed the Witch King. That’s just bad.

        • Søren Løvborg

          For better or worse, Sweden was a first-mover when it came to translating Tolkien, which perhaps also explains “The Hobbit” becoming “Hompen” in the 1947 translation (not by Ohlmarks), something Tolkien was also not at all happy about.

          Tolkien was of course fiercely protective of his texts, and it feels like a good third or so of “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien” is dedicated to Tolkien’s battles with both proofreaders and translators, including Ohlmarks. In 1961, Tolkien complained that Ohlmarks, in his introduction to the translation, had just made stuff up about both Tolkien and the origins of the books, with Tolkien writing that “Ohlmarks has woven a ridiculous fantasy”, being “a very vain man, preferring his own fancy to facts” (228) and complaining, “Why should I be made an object of fiction while still alive?” (229) Harsh words, but probably not an understatement given Ohlmarks’ 1982 book. (Going by the Swedish Wikipedia, “some secret society for black magic and nazism” hardly does it justice, with the book apparently depicting Tolkien’s family and fans as members of a drug-fueled Satanic murder cult/organized crime syndicate with tenuous dentistry-based ties to the Ku Klux Klan.)

          It does seem a bit ironic that Jackson’s film adaptation may have prompted new and more faithful translations of Tolkien’s work (not just in Sweden), given the significant liberties that the films took with the source material. But it’s certainly welcome… even if many Scandinavians are likely to just go straight to the English original, these days.

    • Julia

      “remember Åke Ohlmarks!”

      This sounds like something characters would be screaming in the first scene of a confusing fantasy novel.

      • Jeppsson

        True!

      • LeeEsq

        Remember Remember Ake Ohlmarks, of questionable translations and plot, but I can’t think of a reason why Ake Ohlmarks translations should ever be forgot.

  7. Bernadette Kearns

    This is the best opening lines review and comment thread I’ve read in ages. Brilliant stuff. Thanks to you all.

  8. Dave L

    Something that bugs me. I know you’ve discussed this elsewhere but it bugs me

    This wouldn’t come up in the TV series, and I know the rules are different for Polish, but there is an unnecessary ambiguity in the name pronunciations

    Ghuralt? Juralt? Ghairalt? Jairalt? Or is the “t” silent, like “Voldemort”?

    Suree? Kuree? Seeree? Keeree?

    I can understand this when using a real name, like Siobhan or Hermione, but when you’re making up a name, make sure we know how to pronounce it!

    It’s difficult to enjoy A Wizard of Earthsea when you’re constantly wondering “Ghed” or “Jed”

    • Anna

      This sounds quite English centric to me. Not all languages have this ambiguity concerning pronunciations. Or they have and they have their own rules, which can be a lot different. I understand that how to read a name can be problem. I’ve seen that sometimes there is short “how to pronounce it” section at the end of book. Or you can always look up how to pronounce it in Polish.

    • Cay Reet

      Geralt is a perfectly fine German name, just saying.

      • Jeppsson

        Yeah, although it’s not a regular Swedish name, I spontaneously pronounced it in my head the way a Swede would and never wondered about it.

        It’s inevitable that some people with different mother tongues will name characters in a way that comes off as natural to them, even though it might be odd and hard to pronounce for an English-speaking person. Just like English names can be hard to pronounce for someone not well-versed in English.

    • Cay Reet

      As a German, I have no idea how to properly pronounce Siobhan and I only learned about Hermione when the movies came out. In the German HP translation, Hermione’s name has been changed to Hermine.

      On the other hand, I’m perfectly sure how to pronounce Geralt and Ciri.

    • Ceres

      Hello, both names are actually real, they are just changed a bit to fit the naming conventions in the Witcher World.

      Geralt (Gerald in real life) is pronounced Jeh-ralt, or Geh-ralt (Polish permits that variant but the first one is more common) and Ciri – short for Cirilla, from Elder Speech Zireael – (real life Cyrila) is pronounced Si’-ree and Si’-ri’-lah (si as in sink), though I suppose you know it from the TV Show/the video games.

      Point is, this is more of a cultural/linguistical difference, as you’ve said. Polish is a phonetic language – there is usually only one way to read what is written. Secondly, while Gerald and Cyril/Cyrila are not awfully common names in slavic countries, or generally in Europe (nowadays), they are known, and thus do not require a clarification on how they are read.

      I agree it is quite a common problem in fantasy books though, I have problems with that myself, but as book is simply a written medium, there is not much that can be done. Furthermore, what is clear for one person, might not be clear for the other one: not coming from an english speaking background, gaellic languages are extra foreign for me, so while I do know how to pronounce some common names (Siobhan, Eoin etc.), that’s about where my reading knowledge of that ends.

      Supporting this, JK Rowling wrote the scene about Hermione teaching Viktor Krum pronouncing her name for the sole reason, that readers often asked her how to pronounce it. So Hermione is also not that foolproof…

  9. El Suscriptor Justiciero

    All this talk about purple prose have made me wonder, have y’all considered writing a ‘Lessons From’ article about the Eye of Argon?

    It’d be a post better written while tipsy, though. Or maybe high.

  10. Ashiok

    What the heck is that cover?
    For comparison, three different editions of this book in Czech:
    https://www.dantikvariat.cz/books_images/301941_IMG-20170903-0065.jpg
    https://img24.rajce.idnes.cz/d2402/4/4224/4224068_5ba0e408d31427fc8a7a986816fed6c2/images/IMG_4798.JPG
    https://cdn.luxor.cz/0/9/8/4/6/09846e7b-7c3d-a684-c67b-3c31a6e08c31.jpeg

    It seems that someone in the publishing house of the English version wanted to make it “more appealing to Western audience” or took too much from the games. Eh.

    The voice really gets lost, it feels. The scene has some melodrama in the original and in the Czech version as well (Polish and Czech are very close) however it is far more reasonable and it works better. It also makes sense as a dream scene.

    And I believe the first book is only really good (and was intended to be good) as a followup of the short stories.

    I read and enjoy all of your “Lessons From … Writing Of” articles and I think this one is a bit of drop in quality. Especially the last line that makes a comparison to the poor TV adaptation based on two pages of the books. No, the books are not exactly like the show.

    I think a bit of nuance and more research would go a long way but I enjoyed this take still, different perspectives are always important – thanks for that!

  11. Jack

    “I think the show is really bad, but I enjoyed it anyway.”

    Ha! I think it’s much better if viewers go in with low expectations. Expect something like, “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” and be pleasantly surprised at the parts that are better (like the songs!).

  12. Katie

    Oh can you do a Lessons from Wings of Fire?

  13. Tknoel

    A minor detail, but in fairness to Sapkowski, I expect Ciri’s legs are unsupported because she wouldn’t have any stirrups to brace herself with since she’s sharing the saddle with the soldier. That should have been specified, though. He certainly had the time, haha.

  14. Lysistrate

    If you don’t like the beginning of the novel, you should read the short stories – I haven’t read anything more awful in a long time. The introduction is not even a proper story, just a scene in which a nameless woman crawls into Geralts bed in the middle of the night to have sex with him (all without speaking of course), while comparing her to a water nymph. I had a long discussion about this scene with a friend of mine who is a big fan of the witcher books and he explained that it’s not as bad as it seems, since the woman has actually been ordered by the head of her order (she seems to be a nun or such?) to have sex with Geralt to make a connection between him and such order. I must say, if that is true, that is actually much worse than I originally thought. But at least you know what to expect from the rest of the book.
    Then follows the story of the Striga, in which Geralt has to subdue the monsterous princess in order to turn her back into a human (of course after the Striga turns back, she is still quite monsterous, almost tears Geralts throat out and not capable of speech).
    Then comes the story of Geralt coming across a wild man or such living in the woods, who is able to converse quite civilized, though, and who has a love relationship with some kind of nymph-thingy (again). Of course the nymph turns out to be the real monster in the story and Geralt needs to slay her in the end (without her uttering a single word in the whole story of course).
    Then the story of the law of surprise, in which the queen is trying to marry off her daugther against her will (at least the queen can speak, whereas the daughter, again, doesn’t voice a single syllable throughout the whole story. Apart from screaming in the end, that is). At least Geralt doesn’t have to slay the daughter this time, but as we all know, she shortly dies after giving birth to Ciri anyway, so that is that.
    The last story I read was the one about Renfri and how Geralt had to slay her in the end (no surprises here). I actually liked that one the best, since at least Renfri is capable of giving her own version of the story (not that it helps her in the end).
    The netflix-series is actually a huge improvement in the way some of these stories were depicted.

  15. Mohini

    You should write a “Lessons from Bad Writing” on Keeper of the Lost Cities! It’s very popular, I think, and a bestseller, but the first book was very boring and bad.

  16. Kat

    So, I speak Polish, and my dad loves the witcher, I read it in Polish, and hold on (trzimaj sie) sorry for spelling, only means you hold on. Sorry.

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