Natalie Schachar at Tablet has one of those oddball translation stories I love, Yiddish-Speaking Wizards and Dragons Invade the Shire in ‘Der Hobit’“:

For one of his first translation projects after his retirement, Barry Goldstein, a former computer programmer, found an empty table at his local Starbucks in Boston and settled in to work on the “Treebeard” chapter from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But Goldstein soon realized that he needed something more sizable to occupy his time: 95,022 words later, he had translated the entire text of The Hobbit, the prequel to the Ring series, into Yiddish. [...]
While Goldstein grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home—his father’s roots were in Lithuania, and his mother was born in Kaminets-Podolsk—he never took to the language as a child. In fact, he vividly remembers the time that he escaped through a window in order to cut class at the Jewish school where he learned Yiddish. Years later though, he started taking Yiddish classes and soon found himself as J.R.R. Tolkien’s foremost and only Yiddish-language translator.

Sales are in the low three figures, but you don’t translate into Yiddish to make the big bucks. Also, Schachar links to Yale UP’s New Yiddish Library Series, a worthy project I hadn’t been familiar with (or had forgotten). Thanks, Paul!


  1. Amazon lets you Look Inside at a few pages. (My Yiddish is very scanty, but I guffawed at several points; Gandalf sounds a lot like my grandma.) Unfortunately the Yiddish seems to be rather poor, according to the reviews there (“Der Hobit is more a relexification using words found in Yiddish dictionaries than a translation into anything resembling comprehensible Yiddish”). Maybe some Yiddish-fluent Hatter can tell us if they agree.

  2. My Yiddish is also too weak to provide an informed opinion on the book’s literary merits. Noteworthy, though, is that in the front matter Barry Goldstein thanks Leah Robinson and Raphael Finkel for their help in editing the work. Finkel was among the very first people to post Yiddish material on the web, including a complete scan of Harkavy’s 1910 Yiddish-English-Yiddish dictionary. See here for a wealth of links that he’s put together. Perhaps noteworthy: They’re both computer programmers.

  3. Hobbit shmobit. Why on earth translate much the worse of the two books?

  4. I’m referring to the trilogy as a single book, so by all means construe my remark as referring to the worst of the four.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    Tolkein wrote in 1938 (or at least drafted; the record is apparentlyunclear as to whether it was actually sent) a famously nasty response to a German publisher who was trying to condition paying for the rights to make a German translation of The Hobbit on confirmation of the author’s Aryan status (“I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.”). In hindsight it would have been funnier if he’d conditioned the German rights on the publisher’s undertaking to simultaneously prepare and publish a Yiddish edition.

  6. To be fair to Rütten & Loening, it was German law, not their personal attitude, that required a declaration of “Aryan origin” from all authors, for among the thousand and one things that Jews couldn’t do in the Third Reich was publish anything. But the rest of the letter is worth reading:

    But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.
    Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.

    Tolkien sent this and another letter which refused to make any such declaration to his British publishers; this one remained in the latter’s files, so presumably the other one was sent.
    Dearieme: As far as I know, there is no language into which The Lord of the Rings has been translated without a previous translation of The Hobbit. For one thing, it is much shorter. For another, it is not nearly so difficult to translate.
    Though Joyce and Tolkien were near-contemporaries (Joyce was born ten years earlier), they could hardly be more different in style — one the quintessential modernist, the other so archaic as to be downright postmodern. But they both strain English nearly to the breaking point. Indeed, there is a passage in Ulysses that reads like a parody of Tolkien:

    Some man that wayfaring was stood by housedoor at night’s oncoming. Of Israel’s folk was that man that on earth wandering far had fared. Stark ruth of man his errand that him lone led till that house.
    Of that house A. Horne is lord. Seventy beds keeps he there teeming mothers are wont that they lie for to thole and bring forth bairns hale so God’s angel to Mary quoth. Watchers tway there walk, white sisters in ward sleepless. Smarts they still, sickness soothing: in twelve moons thrice an hundred. Truest bedthanes they twain are, for Horne holding wariest ward.
    In ward wary the watcher hearing come that man mildhearted eft rising with swire ywimpled to him her gate wide undid. Lo, levin leaping lightens in eyeblink Ireland’s westward welkin. Full she drad that God the Wreaker all mankind would fordo with water for his evil sins. Christ’s rood made she on breastbone and him drew that he would rathe infare under her thatch. That man her will wotting worthful went in Horne’s house.
    Loth to irk in Horne’s hall hat holding the seeker stood. On her stow he ere was living with dear wife and lovesome daughter that then over land and seafloor nine years had long outwandered. Once her in townhithe meeting he to her bow had not doffed. Her to forgive now he craved with good ground of her allowed that that of him swiftseen face, hers, so young then had looked. Light swift her eyes kindled, bloom of blushes his word winning.
    As her eyes then ongot his weeds swart therefor sorrow she feared. Glad after she was that ere adread was. Her he asked if O’Hare Doctor tidings sent from far coast and she with grameful sigh him answered that O’Hare Doctor in heaven was. Sad was the man that word to hear that him so heavied in bowels ruthful. All she there told him, ruing death for friend so young, algate sore unwilling God’s rightwiseness to withsay. She said that he had a fair sweet death through God His goodness with masspriest to be shriven, holy housel and sick men’s oil to his limbs. The man then right earnest asked the nun of which death the dead man was died and the nun answered him and said that he was died in Mona Island through bellycrab three year agone come Childermas and she prayed to God the Allruthful to have his dear soul in his undeathliness. He heard her sad words, in held hat sad staring. So stood they there both awhile in wanhope sorrowing one with other.
    Therefore, everyman, look to that last end that is thy death and the dust that gripeth on every man that is born of woman for as he came naked forth from his mother’s womb so naked shall he wend him at the last for to go as he came.

    And here’s Tolkien, rewriting a scene from Beowulf into a language that is (as Le Guin calls it) “less extraordinary English, or rather English that is extraordinary for its simple timelessness”:

    There sat many men in bright mail, who sprang at once to their feet and barred the way with spears. “Stay, strangers here unknown!” they cried in the tongue of the Riddermark, demanding the names and errand of the strangers. Wonder was in their eyes but little friendliness; and they looked darkly upon Gandalf.
    “Well do I understand your speech,” he answered in the same language;”yet few strangers do so. Why then do you not speak in the Common Tongue, as is the custom in the West, if you wish to be answered?”
    “It is the will of Théoden King that none should enter his gates, save those who know our tongue and are our friends,” replied one of the guards. “None are welcome here in days of war but our own folk, and those that come from Mundburg in the land of Gondor. Who are you that come heedless over the plain thus strangely clad, riding horses like to our own horses? Long have we kept guard here, and we have watched you from afar. Never have we seen other riders so strange, nor any horse more proud than is one of these that bear you. He is one of the Mearas, unless our eyes are cheated by some spell. Say, are you not a wizard, some spy from Saruman, or phantoms of his craft? Speak now and be swift!”
    “We are no phantoms,” said Aragorn,”nor do your eyes cheat you. For indeed these are your own horses that we ride, as you knew well are you asked, I guess. But seldom does thief ride home to the stable. Here are Hasufel and Arod, that Éomer, the Third Marshal of the Mark, lent to us, only two days ago. We bring them back now, even as we promised him. Has not Éomer then returned and given warning of our coming?”
    A troubled look came into the guard’s eyes. “Of Éomer I have naught to say,” he answered. “If what you tell me is truth, then doubtless Théoden will have heard of it. Maybe your coming was not wholly unlooked-for. It is but two nights ago that Wormtongue came to us and said that by the will of Théoden no stranger should pass these gates.”
    “Wormtongue?” said Gandalf, looking sharply at the guard. “Say no more! My errand is not to Wormtongue, but to the Lord of the Mark himself. I am in haste. Will you not go or send to say that we are come?” His eyes glinted under his deep brows as he bent his gaze upon the man.

    Now I ask you, what is any poor suffering translator to make of either of those? What hope has he of rendering either in its full richness of language into any other tongue of Men? Tolkien even wrote a glossary of all the names in The Lord of the Rings that should be translated by sense, and what their sense was, but for various stupid reasons this has been either unavailable to or disregarded by most translators, with the result that they have generally made a balls of Tolkien’s nomenclature.

  7. I notethat the runes (specifically, the Old English fuþorc) on Thror’s Map, shown with the article, have not been translated: the plain runes by the pointing finger still read FIVE FŒT HIGH ÞE DOR AND ÞRŒ MAY WALK ABREAST: Þ[ror and] Þ[rain], and the “moon-letters” read STAND BY ÞE GREY STONE HWER ÞE ÞRUSH CNORCS [sic, knocks] AND ÞE SETTIŊ SUN WIÞ ÞE LAST LIGHT OA [sic] DURINS DAY WILL SHINE UPON ÞE KEYHOLE.
    In addition, the printed Hebrew script looks grossly out of style with the rest of the map. The translator or the publisher should have gotten someone to calligraph the new text.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    What the Joyce excerpt reminds me of is someone whose name I forget, who wrote in English-as-it-would-be-without-the-French-borrowings (not a whole work, only an experimental paragraph or two, I think).

  9. someone whose name I forget, who wrote in English-as-it-would-be-without-the-French-borrowings
    The Anglish Moot

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    That bit of Joyce sounds to my ear rather more obviously like a parody of G.M. Hopkins. I wonder if anyone has attempted to translate Hopkins into Yiddish?

  11. J.W. Brewer says:

    I wonder if the bit a little later in the same Joyce passage where he’s shifted style from Anglo-Saxon to around the blurry line between Middle and Early-Modern is more Tolkienesque:
    “And in the castle was set a board that was of the birchwood of Finlandy and it was upheld by four dwarfmen of that country but they durst not move more for enchantment. And on this board were frightful swords and knives that are made in a great cavern by swinking demons out of white flames that they fix then in the horns of buffalos and stags that there abound marvellously.” etc etc

  12. If I were going to translate children’s books into Yiddish or whatever, I think I’d start with Winnie the Pooh rather than The Hobbit. But each to his own. I suppose it’s obvious where Hat would start.

  13. Off-topic (not that I dislike the current topic):
    Has anyone hereabouts read Jared Diamond’s latest work The World Until Yesterday; What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
    There is a whole chapter on multilinguism people here can resonate with. Assuming I am not the only person who reads whatever he publishes, his message will hopefully spread amongst non-linguists.

  14. Sorry about the duplication. Posting takes so long I don’t know if it happens. Is my problem here or there?

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    From one skeptical review: “as I read the text, I found that I agreed with Diamond in inverse relation to my pre-existing knowledge about whatever subject he was addressing. When Diamond was writing about topics that I know in depth, I felt as though he was leaving out important information; when I didn’t know what he was writing about, I was thoroughly convinced. Diamond is a generalist and will always paint with a brush that a specialist finds too broad. The danger lies not in simplifying source material by leaving out extraneous details, but in selectively highlighting only the facts that support one’s argument and casting contravening cases aside.” (FWIW, I’ve never read any book by Diamond myself – they’re in that category of popular-bestseller where once I’ve read two or three different reviews summarizing the book’s general thesis I feel like I wouldn’t gain any incremental benefit from actually reading the book itself.)

  16. If I were going to translate children’s books into Yiddish or whatever, I think I’d start with Winnie the Pooh
    Too late. But you can easily improve on it, because this edition uses the Latin alphabet.

  17. Sorry about the duplication.
    I deleted the duplicate comment but left this one in case anyone wanted to discuss the multiple-posting issue (which I know nothing about).

  18. John Cowan: I believe there is a typo in your Tolkien quote: at the end of the second sentence of Aragorn’s answer to the guard “…as you knew well are you asked, I guess” should be “…as you knew well ere you asked, I guess”.
    And yes, just trying to translate that passage of Tolkien’s into French gives me a headache. Indeed the actual French translation of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the rings” is…flat. It is very straightforward French prose with little if any attempt to capture the archaic flavor of the original.
    Indeed I strongly suspect that an adequate translation of Tolkien into any language (French or Yiddish or whatever…) would have to be a collaborative effort: I doubt any single translator could handle the prose (with all its differences in dialect), the toponymy, the poetry as well as the songs.

  19. Why on earth translate much the worse of the two books?
    He didn’t – he started with it, but decided to do The Hobbit instead.

  20. Come on, Hat, give us a line or two of Hoary Patter in Yiddish.

  21. Jeffry House says:

    Multiple posts: When I post something here, the machine appears not to respond. It appears that it is timing out. Then, I press “send” a second time. And sometimes a third!
    Inevitably, after five minutes, three copies of the post appear on the screen. So, I think it must be a very long tube over to your house, LH. And before my content arrives over there, I get an itchy trigger finger because I think my prose may not see the pixels of day.
    So maybe the answer is to develop a detached calm, and press “send” only once.

  22. I have attempted the detached calm approach, but it seems to want to go on forever. I stop the process, look at the last comment, and post again if my post isn’t there. Next time I’ll count the seconds.

  23. Only 5 seconds that time, which is more usual.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    The problem is that the delay between “post” and the appearance of the comment can vary considerably, no doubt for obscure technical reasons, and just waiting for the comment to appear is frustrating because it seems impossible to use the computer for other things (actually, the computer does remember, even if you close the page). But patience usually wins!

  25. David Marjanović says:

    And yes, just trying to translate that passage of Tolkien’s into French gives me a headache. Indeed the actual French translation of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the rings” is…flat. It is very straightforward French prose with little if any attempt to capture the archaic flavor of the original.
    I wonder if part of the reason is that Standard French has changed so little since the 17th century (or earlier), a few quirks of spelling excepted.
    Another part of the reason is probably that the works of that period that are still widely known are classicist plays full of Latin and Greek, not so much of archaisms. English has Shakespeare and the King James Bible; without these, few people would even known that thou ever existed, for example.
    Yet another may be how centralized it is. At least within England, various words and phrases Tolkien used probably remind the reader of some shire or other in addition to appearing archaic. Modern spoken French in Europe is remarkably uniform; there are a few regional words left, but they aren’t widely known.

  26. The “in held hat sat staring” passage from Joyce is most amusing – I couldn’t help laughing – and it does sound at times like a parody of GM Hopkins. Was it intended to be? Perhaps it was meant to be a parody of the whole class of writings overly reliant on Old English prosody – but I have no idea if Hopkins was not the only member of that class.

  27. JWB: Quite right, I think. Of course, there is no question of actual parody or influence: it is very unlikely that either Tolkien or Joyce regarded or read the other. Tom Shippey discusses their similarities and differences in Author of the Century (one of those cases where the omission of an article is significant).
    Etienne: Thanks for the correction. The text I copied from is obviously OCRed and insufficiently corrected. Indeed, it is only in this century that either Ulysses or The Lord of the Rings has gotten anything like a decent critical text.
    I think in truth that this flatness you mention is characteristic of French translations. Consider Job 40:15. In the King James Version, it is “Behold now behemoth, which I made with thee; he eateth grass as an ox.” Even in the New International Version of 1978 (where it is printed as verse) it is “Look at Behemoth, / which I made along with you / and which feeds on grass like an ox.” But in the Segond version of 1880 it is “Voici l’hippopotame, à qui j’ai donné la vie comme à toi! Il mange de l’herbe comme le boeuf.”
    I ask you! “Behold now behemoth” becomes “Here is the hippopotamus”? How bathetic is that? Luther at least split the difference with “Siehe da, den Behemoth Nilpferd, den ich neben dir gemacht habe; er frißt Gras wie ein Ochse.” To be fair, the 16th-century versions do say “Voici Behemoth”, but they are little read. There is also a modern French translation of the KJV, made for the usual tendentious reasons, and its wording is “Voici maintenant le Béhémoth”.
    Warning: avoid the home page of this site,, which is infected with a Trojan that may allow malicious persons to take control of your Windows computer! The other pages, including those I have specifically linked to, appear to be safe.

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Etienne, I have not read Tolkien in either English or French, but according to the page on Le Hobbit, there are two French translations: the first one dates from 1969, but another one was published in 2012. Perhaps you saw the 1969 one. According to the same source, Tolkien had suggested a translator who had earlier worked with him, but who was passed over by the publisher. I can only speculate, but the fact that The Hobbit was written for children may be responsible for the “flatness” of the first French translation. (I have not looked up Le Seigneur des Anneaux).
    David: There are differences between the various centuries of French prose, just as in English, although the modern editions with standardized spelling may hide some of those differences, again as in English. But the best preparation for translating Tolkien into French (according to what I can gather of his style) might be familiarity with 15th and 16th century authors, especially Rabelais (a famous word lover and coiner).

  29. André Chouraqui translates the passage from Job as:
    Voici donc Ḇehémot, l’hippopotame, que j’ai fait avec toi. Il mange de l’herbe comme un bovin.

  30. The “in held hat sat staring” passage from Joyce is most amusing – I couldn’t help laughing – and it does sound at times like a parody of GM Hopkins. Was it intended to be?
    The timing would work, as Hopkins’ poems were published by Robert Bridges in 1918, when Joyce was about halfway through writing Ulysses. But I can’t see anything particularly Hopkinsian about the Joyce passage; if it’s a parody of Hopkins, it’s a very feeble one. (And who would parody a poet in prose?) If anything, it reads more like William Morris. But I doubt Joyce was intending a parody of any specific writer. The idea, supposedly, is that we are witnessing the birth of the English language just as Leopold Bloom is witnessing the birth of a baby, although of course when you think about it this conceit is nonsensical (unless he had written the passage in Proto-World).

  31. For a French (and English) translation of the Bible that cannot be called flat, try this, by Antoine Fabre d’Olivet.
    Premièrement-en-principe, il créa, Ælohîm (il détermina en existence potentielle, LUI-les-dieux, l’Être-des-êtres), l’ipséité-des-cieux et l’ipséité-de-la-terre.
    At-first-in-principle, he-created, Ælohim (he caused to be, he brought forth in principle, HE-the-Gods, the-Being-of-beings), the-selfsameness-of-heavens, and-the-selfsameness-of-earth.

  32. The “infare under her thatch” is generally taken as an indication that the proximate source is Saintsbury, whose work also provides exemplars for some of the other Oxen styles.

  33. Marie-Lucie: I hasten to add that both quotations above are extremes of style: by no means is the whole of either work written in this fashion. But in The Hobbit, as to a lesser degree in The Lord of the Rings, the style actually parallels the plot. The book is, among many other things, about the journey “there and back again” (which is the subtitle) of a fairly modern, mid-19th-century person into an archaic world, as well as being a Bildungsroman. As such, the style starts out conversational and chatty, almost Winnie-the-Pooh’s style, that of an adult author addressing child readers. From Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party” (I have here and elsewhere broken up Tolkien’s long paragraphs):

    The mother of our particular hobbit … what is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.
    They are inclined to be at in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it). Now you know enough to go on with.
    As I was saying, the mother of this hobbit – of Bilbo Baggins, that is – was the fabulous Belladonna Took, one of the three remarkable daughters of the Old Took, head of the hobbits who lived across The Water, the small river that ran at the foot of The Hill. It was often said (in other families) that long ago one of the Took ancestors must have taken a fairy wife. That was, of course, absurd, but certainly there was still something not entirely hobbit-like about them,-and once in a while members of the Took-clan would go and have adventures. They discreetly disappeared, and the family hushed it up; but the fact remained that the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer.
    Not that Belladonna Took ever had any adventures after she became Mrs. Bungo Baggins. Bungo, that was Bilbo’s father, built the most luxurious hobbit-hole for her (and partly with her money) that was to be found either under The Hill or over The Hill or across The Water, and there they remained to the end of their days. Still it is probable that Bilbo, her only son, although he looked and behaved exactly like a second edition of his solid and comfortable father, got something a bit queer in his makeup from the Took side, something that only waited for a chance to come out. The chance never arrived, until Bilbo Baggins was grown up, being about fifty years old or so, and living in the beautiful hobbit-hole built by his father, which I have just described for you, until he had in fact apparently settled down immovably.

    But by Chapter 17, “The Clouds Burst”, this “children’s book” reads like this:

    Still more suddenly a darkness came on with dreadful swiftness! A black cloud hurried over the sky. Winter thunder on a wild wind rolled roaring up and rumbled in the Mountain, and lightning lit its peak. And beneath the thunder another blackness could be seen whirling forward; but it did not come with the wind, it came from the North, like a vast cloud of birds, so dense that no light could be seen between their wings.
    “Halt!” cried Gandalf, who appeared suddenly, and stood alone, with arms uplifted, between the advancing dwarves and the ranks awaiting them. “Halt!” he called in a voice like thunder, and his staff blazed forth with a flash like the lightning. “Dread has come upon you all! Alas! it has come more swiftly than I guessed. The Goblins are upon you! Bolg of the North is coming. O Dain! whose father you slew in Moria. Behold! the bats are above his army like a sea of locusts. They ride upon wolves and Wargs are in their train!”
    Amazement and confusion fell upon them all. Even as Gandalf had been speaking the darkness grew. The dwarves halted and gazed at the sky. The elves cried out with many voices.
    “Come!” called Gandalf. “There is yet time for council. Let Dain son of Nain come swiftly to us!”
    So began a battle that none had expected; and it was called the Battle of Five Armies, and it was very terrible. Upon one side were the Goblins and the wild Wolves, and upon the other were Elves and Men and Dwarves. This is how it fell out. Ever since the fall of the Great Goblin of the Misty Mountains the hatred of their race for the dwarves had been rekindled to fury. Messengers had passed to and fro between all their cities, colonies and strongholds; for they resolved now to win the dominion of the North. Tidings they had gathered in secret ways; and in all the mountains there was a forging and an arming.
    Then they marched and gathered by hill and valley, going ever by tunnel or under dark, until around and beneath the great mountain Gundabad of the North, where was their capital, a vast host was assembled ready to sweep down in time of storm unawares upon the South. Then they learned of the death of Smaug, and joy was in their hearts: and they hastened night after night through the mountains, and came thus at last on a sudden from the North hard on the heels of Dain. Not even the ravens knew of their coming until they came out in the broken lands which divided the Lonely Mountain from the hills behind. How much Gandalf knew cannot be said, but it is plain that he had not expected this sudden assault.

    Well, the good end happily and the bad unhappily (for that is what fiction means) and the time comes for Bilbo to part from his friends the dwarves, living and dead:

    At last the time came for him to say good-bye to his friends. “Farewell, Balin!” he said; “and farewell, Dwalin; and farewell Dori, Nori, Ori, Oin, Gloin, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur! May your beards never grow thin!” And turning towards the Mountain he added: “Farewell Thorin Oakenshield! And Fili and Kili! May your memory never fade!”
    Then the dwarves bowed low before their Gate, but words stuck in their throats. “Good-bye and good luck, wherever you fare!” said Balin at last. “If ever you visit us again, when our halls are made fair once more, then the feast shall indeed be splendid!”
    “If ever you are passing my way,” said Bilbo, “don’t wait to knock! Tea is at four; but any of you are welcome at any time!”

    You’ll note that Bilbo’s conversational modern style is in full play here against the archaic style, but you’ll also note that (as Shippey points out) the two are saying the same thing. The archaic world and the modern world meet, each in its own unmistakable style, like East and West in Kipling’s poem, but as in that poem, unified in the end.
    What is more, Tolkien was well aware of this. In a letter to a reader complaining of his “tushery”, he wrote:

    Don’t be disturbed! I have not noticed any impertinence (or sycophancy) in your letters; and anyone so appreciative and so perceptive is entitled to criticism. Anyway I do not naturally breathe an air of undiluted incense!
    It was not what you said (last letter but one, not the one that I answered) or your right to say it, that might have called for a reply, if I had the time for it; but the pain that I always feel when anyone – in an age in which almost all auctorial manhandling of English is permitted (especially if disruptive) in the name of art or ‘personal expression’ – immediately dismisses out of court deliberate ‘archaism’. The proper use of ‘tushery’ is to apply it to the kind of bogus ‘medieval’ stuff which attempts (without knowledge) to give a supposed temporal colour with expletives, such as tush, pish, zounds, marry, and the like.
    But a real archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many of things said could not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom. Of course, not being specially well read in modern English, and far more familiar with works in the ancient and ‘middle’ idioms, my own ear is to some extent affected; so that though I could easily recollect how a modern would put this or that, what comes easiest to mind or pen is not quite that.
    Take an example from the chapter that you specially singled out (and called terrible) : Book iii, ‘The King of the Golden Hall’. ‘ “Nay, Gandalf!” said the King. “You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.” ‘
    That is a fair sample – moderated or watered archaism. Using only words that are still used or known to the educated, the King would really have said: ‘Nay, thou (n)wost not thine own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall…’ etc. I know well enough what a modern would say” ‘Not at all, my dear G. You don’t know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren’t going to be like that. I shall go to the war, in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties.’ And then what? Théoden would certainly think, and probably say, ‘thus shall I sleep better!’ But people who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom.
    You can have ‘I shall lie easier in my grave’ or ‘I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home’ – if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke a modern idiom would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual ‘archaic’ English that I have used.

  34. Googling for that Tolkien letter pointed me to this essay by Tom Simon, which expresses what I mean to say much better, if at far greater length: by comparison, my remarks are “lighthearted, quickworded, and soon over”, though scarcely Elvish. I am working through Simon’s other essays now.

  35. I’m prepared to translate it into French only if I can title it L’obbit.

  36. David: Modern Standard French is certainly not as unchanging as you make it sound, and good writers of historical novels set in the Middle Ages (for instance) can certainly create a “medieval” feel to the story by using archaic words and constructions. Maurice Druon’s LES ROIS MAUDITS is a good example of this, and indeed it would serve as a nice target-language template for any would-be Tolkien translator.
    Indeed these days I’m reading a French translation of Hermann Hesse’s DAS GLASPERLENSPIEL (LE JEU DES PERLES DE VERRE), and the translator definitely knows how to give his French prose a nice “Renaissance” feel to it.
    Marie-Lucie’s suggestion that Rabelais be read is a good one, too: creativity will be required of a translator of Tolkien’s work, and Rabelais had that in spades.
    It is true, however, that French exhibits less tolerance of regionalisms than English: but do note that for readers outside the United Kingdom the regional variants of various characters’ speech would not evoke specific regions within the United Kingdom. Hence similar such variation in a translation can certainly be achieved, even where (as in a French translation) it would not evoke specific regions in readers’ minds.
    John Cowan: French translations needn’t be flat, although poor ones are. In my experience published bad translations into French at least consist of strings of grammatically correct sentences, whereas the same is all too often not the case of published bad tranlations into English.
    Possibly the best translated work I have ever read in French is Umberto Eco’s THE NAME OF THE ROSE: both the English and the French translations are good, but the English translation feels a bit “off”, stylistically, i.e. feels very much like a translation, whereas the French translation (which also has a very archaic, medieval feel to it) reads so smoothly that an uninformed reader could easily be fooled into believing that the novel was originally written in French.
    That paragraph of Tolkien’s in answer to the reader complaining of “tushery” made me smile: even had I known nothing of Tolkien’s life I would have known that along with being a writer he was a teacher. The tone of the whole is that of a teacher dealing with a question on the part of an energetic student: first, reassuring the reader/student that the point brought up is legitimate; next, defining “tushery”, then, examining the alleged instances of tushery and finally demonstrating that the alleged instances do not in fact fit the definition. This is not at all the tone of an author defending his work: it is that of a first-rate professor of literature and philology engaging in a scholarly demonstration.

  37. Thanks, Etienne. I just found another: “inclined to be at in the stomach” should of course be “inclined to be fat in the stomach”. Tolkien was remarkably objective about The Lord of the Rings, partly perhaps because so many years passed between his starting it in 1938, finishing it in 1949, getting it published in 1954-55, and the publication of the second edition (which is when it became really famous) in 1965. The foreword to the latter contains this telling passage:

    Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved. The most critical reader of all, myself, now finds many defects, minor and major, but being fortunately under no obligation either to review the book or to write it again, he will pass over these in silence, except one that has been noted by others: the book is too short.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    Merci encore, Etienne.
    About The Name of the Rose, unfortunately I have only read it in English, but I think that it would be easier to translate Italian into French than in English, because the two Romance languages are much more similar in structure than either is to English. Even idiomatic usages and frozen phrases are often very similar, while English equivalents are not. Of course, the Italian-to-French translator should still be very familiar with different genres and styles according to the period.
    This reminds me of a comment by Gabriel Garcia Márquez on translations of Cien años de soledad: asked which translation he considered the best, he said something like “I hate to say it, but it is the American one”. He praised American translators in general, and as for French translators, unfortunately, “between Rabelais and Descartes, they chose Descartes”.

  39. Trond Engen says:

    There are three translations into Norwegian, and I own two of them. I’ll type and add the paragraph from both translations when I have time and a decent keyboard.
    The first one I read was Torstein Bugge Høverstad’s 1984 translation Ringenes herre into modern Bokmål. The paragraph reads as fairly straightforward modern Norwegian. Even if rather terse, it’s hard to find a register that evokes medieval language in Bokmål. But he might have used Sigrid Undset or Ragnhild Magerøy as a model.
    Later I read Eiliv Groven Myren’s 2006 Ringdrotten into Nynorsk. It uses different historical norms for the varieties of high speech and dialects to represent the peoples and the broader varieties. Here the quoted paragraph reads as something straight out of a classic edition of Snorri. And still, it follows the English original closely. But that’s hardly a coincidence, since Tolkien himself probably modeled his polite dialogue partly on the terse speeches of the sagas.
    (I don’t hold this against Høverstad. He acted as a consultant for Myhren’s translation, and I seem to remember that he’s been quoted to the effect that he also would have preferred using an archaizing Nynorsk to be able to hit the register.)
    I have not (yet) read Nils Werenskiold’s 1973-75 translation Krigen on ringen into a rather conservative Bokmål variety (but people say it’s good).

  40. Trond Engen says:

    Krigen om ringen. Damn’ autocorrect.

  41. I think that it would be easier to translate Italian into French than in English, because the two Romance languages are much more similar in structure than either is to English.
    That’s why when I get around to giving Stanislaw Lem another try I intend to read him in Russian translation, which has got to give a better sense of him than the English ones.

  42. Trond Engen says:

    I took the dates of the Norwegian translations from the article. I’m not sure of the Bokmål dates.

    Ringenes herre (Bokmål), 4th edition, 1994, p. 474 (transl. Torstein Bugge Høverstad)
    Der satt mange menn i blanke brynjer, som straks kom seg på bena og sperret veien med spyd. «Stans, ukjente fremmede!» ropte de på Rittermarkens tungemål og ville vite de fremmedes navn og ærend. Det var undring i blikkene, men ingen vennlighet; særlig så de mørkt på Gandalv.
    «Vel forstår jeg målet her,» svarte han på samme språk, «men få fremmede gjør ellers dét. Hvorfor taler dere ikke da alltungemålet, slik skikken er i vest, dersom det er svar dere ønsker?»
    «Det er Théoden konges vilje at ingen skal komme inn gjennom hans port, andre enn dem som kjenner vårt tungemål og er våre venner,» svarte en av vaktene. «Her er ingen velkommen i krigstid, andre enn vårt eget folk og de som kommer fra Mundborg i Gondors land. Hvem er dere som kommer hit over slettene uvitende om dette, underlig kledd, og på hester som likner våre egne? Lenge har vi stått vakt her, og vi har holdt øye med dere på lang avstand. Aldri før har vi sett så underlige ryttere, og aldri en hest stoltere enn den ene av dem som bærer dere. Han er en av mearas, om ikke vårt blikk er hildret av trolldom. Tal! Er du kanhende ikke trollmann, en av Sarumanns spioner, eller et åndesyn skapt av hans kunster? Tal, og tal straks!»
    «Åndesyn er vi ikke,» sa Aragorn, «og ingen hildring for øynene. For det er i sannhet deres egne hester, disse vi rir på, og det var deg knapt ukjent før du spurte, om jeg ikke tar feil. Men sjelden kommer tyv ridende hjem til stallen. Her er Hasufel og Arod, som Éomer, tredje marsk i Marken, lånte oss for bare to dager siden. Nå kommer vi tilbake med dem, slik vi har lovet. Har da ikke Éomer selv vendt tilbake med bud om at vi kom?»
    Vakten fikk et bekymret uttrykk i øynene. «Om Éomer har jeg ingen ting å si,» svarte han. «Dersom det dere forteller er sannheten, da har Théoden uten tvil hørt om det. Kanhende er det ikke helt uventet at dere kommer. Det er ikke mer enn to netter siden Ormtunge kom til oss og sa at Théodens vilje var at ingen fremmed skulle gjennom portene her.»
    «Ormtunge?» sa Gandalv og stirret skarpt på vakten. «Si ikke mer! Mitt ærend er ikke med Ormtunge, men med Markens herre selv. Jeg har det travelt. Vil du være så vennlig å gå eller sende bud om at vi er kommet?» Øynene hans glitret innunder brynene da han satte blikket i mannen.


    Ringdrotten (Nynorsk), 1st Nynorsk edition, 2006, p. 474(!) (transl. Eiliv Groven Myhren)
    Der sat mange menn i bjarte brynjer som sprang på føtene med det same og stengde vegen med spjut. «Statt still, framande me ikkje kjenner her!» ropa dei på Riddarmorks tungemål og kravde namn og ærend frå framandfolket. Det var undring i auga deira, men lite av godlune. Og dei såg mørkt på Gandalv.
    «Vel kjenner eg tala dykkar,» svara han i same tungemål, «men få er dei framande som gjer so. Kvi talar de ikkje alltungemålet, som sed er i vesterlondi, um de ynskjer svar?»
    «Det er Théodens vilje at ingjen skulde koma inn portane hans med unnatak av deim som kjenner målet vårt og er venine våre,» svara ei av vaktene. «Ingen er fagna her i krigstid anna hell vårt eige folk, og deim som kjem utor Mundborg i Gondorlandet. Kven er de som kjem baust yver vang i slik framand bunad, og som rid hestar lik våre eigne? Longo hev me vakta her, og me hev skoda dykk på langan leid. Aldri såg me andre ryttarar so undarlege, eller nokon hest so staut som ein av desse som ber dykk. Han er ein or mearane, um ikkje augo våre er narra av eit slag trolldom. Seg, er du ikkje trollmann, einkvan spæjar send av Sarumann, eller hildringar han hev maksla? Tal no, og ver snøgge!»
    «Vi er ikkje hildringar,» sa Aragorn, «og auga dykkar narrar dykk ikkje. Det er visselig dykkar eigne hestar vi rid, som du nok visste før du spurde, vil eg tru. Men sjeldan kjem tjuv ridande attende til stallen. Her er Hasufel og Arod, som Éomer, tredje markverje i Marka, lånte oss for berre to dagar sidan. Vi kjem attende med dei no, nett slik vi lova han. Har då ikkje Éomer kome att og varsla at vi kom?»
    Det kom eit uroleg blikk i auga på vakta. «Eg hev inkje å segja um Éomer,» svara han. «Um det du segjer meg er sanningi, hev nok Théoden høyrt det. Det kan vere koma dykka ikkje var heilt uventa. Det er ikkje meir hell tvo netter sidan Ormtunge kom til oss og mælte at ingen framand skulde fara framum desse dørine, etter Théodens vilje.»
    «Ormtunge?» sa Gandalv og såg skarpt på vakta. «Sei ikkje meir! Ærendet mitt er ikkje til Ormtunge, men til Markdrotten sjølv. Eg har hast. Vil du ikkje gå eller sende bod om at vi er komne?» Dei djupe auga hans glitra under brunene medan han satte blikket sitt på mannen.

  43. It would be interesting to put these into a bilingual facing-page edition. Of course, it would be 2000+ pages long. As a substitute, I opened the same page in three tabs, one for English, one for Bokmål, and one for Nynorsk. My general impression is that the Nynorsk is closer to Tolkien’s English.
    I’ve been poking around the ‘tubes for an excerpt from Hringadróttinssaga, but the only thing I have found is this verse:
    Hann leitaði hennar lengi þar
    og lauf frá mörgum sumrum óð,
    um kalda nótt, er birtu bar
    hin bleika festing tindrandi.
    Þá skein á fjalli skikkja rjóð,
    í skarti sést hún dansa þar
    um svalan tind og svífa hljóð
    í silfurmistri glitrandi.
    Tolkien’s original:
    The leaves were long, the grass was green,
    The hemlock-umbels tall and fair,
    And in the glade a light was seen
    Of stars in shadow shimmering.
    Tinúviel was dancing there
    To music of a pipe unseen,
    And light of stars was in her hair,
    And in her raiment glimmering.

  44. “Behold now behemoth.” OCS has simply “beasts” – I think it’s in the plural in OCS as it appears in the Hebrew original: “Но убо се, зверие у тебе, траву аки волове ядят.” (Using modern Russian spelling.) Lomonosov introduced the behemoth in his 1751 ode on Job:
    Воззри в леса на Бегемота,
    Что мною сотворен с тобой;
    Колючей терн его охота
    Безвредно попирать ногой.
    Как верьви, сплетены в нем жилы.
    Отведай ты своей с ним силы!
    В нем ребра как литая медь;
    Кто может рог его сотреть?
    The first line makes a Russian reader chuckle because nowadays it literally means “look into the woods at the hippo” (бегемот and гиппопотам being synonyms in modern Russian), even though Lomonosov may have had a different beast in mind, and his early draft had “meadows,” not “woods.”

  45. Trond Engen says:

    Correction: Det kan vere koma dykkar ikkje var heilt uventa.

  46. The first line makes a Russian reader chuckle because nowadays it literally means “look into the woods at the hippo”
    It makes me (and presumably some Russians) chuckle doubly, because it makes me think of Bulgakov’s cat.

  47. That’s why when I get around to giving Stanislaw Lem another try I intend to read him in Russian translation, which has got to give a better sense of him than the English ones.
    Probably. Solaris would only sound right to me in Russian (and I’m sure Lem would disapprove). But I wonder if similar culture can trump linguistic affinity? I’ve been trying to get around to finally reading Švejk and, since I don’t read Czech, wondering if the Polish translation or the German might be better. Obviously Polish is very close linguistically, but I’ve heard that the Greta Rainer 1926 German translation is closer to the spirit of the book – and contains lots of “Austrianisms”, so her version should have more authentic K.u.K. color. Any one here have an opinion?

  48. J.W. Brewer says:

    John Cowan: I can’t understand why Francophone KJV-enthusiasts wouldn’t find e.g. perfectly satisfactory. It ought to satisfy most common KJV-onlyist criteria generalizable to a non-Anglophone context that I can think of and ought to be free of modernist heresy. I can’t imagine it’s in a register of French sufficiently archaic that anyone satisfied with the KJV for 21st century Anglophones would think it needs updating.

  49. As usual, I am late to this thread. Goldstein’s labor over this translation is to be admired, but it’s extremely difficult to read (perhaps even more than the English original). I think it is possible to render The Hobbit into idiomatic Yiddish, but his translation is not that.
    On the other hand, while that is true, my 9-year-old daughter did listen to me read it out loud without a whimper of complaint, while she found Motl Peyse dem Khazns, a classic by Sholem Aleichem, “zeyer nudne [really boring].” Mileage varies.

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