J.R.R. Tolkien, Hobbitus Ille (Latin translation of The Hobbit, tr. by Mark Walker)
September 22, 2014 § Leave a comment
in foramine terrae habitabat hobbitus: nec foedum, sordidum madidumque foramen, nec extremis lumbricorum atque odore caenoso impletum, nec etiam foramen aridum, inane, harenosum, in quo nihil erat ad considendum aut edendum aptum; immo foramen-hobbitum, ergo commoum. (p. xv)
It was not on September 22, 1986 when I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, although it certainly would have been an auspicious day, considering it was Bilbo Baggins’s birthday (if only the publisher had waited a day, as the first edition came out September 21). No, it was sometime in the spring of 1987, around the time that school was finishing up and I, a seventh grader at the time, found a used paperback copy of The Hobbit in my mother’s classroom. I took it home with her permission and I remember it was around this time also that I first saw the Rankin-Bass animated version. Or was it that I saw the cartoon first and then stumbled upon the book serendipitously soon afterward? I myself am not sure, but I only know that it was the first fantasy, besides C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia books that I read when I was 9-10 years old, that ever interested me. Over twenty-seven years later, I can still recall the opening paragraph to The Hobbit:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
There is an informal, cozy language in that brief passage. Without knowing at first what a “Hobbit” is, Tolkien has established two things: This creature lives in a hole, but not just any old hole, but one full of creature comforts. It is easy to picture a pipe-smoking member of the now-bygone landed gentry class, minding his P’s and Q’s, keeping up all appearances of wealth without being so vulgar as having to flaunt his good fortune in front of others. The descriptions in the opening chapter, “An Unexpected Party,” certain convey this message clearly and concisely, living the reader to plug in his or her interpretations of certain particulars. The prose here and through the book is uniform in its unadorned and yet excitement-tinged narrative. It is a story that could be read by a third or fourth grader and be enjoyed, and yet if one were a parent reading this tale to a child who might think reading books aloud are solely for babies, there might be pleasure derived from this for both parent and child alike.
But how does one go about translating such a carefully-constructed novel into a foreign language, particularly a “dead” language such as classical Latin? When I stumbled across a copy of Hobbitus Ille in a local bookstore this past spring, I bought it in part because I was curious to see how the translator, Mark Walker, would approach bearing across Tolkien’s colloquial language into Latin. In order to evaluate this translation more fairly, I read this Latin translation in tandem with the Spanish and Italian editions (no, I purposely did not re-read it in English) in order to have fresh on my mind the difficult choices the translators had in choosing how to render Tolkien into their native tongues.
Of the three translations, Walker’s has the hardest row to hoe. Whereas there are roughly equivalent social registers in both Spanish and Italian to render the various dialectal shifts (in particular, that of the three trolls near the beginning of the story), classical Latin does not easily lend itself to convey informal speech, since the preserved language is more of an artificial construct that dates back two millennia to the divergence of written and spoken (or Vulgar) Latin. The Spanish and Italian languages are derived in large part from this Vulgar Latin and being that they are “living” languages in which a whole host of dialects are readily available for selection to represent the source English expressions into their target languages, it is much easier for them to convey a sense of informality when the situation merits it.
This is not to say that Walker fails to invent adequate solutions to many of these issues. While there is an unavoidable flattening of dialect due to the need to preserve the structure and inflectional endings of the Latin words, Walker does at times substitute expressions that might make a Ciceronian stammer and fuss. For the seemingly most difficult sections, the near-doggerel poesy of the Rivendell elves teasing Bilbo and the dwarves, Walker doesn’t as much try to ape the stress-timed metres of English prose as he utilizes a host of Latin poetic forms to serve in their stead. While at times this leads to a more serious tone, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Consider the tone derived from this translation of the dwarves’ sonorous poem about the loss of Erebor:
trans Montes Nebulae frigore dissitos
altas ad latebras et ueteres specus
discedamus abhinc, ante oritur dies,
quaesitum in magicis auriferis locis.
maiores faciunt carmina pristine
tinnituque sonant uerbera mallei
altis in spatiis quis mala dormiunt
effossis domibus sub scopulis iugi.
et reges ueteres et Dryadum duces
thesauros nitidos et simul aureos
fingunt et fabricant, luminaque auferunt
quae gemmis tegerent in capulis ibi.
pendent florea nunc stella monilibus
albis, flectitur et uertice regio
anguis flammiferus, stamine ferreo
nunc nocturna ligant soleque lumina. (pp. xxvii-xxviii)
Here is the English original:
Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.
The dwarves of yore made mighty spells,
While hammers fell like ringing bells
In places deep, where dark things sleep,
In hollow halls beneath the fells.
For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.
On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.
Latin poetry is not as dependent upon end-syllable rhyming as is English poesy, and instead of trying to replicate Tolkien’s eight syllable verse, Walker instead employs (as he notes in the appendix) a type of quantitative verse (with elisions as needed between end-sound vowels and opening-vowel neighbor words) called First Asclepiad. This alternation between “long” and “short” syllables creates a different sort of sonorous passage, one that may hearken more to Horace and Vergil than to Norse sagas, yet which manages to maintain its captivating sense despite the shift in tone and metre. Indeed, Walker’s renditions of Tolkien’s various poetic styles are mostly spot-on, as he demonstrates enough range in style and form to create poems that remind the reader of the English originals without feeling as though they were but poor attempts at being English verse with Latin words.
On the whole, Walker’s translation, coupled with the generally decent Spanish and Italian translations (done respectively by Manuel Figueroa and Elena Jeronomidis Conte, although there were some questionable name choices in Conte’s original 1973 translation, specifically translating Trolls as “uomini neri,” or “black men) reminded me favorably of an adolescent favorite. Although my Latin is a bit rusty after twenty years since my last college course in it, Hobbitus Ille was relatively easy for me to follow. While some of the word inventions/parallels that Walker chose were a bit confusing at first, namely using “Dryad” for “elf,” for the most part he manages to preserve the essentials, namely the feel of this being a hearth tale that harkens back to a different age. The result was a good reading experience in my fifth-best language that served to remind me of just how much I enjoyed reading and re-reading The Hobbit over a quarter-century ago. If only more books, whether in their original language or in translation, could remind us of those treasured reading moments.