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Reviewed by:
  • Tolkien through Russian Eyes
  • Timothy P. Wickham-Crowley
Tolkien through Russian Eyes, by Mark T. Hooker . Zurich and Bern, Switzerland: Walking Tree Publishers, 2003. 324 pp. $18.25 (trade paperback) ISBN 3952142476. Cormarë Series no. 5.

Mark Hooker's book might be titled, and only partially in jest, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Tolkien's Transformation and Reception in Russia." Each individual reader will have to adjudge whether I should have added the cautionary coda— "but were afraid to ask"—for various Tolkienists will find much here at which they might both marvel and grouse. First the grousing. One can quibble over punctuation-peeves and oddly varied formats in the reference lists. More tellingly, Hooker's otherwise admirable thoroughness has a flip-side to it, a dissertation-project-like quality (and I say this empathetically) in that he seems loath to leave out any of the wealth of detail he has encountered/unearthed/reeled in. Thus some expositions have a mechanical feel, plodding from one principal's conference paper/book chapter to the next, telling us sequentially what each said (e.g., on the subject of "Tolkienism" in Russia). Herein the editors simply failed to take a good manuscript and smooth out such rough edges.

One thing not to grouse about is the sheer effort Hooker invested, indefatigable as he was in digging up many and varied Russian versions of the key Tolkien works and in guiding us through that most difficult terrain: comparing samples of these translations-cum-adaptations both to the real McCoys and to each other. That effort is yet the more impressive since many exemplars began as samizdat, illegal, oft-copied typescript versions passed around during the Soviet era. Thus for all who are students of Tolkien-as-rendered-in-other-languages there are indeed great riches here. [End Page 285]

In my judgement, language and Russian culture are the twin "stars" of Hooker's work, the first fittingly so given Tolkien's own profession that the languages of Middle-earth came first in his project of subcreation, and only later the stories which provided a home in which those languages could take flesh. The core of this book concerns language, and choices in the acts and arts of translation, with over 50 pages devoted to The Hobbit and nearly 100 other pages to lovingly detailed discussions of the Russian translations for a series of 30 words (ranging from place-names to "Púkel-men").

Yet Russian culture gets its due as well. More properly, both specific sections of this book and the background tone of Hooker's discussions suggest something like a collision (sometimes disastrous, less often serendipitous, always interesting) between the final, preferred texts of The Hobbit and of The Lord of the Rings—as Tolkien crafted them and as later put in their best versions by Douglas Anderson and other scholars—and the counterparts produced in Russia both during and after the Soviet era. For a naif like myself, who might think translation the act of finding the best Russian words to render a simple descriptive passage, or even basic English words like "feet" (viz: 52-53) this was an ice-water immersion in another reality. The sheer level of textual bastardization, bowdlerization, and unnecessary and mind-boggling deletions and insertions is impressive (and I can't bring myself, as Hooker does, to use the beauty-bearing term "embellishments" to describe those changes). To see those alterations for even a few selected passages shows us that many Russian translators clearly felt authorized to (a) do Tolkien better than he did himself, (b) alter him to fit with their perceptions of a Russian cultural audience, (c) remove elements that might attract the attention of censors or censurers, or (d) some combination of those elements. One representative example can be found when Hooker discusses "The Temptation of Knowledge and Power," where he deals in interesting ways with textual-variations in matters as varied as machinery, dwarves and rings, and Saruman's offer to share power with Gandalf. Beyond such comparatively "minor" amendments to Tolkien's writings, we also encounter the distinctive literary turn and intellectual following known as Niennism, named after...