- An Hobad, nó Anonn agus Ar Ais Arís by J.R.R. Tolkien, and: Hobbitus Ille, aut Illuc atque Rursus Retrorsum by J.R.R. Tolkien
The year J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit turned seventy-five, translations of the children’s classic were published in two additional languages. The Hobbit in Irish—An Hobad, nó Anonn agus Ar Ais Arís, translated by Nicholas Williams—appeared in March, a historic event in modern Irish-language literature, which, though by no means lucrative, maintains a strong tradition of publishing original works for children. The Hobbit therefore joins an exclusive circle of classic and bestselling children’s books, including Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Artemis Fowl, and Guess How Much I Love You, to have been translated into Irish. Then, on September 19, nearly to the day that The Hobbit was first published in 1937, came the much anticipated Hobbitus Ille, aut Illuc atque Rursus Retrorsum—the Latin translation by Mark Walker which makes The Hobbit one of perhaps a dozen modern novels to have been adapted to the language—or the words, at least—of ancient Rome. Together, Irish and Latin join nearly seven dozen other languages into which The Hobbit has already been translated, several of which (including Danish, Hebrew, Polish, Portuguese, and Russian) have seen multiple renderings.
Little more than their shared year of publication bids the two translations be reviewed together. A cursory glance will reveal that the Irish Hobad and Latin Hobbitus are different products for different markets, and will likely find themselves side by side only on the shelves of collectors. Despite their obvious differences, many of which will become clear in the following review, similarities in style and in circumstance can nevertheless be found to compare the two translations. Both, for example, are almost certainly for audiences who also speak and read English—readers who either have read The Hobbit in the original already, or would have little difficulty doing so. The translators of An Hobad and Hobbitus Ille are both native English speakers, and while Irish is, unlike Latin, the native language of an existing nation (I will avoid the problematic “living” and “dead” to distinguish the languages), it is fair to estimate that there are about as many young, monolingual [End Page 199] readers for each. This sets these translations apart from those into more robustly Japanese, Albanian, and other languages whose readers are likely to be monolingual, and it is also an important consideration when assessing some of the decisions of the two translators. This is especially the case with Hobbitus Ille, for which the original English-language text is occasionally required for clarification.
Ideally, anything as ambitious and as laborious as a translation of a three-hundred-page classic deserves a full critical review, with choices in nomenclature, idiom, and other criteria weighed against the original text by a critic fluent in both the original and the target languages, and knowledgeable of both cultures. This is, of course, unfeasible here, but it is also, with the Irish Hobad and Latin Hobbitus, largely unnecessary. Recognizing that pedantry and pragmatism will clash anywhere translations are concerned, one can observe, though in quite different ways, that both An Hobad and Hobbitus Ille are thoroughly and systematically faithful to the original English-language text. For most readers, I suspect, this demonstrates professional responsibility on the part of the translators, as well as due deference to Tolkien’s exacting preferences regarding translations of his work. For those with the interests of the target language and their cultures fully at heart, this fidelity may be seen as a flaw, or at least a lost opportunity. The degree to which this can be said of each translation differs greatly, with Hobbitus Ille forgoing classical models by...