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The Latin Hobbit
on January 2, 2013
Some of the reviews of this translation call for a response. A book like this ought above all to be judged on the basis of how nearly it attains its goals. First of all, then, some of the complaints can be dispensed with. The price of the kindle edition or the absence of the English text are irrelevant to how good the book is. (N.B. If an Amazon description says "Latin and English", this means nothing more than that the book contains Latin, and that it contains English. It does not imply that is a dual-language edition of the text, unless it explicitly says so.)
As for its being "bad latin" or "a latin catastrophe", I think such complaints overlook the purpose of the translation. One reviewer complains, "This is not the experience of Neo-Latin that one finds in Winnie Ille Pu or Harrius Potter." But that's not a problem, because the translator was not aiming at such an experience. Take the first example: Winnie Ille Pu is a more elegant and finely crafted text than this one. But it's also a kind of joke: in a letter to Roger Lancelyn Green, C.S. Lewis calls it "a Latin version of a children's book in such extremely advanced Latin that only an adult could possibly read it". For goodness' sake, it has notes giving precedents for its expressions from Virgil and Apuleius and Greek derivations of certain terms in its glossary. It's the literary equivalent of a teddy bear sculpted in immaculate marble: a thing of beauty, perhaps, but a thing to be admired rather than used; just as a marble teddy bear cannot be played with by children like a plush one, but will sit on an adult's desk and remind him of his childhood, Winnie Ille Pu is of no use to the Latinate neophyte, but provides a pleasing diversion for those whose scholarship is already well advanced. The goal of Hobbitus Ille is entirely different from this: the translator states that his aim is not to write in a Roman idiom but to provide copious easy reading material while presenting Tolkien's words as faithfully and comprehensively as possible. This he does very well. The book sticks very close to the original and is very easy to read.
Is the Latin "bad"? It is certainly unclassical. Latin teachers cannot hold it up for emulation when teaching their students how to compose "correctly". But the avowed point of the translation is not to provide a model of style or idiom, but to say what Tolkien says, in Latin. The fact is that "bad", that is, simple and unclassical, Latin, can be much easier to read than idiomatically correct Latin; and that in order to learn to read fluently one must read a vast amount, and in order to do this easily one must have a vast amount of engaging and fun and easy reading material. The best material for the learner to practice on is not Virgil or Cicero, and also not Winnie Ille Pu and Harrius Potter, but things like the Vulgate Bible or the Historia Apollonii Regis Tyri or the Gesta Romanorum, medieval texts whose Latin is "bad" in exactly the ways that Hobbitus Ille is. Everything complained of here about the Anglicisms, odd syntax, etc., in Hobbitus, applies at least as strongly, ceteris paribus, to the Vulgate, the most widely-read and influential text in the entire Latin corpus. If Hobbitus is written in "Linglish" then the Vulgate is written in "Lebrew"; but to suggest that the Vulgate isn't really Latin, or that it shouldn't be read, or that it will corrupt its readers, is (I would hope self-evidently) absurd. Those of us who have read as much or more medieval Latin as classical Latin will be used to the charms and oddities of its departures from classical norms, and even enjoy them, and I enjoyed Hobbitus Ille in the same way. It's a children's book, in a Latin that a relative novice could read with relative ease, a toy, not a marble simulacrum of one.
All that said, the translation is certainly not perfect even on its own terms. There are outright errors, and strange and disconcerting choices. I don't know why Walker insists on translating "smoke-rings" as "corona fumi" or always says "homines" for "folk" or "people"; examples like this could be multiplied. "Gandalphus" is an abomination, I think (look at what Tom Shippey has to say about reviewers who mistake "Gandalf" for "Gandalph" in his "Author of the Century"), and translating "elves" as "nymphae" or "dryades" is indefensible. My Smith-Hall "Copious and Critical Latin-English Dictionary" tentatively suggests "nympha" as a possible translation of "fairy", but any connotation of "fairies" would be abhorrent to Tolkien; and Roman nymphs are just not like elves. For "elf" Smith-Hall suggests no decent equivalent, giving merely "numen quoddam phantasticum"; in Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell", the elvish "gentleman" is addressed in Latin as "Lar", which on the whole seems to me like a better option.
Such complaints are carping, however. Tolkien says in his essay "On Translating Beowulf", "Perhaps the most important function of any translation used by a student is to provide not a model of imitation, but an exercise for correction. The publisher of a translation cannot often hedge, or show all the variations that have occurred to him; but the presentation of one solution should suggest other and (perhaps) better ones. The effort to translate, or to improve a translation, is valuable, not so much for the version it produces, as for the understanding of the original which it awakes." Noticing how I might translate otherwise than Walker, then, is good for my awareness of both English and Latin, and no reason to reject the translation wholesale, especially given that it's the only one that exists. For myself I would love to see a translation of The Lord of the Rings (done in a higher style, just as its English is higher than that of The Hobbit), taking as its linguistic models neither the classical Latin of Winnie Ille Pu nor the vulgar medieval semi-dog-Latin of Hobbitus Ille, but that of such forbears as Bede, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Saxo Grammaticus.