The OF Blog

Monday, September 22, 2014

Before Peter Jackson made his bloated The Hobbit movies, the Soviets took a crack at it

I'll just let the jokes tell themselves right now on Hobbit Day.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Hobbitus Ille (Latin translation of The Hobbit, tr. by Mark Walker)

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.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


Tomorrow marks the 265th day of 2014.  As of today, I have posted 111 reviews (86 of them being of 2014 releases) this year.  I have nearly 75 books already marked for review by year's end.  While this is daunting enough, I think I'm going to aim to outdo the grueling 40 in 40 review schedule I set for the days immediately preceding my 40th birthday in July and I'm going to try to review at least 89 more novels, poems, non-fiction, and story collections/anthologies by December 31st.  While doubtless some reviews might be shorter than others (particularly when I write short summaries of the 2014 Prix Medicis longlisted titles that I've read (four to date), I think it'd make for a nice challenging.  I know I'm planning on writing 1-2 reviews a day for November alone (might as well do a parallel challenge to the annual write a novel during that month challenge and review 30+ books or write roughly 30K review/quote words that month), so I think I can extend it through the remaining 100 days of 2014 and get close at least to 200 reviews if not equal or surpass it.

Granted that I have a backlog of reviews (roughly 20) to write, so reading time shouldn't be too much of an issue until at least mid-October.  But some works will be easier than others.  Writing about Thoreau's Walden, for example, should make for an easier essay-composing session than would reviewing something read in my second, third, fourth, or fifth languages.  But if I write roughly 6 reviews a week, roughly an hour a day/night for those corresponding days, I should be able to meet this challenge.  And for those curious about some of the books I want to write about, well, in a few hours, I'll post my commentary/review of the Latin translation of The Hobbit, called HOBBITVS ILLE, and later I'll write reviews of the translations (and well, thoughts in general on the English originals) of Tolkien's The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin.

I also plan on finishing reviewing the seven remaining Premio Alfaguara winners I haven't yet reviewed (another 2014 reviewing challenge was to finish reviewing all 25 of the previous/current winners of that Spanish-language award), at least four of the Prix Medicis longlisted-titles, most of the 2014 National Book Award shortlists, if not their entire longlists for poetry, Young People's Literature, and Fiction, and maybe a few classics that I own in Easton Press or Franklin Library leatherbound editions.  Also, if time permits, I'm going to look into resuming reading some of William Faulkner's work, most likely the not-yet-reviewed novels collected in four Library of America editions.  Add to this the books I haven't yet reviewed from my 2014 releases post and the total should be close to the requisite 89.

But if/when I accomplish this, don't expect a repeat in 2015.  I have a feeling I won't be reviewing quite as many books next year.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Franklin Library's 100 Greatest Books of All Time

Just now realized that I didn't have a corresponding list of The Franklin Library's 100 Greatest Books of All Time like I do for Easton Press's edition.  Since I own several Franklin Library books, thought I'd highlight those here, so whenever I do stumble across a Franklin Library edition in a local bookstore, I can make sure that I don't already own it in either this edition or the Easton Press version:

1.  The Iliad by Homer

2.  The Odyssey by Homer

3.  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (own Easton Press edition)

4.  The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

5.  Confessions of St. Augustine (own Easton Press edition)

6.  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

7.  The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

8.  Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

9.  The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

10.  Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen

11.  Five Comedies by Aristophanes

12.  Don Quixote de La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (own Easton Press edition)

13.  Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (own Easton Press edition)

14.  Stories of Guy de Maupassant (own Easton Press edition)

15.  Plays by Anton Chekhov

16.  Politics by Aristotle (own Easton Press edition)

17.  Selected Writings of Sir Francis Bacon

18.  Oresteia by Aeschylus

19.  Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (own in separate Franklin Library edition)

20.  Tales From The Arabian Nights by Sir Richard F. Burton

21.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (own Easton Press edition)

22.  Analects of Confucius (own Easton Press edition)

23.  Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (own Easton Press edition)

24.  The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (own Easton Press edition)

25.  The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (own Easton Press edition)

26.  Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake

27.  The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (own Easton Press edition)

28.  The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

29.  Plays by Euripides

30.  The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

31.  Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

32.  Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (own Easton Press edition)

33.  Essays of Michel de Montaigne

34.  Philosophical Works of René Descartes

35.  Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

36.  The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

37.  Collected Poems (1909–1962) of T. S. Eliot

38.  Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson (own Easton Press edition)

39.  Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (own Easton Press edition)

40.  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

41.  Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (own Easton Press edition)

42.  The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin

43.  The Basic Works of Sigmund Freud (own in separate Franklin Library edition)

44.  The Poetry of Robert Frost

45.  David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (own Easton Press edition)

46.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (own Easton Press edition)

47.  Poems of John Donne

48.  Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (own Easton Press edition)

49.  Favorite Household Tales of the Brothers GrimmBrothers Grimm (own Easton Press edition)

50.  The Federalist by Hamilton, Madison and Jay

51.  The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (own Easton Press edition)

52.  The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire

53.  Jane Eyre By Charlotte Brontë (own Easton Press edition)

54.  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (own Easton Press edition)

55.  A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

56.  Plays by Henrik Ibsen (own Easton Press edition)

57.  The Ambassadors by Henry James

58.  Nine Tales of Henry James

59.  Ulysses by James Joyce (own in separate Franklin Library edition)

60.  The Trial by Franz Kafka

61.  Poems of John Keats (own Easton Press edition)

62.  Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence

63.  The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli (own Easton Press edition)

64.  Five Stories of Thomas Mann

65.  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (own Easton Press edition)

66.  Eight Comedies by William Shakespeare (own Easton Press edition)

67.  Poems of William Shakespeare

68.  Six Histories by William Shakespeare (own Easton Press edition)

69.  Six Tragedies by William Shakespeare (own Easton Press edition)

70.  Political Writings of John Stuart Mill

71.  Paradise Lost by John Milton (own Easton Press edition)

72.  Seven Plays by Molière

73.  Four Plays of Eugene O’Neill

74.  Political Writings of Thomas Paine (own Easton Press edition)

75.  Pensees by Blaise Pascal

76.  Satyricon by Petronius

77.  The Republic by Plato

78.  Twelve Illustrious Lives by Plutarch

79.  Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (own Easton Press edition)

80.  Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

81.  Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais

82.  Six Tragedies by Jean Racine

83.  Political Writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau (own Easton Press edition)

84.  Three Plays by Bernard Shaw

85.  The Tragedies of Sophocles

86.  Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (own Easton Press edition)

87.  Nana by Emile Zola

88.  Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

89.  The Red and the Black by Stendhal (own Easton Press edition)

90.  Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

91.  Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

92.  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (own Easton Press edition)

93.  Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (own Easton Press edition)

94.  Walden by Henry D. Thoreau (own Easton Press edition)

95.  The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

96.  Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (own Easton Press edition)

97.  The Aeneid by Virgil

98.  Candide by Voltaire

99.  Selected Poems of William Butler Yeats (own Easton Press edition)

100.  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (own Easton Press edition)

13 of these editions owned, plus 3 more Franklin Library books in other editions and 43 Easton Press editions of the same or similar work isn't too shabby, I suppose.  But I'll resume occasional collecting in the near future, as I like the Franklin Library bindings just a little bit more (slightly thicker leather for many of these), not to mention the press is defunct, making these books scarcer than the Easton Press ones, which are still available for subscription order.  I also own a further 7 Franklin Library books that are not listed here.  That, plus the 77 Easton Press editions I own, makes my current leatherbound edition count exactly 100 at the moment.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Weekend Plans

Still a bit lethargic post-procedure, so I'm not sure how much of this will get done, but here are a few things I'd like to do through Monday:

1.  Finish reading Ben Lerner's 10:04

2.  Read Michael Pitre's Fives and Twenty-Fives

3.  Review at least one of the following:  John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van; Kelly Barnhill's The Witch's Boy; Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstuck & Other Stories; and/or Gail Giles's Girls Like Us.

4.  Write review/commentary on the Latin translation of The Hobbit and maybe a full review of that work.

Now back to bed.  Can't seem to stop yawning.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Back "procedures" suck, in case you never knew that

Well, after enduring six weeks of often excruciating back pain after initially injuring myself at work trying to keep a 6'5, 230 lb. young adult resident from running out of the room, I finally had a procedure done this morning to alleviate the pain.  It took nearly five weeks for the muscle spasms and strained muscles in my lower lumbar region of my spine (or about two inches above my waist/tailbone) to ease enough for there to be clear signs that I also had some nerve irritation.  Had an MRI done on Monday and it revealed some damage to one of my vertebral discs. 

It wasn't so serious that I needed back surgery, but it was bad enough that I was recommended to get an epidural steroid injection directly into that region of my spine.  So I had that done today.  One of the effects of the injection is that the numbing agent gets into your system, making your lower body number, making it unsafe to drive for any long length of time (not to mention it feels like you have your drunk legs all day).  This, however, does not stop the actual pressure pain from the injection site, which I was told can take up to four days before it is alleviated.  Thankfully, I did have some prescribed painkillers to help me endure this, even though this led to nearly a full night's night this afternoon.

On the bright side, before I was knocked out (much of this was done during the 45 minute drives to and from the clinic, along with the 30 minute wait at the clinic), I did manage to finish reading four recent releases that I hope to review in the next 3-4 days.  I read three National Book Award-longlisted books (John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van; Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories; and Gail Giles's Girls Like Us (YPL nominee) as well as Kelly Barnhill's The Witch's Boy.  Each of these were distinct in their prose and thematic approach and each will be receiving positive reviews whenever I have the time/mental focus to write them.

But for now, it's time to clear up this mental fog and see if the pain will subside some when I begin walking more next week (not to mention returning to work on Monday after a month's absence).  I'm past tired of sitting around the house not being able to do much else other than read and write reviews.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It seems someone goofed and revealed the 2014 National Book Award longlist for Fiction a day early

Not that I mind, as it gives me a headstart on reading for it, but the Fiction longlist for the 2014 National Book Awards was released this afternoon on Huffington Post and the New York Times webpage an afternoon earlier than the planned 8 AM EDT Friday announcement.  I was wondering how many of the nominated books I had already read/reviewed/scheduled to buy and it turns out that I had already read/reviewed four of them and had two others listed on my 2014 Releases post.  Of the remaining four, the titles seem interesting (two won't be released until October 7, Robinson and Smiley), so on the whole, it's a fairly solid list, although I can think of several alternate selections that would have also fit in well with this list.  Compared to the Non-fiction list, the Fiction nominees are a bit more balanced with five men and women apiece and while there a majority Caucasian writers on the list, there is at least some diversity in narrative form and content.  Anyways, here are the ten nominees:

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman 

Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See 

Phil Klay, Redeployment

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Richard Powers, Orfeo 

Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Jane Smiley, Some Luck
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