Monday, June 30, 2008

Where is the Hindi Lord of the Rings?

In the news this week, the final installment of the Harry Potter heptalogy has been published in Hindi. Which begs the question, why hasn’t Tolkien ever been translated into Hindi? (I’ve pointed this out before.) There are a few possible reasons that leap to mind.

1) Some might argue that the Harry Potter books are more popular than The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But that argument is hardly persuasive. The Peter Jackson films were an international success, in India as much as everywhere else. In fact, preliminary plans have been drawn up to film a massive Bollywood trilogy of The Mahabharata, and producer Bobby Bedi has Peter Jackson’s film trilogy in mind as his model. He even wants to enlist the services of WETA on his own project. Of course, this news is three years old, so perhaps the film adaptation will never be made. But it proves that Tolkien has a popular place in India today. At least as popular as Harry Potter.

2) Since nearly everyone in India speaks English already, why bother translating Tolkien into Hindi (or Telugu or Tamil or Bengali or Punjabi or ...). But then why has Rowling been translated into Hindi? Sure, many Indians have read Tolkien in English, just as many have read Rowling in English. But if there’s demand for Harry Potter in Hindi, there ought to be at least the same demand for Tolkien. Certainly enough for a commercially viable translation. Not to mention: collectors who don’t even speak Hindi would line up to purchase a Tolkien translation, just as they’ve done for the Rowling.

3) the British and Hindi cultures are too incompatible. But considering their previous colonial relationship — i.e., the profound cultural influence England has had on India — it’s hard to see how this claim can hold water. Nevertheless, some have argued precisely this. In an essay with the evocative title, “Love Song of the Dark Lord: Some Musings on the Reception of Tolkien in an Indian Context” [1], Andreas Bigger suggests that “[i]f one tries to translate the LotR into an Indian language, one is faced with serious problems of intercultural understanding.” Fair enough, but apparently Bigger goes further, all but suggesting that a translation ought not to be attempted. I have not read his essay, but if I may lean on René van Rossenberg’s review of the Honegger collection ... Of Bigger’s paper, he writes that it

[...] is a bit of a curiosity. It discusses examples of problems a translator may encounter if The Lord of the Rings were ever translated into Sanskrit. All these problems stem from the cultural difference between Christians and Hindi. For instance, the term ‘Black Rider’ conveys to Europeans something foreboding, evil, but for an Indian reader the opposite is true. The author concludes that for a Hindu the book will always deal about [sic] foreigners, and that “the normally hidden racistic strand within Tolkien’s world at once becomes painfully visible. The Lord of the Rings becomes a book with a plain colonialist view that is trying to reestablish the ‘superiority’ of the Europeans over all other races of the world.” (p. 177) This is ridiculous. It is not the translator’s job to change the cultural identity of a work, and a Hindu reader can be expected to realise that the author has been working from a different cultural background. It is hard to imagine, and has not been proven by the author, that a careful translation of The Lord of the Rings into Hindi will become racist and neo-colonialist, for if a translation alters a book in such a way, then it is a poor translation. This paper is an example of oversensitive Western political correctness [...] [2]

I couldn’t have said this better myself.

Finally, 4) it’s just too difficult. That may be. If Rowling provides an enjoyable challenge with her anagrams and magical nomenclature, Tolkien’s work would be ten times more difficult and (I would think) frustrating to translate. The Lord of the Rings, with its tests and trials on every single page, must certainly be one of the most difficult challenges a translator can ever face. Add to this the fact that Tolkien’s admirers must be pickier (by several orders of magnitude) about the final product than Rowling’s — and perhaps this helps to explain the lack of a translation into even one of the languages of the Indian subcontinent.*

Nevertheless, it is a shame, because (pace Bigger) I think there is a strong synergy between Hindi literature and Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth. For just one example, “Chandrakanta, written by Devaki Nandan Khatri, was considered the first authentic work of prose in the Adhunik kaal (modern period). A story of magical characters, kings and kingdoms, it reminds one of The Lord of the Rings series [...].” Indeed, the magical quality of many Indian stories, with their sense of a mythology alive and well, would seem in some ways ideally prepared to embrace Tolkien almost as one of their own.


[1] Published in Honegger, Thomas, ed. Root and Branch: Approaches Towards Understanding Tolkien. Zurich and Berne: Walking Tree, 1999, pp. 165–179.

[2] Variations [a literature magazine of the university of Zürich] No. 4 (2000), pp. 177–180. Peter Lang Publishers.

* According to HarperCollins, either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit (they aren’t specific) has been translated into Marathi; however, I haven’t been able to find any tangible evidence of this. HarperCollins’s “to our knowledge” doesn’t inspire much confidence. They go on to say, “Please let us know if you find any more!” Please let the publisher know?! Err, shouldn’t they be the gatekeepers on this? ;)

8 comments:

  1. I agree with you that the non-European culture of India cannot be per se the reason no Hindi translation of The Lord of the Rings has yet been published.

    According to Wikipedia, [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Translations_of_The_Lord_of_the_Rings], LotR has been translated into 44 languages, although arriving at this number is left as an exercise for the reader, since Wikipedia's two lists don't correlate exactly.

    Here's the correlated list, not counting multiple translations in the same language: Albanian, Arabic, Basque, Breton, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Estonian, Faroese, Finnish, French, Galician, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Marathi, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese (European and Brazilian), Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian.

    Now, I guess that translating Tolkien into any language other than English must be culturally challenging. He deliberately wrote it as a celebration of the history of the English language. But casting him into a language and culture other than European (more or less) must present far greater challenges - at least on the order of the Indian languages in question.

    For instance, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Thai, and Turkish are all quite remote culturally and historically from the European languages, colonialism aside. Yet from the list above, some brave translators have made do, pace Andreas Bigger.

    Van Rossenberg's 2000 review of that 1999 article does give Bigger credit for at least considering the problems of a non-Western translation of Tolkien. He concludes, "Yet the discussion of how a culture radically different from ours views Tolkien's work is interesting, and helps towards explaining why -with few exceptions (Turkish and Indonesian)- there have been made no translations of Tolkien's books outside the Western world." [http://www.proaktiva.ch/walkingtree/press/2000_var4.html]

    Hmm. My lazyman’s source doesn’t give all the publication dates, but here’s what it has:

    Arabic (2008)
    Chinese (2002)
    Hebrew (1980)
    Indonesian
    Japanese (1975)
    Korean
    Persian (2004)
    Thai
    Turkish

    Van Rossenberg may have missed the 1970s editions in Japanese and Hebrew (or worse, may consider Japan and Israel as “Western” countries!). Clearly the Persian, Chinese, and Arabic versions have come out since he wrote his comments. The Korean and Thai ones may be very recent too.

    I wonder what happened in the last ten years to spur a spate of “non-Western” Lord of the Rings editions? Did Van Rossenberg and Bigger’s glum assessments get some non-Western Tolkien translator/fans all roused up?

    P.S. As a hidden Mickey, I left for last that the Wikipedia list says that LotR has been translated into Marathi – India’s fourth most-spoken language. Anyone read that one? Is it a racist and neo-colonialist travesty? Are those would-be Hindi translators just slackers?

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  2. Thanks for the very thorough and thought-provoking comment, Squire. I’d like to clarify one point right off the bat. Perhaps you missed the footnote in my post, but I suspect (and I’m not alone in that suspicion) that the Marathi translation does not exist. I’ve searched all over, including a number of online bookstores in India, without ever finding it.

    Also, I think some incorrect assumptions are made in the Wikipedia article, specifically ...

    According to Wikipedia, [...], LotR has been translated into 44 languages, although arriving at this number is left as an exercise for the reader, since Wikipedia's two lists don't correlate exactly.

    The source they cite for their first list, which includes Indonesian, Thai, and Turkish (not to mention Marathi) is a FAQ on one of the HarperCollins websites. But the FAQ in question actually states that “To our knowledge The Hobbit and/or The Lord of the Rings have been translated into thirty-eight different languages. Please let us know if you find any more!”

    That list is therefore meant to be a combined list, and it doesn’t specify when *only* The Hobbit or *only* The Lord of the Rings has been translated into one of those. Nor does it provide any links or concrete details (e.g., translator, date, ISBN). Nor does the wishy-washy quality of their statement inspire us to believe the list is definitely accurate. The anonymous authors at Wikipedia have assumed there’s a translation of LotR for every language on HarperCollins’s list. That’s clearly not so.

    Now, just for one example, there is definitely a Turkish Hobbit — I’ve seen scans and excerpts from it — but I do not think there is a Turkish Lord of the Rings. At least, I am not aware of one. So one has to treat the two lists on Wikipedia with some care. I am more inclined to believe the second list (the table), with all of its specifics, than the laundry list from HarperCollins.

    Clearly the Persian, Chinese, and Arabic versions have come out since he wrote his comments. The Korean and Thai ones may be very recent too.

    And the Indonesian. As to Thai, I'm not sure there is a Thai LotR. There is a Thai Hobbit — again, I’ve seen it.

    I wonder what happened in the last ten years to spur a spate of “non-Western” Lord of the Rings editions? Did Van Rossenberg and Bigger’s glum assessments get some non-Western Tolkien translator / fans all roused up?

    I wonder too. There is also a recent Vietnamese translation of The Hobbit which was completed just a few years ago but then apparently was not published. I wonder why. I have a digital copy of it for anyone who might be curious (and who can read Vietnamese). Interesting.

    P.S. As a hidden Mickey, I left for last that the Wikipedia list says that LotR has been translated into Marathi – India’s fourth most-spoken language. Anyone read that one? Is it a racist and neo-colonialist travesty? Are those would-be Hindi translators just slackers?

    Consider this a call — nay, a plea! — to anyone out there who may be able to prove that a Marathi LotR or Hobbit actually exists. Let us hear from you!

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  3. Jason

    Hope well

    I agree would love to see a Hindi version - and while we are at it why no Welsh translation (there is for the first volume of Harry Potter which I've stumbled through) of LOTR and also I would love to see an Anglo-Saxon version as well (although I think that along with a Sindarin version may be a brucke too far!!).

    Cheers Andy

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  4. I couldn’t agree more about a Welsh Lord of the Rings. Not because Welsh is particularly widely spoken, but because of its importance to Tolkien and Tolkien studies. There’s a Breton Hobbit, with an Irish on the verge of publication (if it hasn’t just appeared), translated by Nicholas Williams. But no Welsh there either.

    But of course, Welsh has less than a million speakers — as compared to the nearly one billion in Asia who don’t have a translation!

    As for Anglo-Saxon or Sindarin, I can see how that might be a fun personal project, but I think I’d rather leave that to others. There’s a fellow out there trying to translate LotR into Latin, I know. :)

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  5. Just a note: "The Lord of the Rings" has not been translated in Turkish, except for the "Return of the King": "Yuzuklerin Efendisi - Kralin Donusu". There are also Turkish translations of "Hobbit" and "Silmarillion".

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  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  7. Turkish and Thai translations of LotR definitely exist. All volumes have been translated.
    Check out this page of my buddy, the collector: http://elrondslibrary.free.fr/index.html

    About Marathi. It doesn't exists. I'm collecting Tolkien books last 15 years. I specialize in foreign translations of Hobbit and I know a lot of other collectors who collects foreign editions. And nobody from them seen through all that years ANY proof that this translation exists.

    Thank you Jason for interesting article. If you can send me Vietnamese hobbit (electronical version) then I will be very gracefull. I had it in my bookmarks but the page disappears from the Web some time ago.

    Thank you & Greetings!

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  8. Adanedhel and Marek: thanks very much to both of you for chiming in with the additional information. Since there appears to be no Marathi translation — at least, this is the consensus among collectors — I think it would be nice if HarperCollins removed that claim from their marketing collateral. It’s misleading and tends to spread to other sites (e.g., Wikipedia). Ah well ...

    Marek, I got your email address from your Tolkien site (assuming it is correct) and will send you the Vietnamese translation of The Hobbit. I think it’s okay to share it privately since a) it is freely available on the web, if one knows where to look, and b) it has not been published, and therefore does not infringe on a publisher’s commercial interests.

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