Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More new Tolkien material coming this summer ... sort of

This just in — It appears that Darton, Longman & Todd (publishers of The Jerusalem Bible) will be publishing The Book of Jonah, translated by J.R.R. Tolkien, on 20 July 2009. I have really mixed feelings about this. It feels like a real stretch, and I would be willing to wager a tidy sum that the text will simply be a word-for-word reprint of the same Book of Jonah that has been available in The Jerusalem Bible for forty years now. On the other hand, it’s convenient to be able to buy a copy of just the one biblical book Tolkien is known to have worked on (instead of the whole JB). And what a nice cover! :)

What do we really know about Tolkien’s translation? Not as much as we’d like to, but some. First of all, Tolkien did not translate Jonah from the original Hebrew as is so commonly supposed [1]; rather, the text he worked from was a French translation from the Hebrew, so one step removed [2]. It has also been reported that Tolkien translated the Book of Job, but the best evidence we have suggests that Tolkien did no more than look over a draft trans-lation by another hand, and perhaps not even that much [3]. Tolkien also produced a sample translation of the first chapter of Isaiah, but we have no reason to suppose it was used in the preparation of that book for publication.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling in light of this new book, Humphrey Carpenter reports that Tolkien’s translation of Jonah “was extensively revised by other hands before publication” [4]. If Carpenter is correct (and I have no reason to doubt it), and further, if my guess is correct that the text will simply be the same as already in print, then what have we gained by this new publication? How much of the final published translation is even in Tolkien’s own words? Not much, according to Carpenter. And so indeed, where is the value?

Now, on the other hand, were we to get notes, jottings, and drafts of the translation, revealing something of its intermediate stages and giving insights into Tolkien’s approach, along with facsimile pages in Tolkien’s hand and an insightful introductory essay to go along with all of this — well, then I would be delighted to eat my words. The only bit of hope: The Book of Jonah (trans. Tolkien) is supposed to be 104pp., even though the Book of Jonah itself is extremely short (only about three pages in The Jerusalem Bible). But I’m still skeptical at this point. How about the rest of you?

[1] Scull, Christina, and Wayne G. Hammond. The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Volume II: Reader’s Guide, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006, p. 468.

[2] See also Scull & Hammond Reader’s Guide, p. 437ff.

[3] Kilby, Clyde. Tolkien and the Silmarillion. Wheaton (IL): Harold Shaw Publishers, 1976, p. 54. I suspect this was simply a slip, but one which unfortunately has been taken up and repeated many times. According to Scull and Hammond, “[o]n 26 January 1958 [Jerusalem Bible general editor Alexander] Jones solicited Tolkien’s opinions of a first draft of most of the Book of Job” (Reader’s Guide, p. 437), but that seems to have been the extent of it — at least, so far as anyone can now verify.

[4] Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977, p. 274.


  1. I'm skeptical, too, but at least curious. Something has to fill out those 104 pages.

  2. Agreed! I don’t see how three pages could become more than one hundred, no matter how large you make the font. :) Hopefully, there will be some nice surprises in the book. Still, I have my doubts ...

  3. Have been fishing and writing around some month our two ago... actually should have posted about the book more then a month ago; but things turned out different. Will try and get an article up as soon as possible.

  4. I was a little surprised to find you hadn’t yet written anything about it, but I am not surprised to learn you already knew it was coming. :)

  5. Will be interesting to see what Pieter has dug up. In the meantime, since HarperCollins was completely unaware of this book, I find it very unlikely that the Estate has given permission to publish additional primary Tolkien materials (notes, drafts, etc.) if Darton, Longman & Todd even have access to materials such as those. I'll post more information as I can as well on TCG.

  6. Jason: Thanks for the email, btw. I thought as long as I was responding to this post, I'd respond to the email more or less here too. Some of this I published in the Tolkien encyclopedia ed. Drout et al.

    The original plan of the Jerusalem Bible in English was to translate the French text (JB was originally a French production) of the Biblical text into English with an eye to the original texts for accuracy, and then create a new English apparatus of notes by English scholars. It was at this initial stage that Tolkien was approached and that Tolkien produced the translation of the book of Jonah from the French text.

    A little later, it became apparent that the English JB needed to be a fresh translation of the original Hebrew and Greek texts into English with a comparative eye to the French JB and they changed the plan then to simply translating the apparatus from French where needed.

    Tolkien was busy. Revising LoTR, the Ancrene Wisse work, answering letters, etc kept him quite busy, and while he expresses an intent and desire to learn Hebrew in a letter to his grandson in the late 50s (57?), probably to take a larger part in the JB project, there is little evidence either in the JB itself or in Tolkien's work to indicate that he advanced far.

    I said "little evidence", not "no evidence". There is in Oxford's manuscript archives of modern authors a Tolkien collection with a translation of Jonah that does have Hebrew words in the margin. Obviously these hand written words were added to the typescripted page at a later date, so Tolkien advanced enough in Hebrew to use a lexicon and make his way through a short, easy, prose text. So far as I've been able to ascertain, that is the only evidence of Tolkien's knowledge of Hebrew.

    When Fr. Alexander Jones and the other editorial board members decided to base the translation in the original languages, there had already been a few texts such as Tolkien's Jonah that had been translated and turned in. These were then revised, largely by Jones himself (who did in the end, it seems, the vast majority of the work on the English JB), in comparison to the original languages. I've not compared the revised text and the original Tolkien text to see how much or thoroughly changed the Jonah translation is from Tolkien's translation from French.

  7. Part II, I've long winded I guess:

    Regarding the Job tale, that is largely the result of what I believe is a misunderstanding and mistake on the part of an employee of the publisher who wrote in a note published in Amon Hen in the 80s that Tolkien had indeed done Job. That piece of information was taken up by Hammond and Scull and many other luminaries among Tolkien commentators and repeated for years.

    However, in the meantime the real translator of Job wrote a book. Its Andrew Jones' nephew (I have his name that I'm forgetting and the name of his book elsewhere and can supply it in time) who at that time was a young priest himself. In his autobiographical book, he talks about the translation and Tolkien's role in it, saying that Tolkien held up publication of the JB for quite some time because he wouldn't finish editing and commenting on the English of the Job translation. Finally Jones and his nephew went to Tolkien's home personally and had a lengthy discussion with Tolkien about the translation and things that Tolkien wanted changed. Tolkien's job in this case was not to compare Job to the Hebrew text, but to comment on the English of the translation and to make it better in so far as possible without moving too far from the Hebrew.

    I'm happy to say that when I originally did this research and turned the articles over for the encyclopedia, Hammond and Scull's guides had not yet come out. I'm happy to say that they also have reached the same conclusions I did, so there is independent corroboration of what I've reported here and in the Drout encyclopedia. That pleases me.

    Hope that helps some. This is getting long, but to answer the question you had on the marginalia in Hebrew in Tolkien's manuscript, there is a story there too. In fact I think I'll blog it. But I know this in part because I looked at the manuscript, though when I did I already knew what I'd find from other sources who were there ahead of me.

  8. The publishers most likely own there own copies of the original submissions for the JB, so they don't need to Estate's permission to publish what they themselves own.

  9. Thanks for the details, Larry. And don’t worry at all about the length! I’m on the longwinded side myself. :)

    Some of what you write here, I have already discussed in a newer post, here. And it won’t surprise me at all if you are reading that post at this very moment, and writing a comment even as I write this, hahae.

    Regarding the note in Amon Hen, clearly incorrect but often repeated, I note that it was published in May 1977. But Kilby claimed Tolkien translated Job earlier still, in 1976 (and he was probably writing his book the year before that, so 1975). I can’t help wondering whether Kilby made the slip, which was then taken up and repeated by the JB’s publishers; whether it was vice versa; or whether there was perhaps even some other source of the error, or that both parties made the same slip independently. Job for Jonah seems like an obvious enough mistake to make.

    I was delighted to see that your knowledge did in fact come from having seen the MSS. yourself, and I’m very interested to read the blog post you plan to write about the longer tale. I hope you’ll drop back by and comment again (here, or on the newer post) with the URL to yours. I’m sure my readers will be just as interested as I am.