After more than five years of (recent) anticipation, which might easily have stretched on indefinitely, Tolkien’s translation of Jonah has arrived! You can read my previous posts on the subject, of which I found there were a surprising number, by following this link.
translation appears in the new issue of the Journal
of Inklings Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 2014). It is short — naturally,
since Jonah itself is one of the shortest books in the Bible — spanning just
four pages (5–9). But even so short a translation is valuable new primary
material for Tolkien studies. The translation is followed by Brendan N. Wolfe’s
essay, “Tolkien’s Jonah”, which is also full of interesting material, including
liberal quotation from Fr Alexander Jones’s letters to Tolkien as well as
Tolkien’s draft opening to the book of Isaiah! Just to give you a taste, but
without stealing all the journal’s thunder: “Heavens hearken, earth give ear,
for Jahveh speaks […]”  It reads almost like a piece of Beowulf.
Jonah is a very interesting piece of work and will take time to explore
thoroughly. But one small thing in particular really caught my attention while
is the King James Version of Jonah 4:6: “And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and
made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to
deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.” The English
Standard version also uses “gourd”. The Common English Bible calls it a “shrub”,
the Complete Jewish Bible “a castor-bean plant”, the Contemporary English
Version “a vine”, the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition “an ivy”, the
International Standard Version “a vine plant”, the New American Standard Bible “a
plant”, the New International Version “a leafy plant”, the New Revised Standard
Version “a bush”, and so on. That pretty much covers all the variations I’ve
seen in English language Bibles. So what does Tolkien say?
you’ve read Jonah in the Jerusalem Bible, you’ve seen “castor oil plant”, but that’s
not what Tolkien originally wrote; that was the work of the reviser. And that proves the importance of seeing Tolkien’s original translation. He did consider
the castor plant. According to Wolfe, Tolkien even “cop[ied] out the entry for ‘castor’ in
the OED, exchang[ed] notes with Jones on the subject, and ultimately opt[ed] for
‘colocynth’.” Colocynth? I can’t recollect ever having seen this word before. Here is
Tolkien’s translation of the verse in question: “Then Yahweh God appointed a
colocynth to grow up over Jonah, so that it might cast a shade upon his head
and relieve his discomfort; and Jonah had great delight in the colocynth.” Now that’s interesting!
original Hebrew here is קִיקָי֞וֹן [qî·qā·yō·wn], and apparently no one is
quite sure what kind of plant this is. It’s a hapax legomenon in Scripture ,
and no further explanation of it is ever given. It’s quite singular in my
experience that Tolkien chose this word. Colocynth (I have learned) derives
from Ancient Greek κολοκυνθίς “wild gourd”, and it is known more commonly as
the bitter apple, bitter cucumber, desert gourd, vine of Sodom, etc. It’s native
to the regions of the Biblical world, and it looks like a tiny watermelon (see the photo above).
reviser evidently didn’t like Tolkien’s theory. This may have been Alan Neame,
who was engaged to edit and harmonize the translations of the books of the Old
Testament for the Jerusalem Bible, or it may have been someone else involved.
This person changed “colocynth” to “castor oil plant”, but how interesting is
Tolkien’s translation! And so typical of Tolkien to expend so much thought on a
Quoted in Wolfe, Brendan N. “Tolkien’s Jonah.” Journal of Inklings Studies,
Vol. 4, No. 2 (October 2014): 11–26, p. 19. Wolfe is quoting with permission
from Tolkien’s unpublished draft of the first chapter of Isaiah, Bodleian
Library, Oxford (Tolkien A37/1). Wolfe quotes a little less than fifty words,
meaning a sizeable chunk of primary work remains unpublished.
 See this blog post
for some further commentary on the Hebrew word.