The Hobbit in Esperanto, Chapter 1: An Unexpected Locomotive

1. I like reading books in translation. I like seeing the translator's choices, whether that's a turn of phrase that seems perfectly equivalent to the original - which isn't to say it was easy to do - or a surprising but logical change to make a poem or a riddle work out correctly. Translations give you a fresh view of familiar stories. Reading one is like getting to read a book for the first time all over again.

My Esperanto edition of La Hobito came out in 2005 - yes, the cover really is that nauseating grass green and daisy yellow. (There's also an even newer edition that I haven't seen yet.)

It's fitting that Tolkien, so famous for the languages he created, was finally translated into the most successful created language of all. Tolkien wasn't an Esperantist himself, but he read a great deal in Esperanto as a teenager, and though as an adult he said he could "neither write nor speak the language" he also advised those interested in the international language movement to "back Esperanto loyally".

2. Esperanto's charm, for me, comes from its wordbuilding (its "derivational morphology", for you Ling 101 students out there). Sometimes it's quirky, with compound words that build up a meaning out of five or six disparate chunks, like a jigsaw puzzle whose picture is only clear when the last piece snaps into place. And sometimes it's elegantly compact - like the subtitle on that garish cover.

"Tien kaj reen" - what's that? Ti- is part of a group of roots called correlatives. The correlatives beginning with ti- (like tiu, "that person, that one", tio, "that thing", or tial, "for that reason") are all deictic; they point some specific element out. Add an -e to a correlative root, and you get a word referring to a location. Ie is "somewhere"; ĉie is "everywhere". The final -n is one of the ways Esperanto expresses movement. So tien means "to there", and, by a similar process, the root re- that's often (as in English!) added to a verb to show repetition can instead pick up its own -e- and -n. The result has precisely the same meaning as the English subtitle, it's just shorter: "There and back again."

The translators' love for the story is evident throughout. Even the runes on Thorin's map spell out Esperanto words. So when Bilbo has his panic attack and shrieks like a train whistle coming out of a tunnel (kiel fajfo de lokomotivo el tunelo) I was startled. How did that end up in here?

3. But when I grabbed Tolkien's original, I realized that locomotive had been there all along. "Like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel", Tolkien wrote. I must have read that line thirty or more times since I was a kid, without ever stopping to think about it. Trains? In Middle Earth?

Now if you spend any time around science fiction and fantasy readers, you will meet two types again and again "with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season". The first thinks that as soon as someone finds a contradiction in a book, that book can thereafter be dismissed entirely1. The second thinks it's impossible for there to be a contradiction in their favorite book, and will spin impossibly contrived theories to explain them away2.

I hope to convince you I'm not in either of those groups.

I don't think Tolkien's locomotive is a mistake. Oh, I don't think there were trains in Middle Earth, either - but I think that image is serving a specific purpose, and a more rustic (or a more fantastic) simile wouldn't have worked as well.

Let me start with a couple of questions. Who is telling the story of The Hobbit? And who are they telling it to?

4. The narrator interrupts himself ("The mother of our particular hobbit - what is a hobbit?") He addresses the reader directly ("you will see whether he gained anything in the end"). And he knows what a train sounds like.

It might be tempting to conclude that the narrator is Tolkien himself, or a stand-in for him, anyway; just some fellow telling an amusing fairytale; someone from our world telling an imaginary story about an imaginary world.

But that's not what's going on. "If you have ever seen a dragon in a pinch," the narrator says, "you will realize that this was only poetical exaggeration". For the narrator, dragons are unremarkably real - and something the reader might plausibly have seen. One offhand phrase at a time, the narrator blurs the boundaries between Bilbo's world and ours. We, the readers, already live there.

5. The train might be the most strikingly modern detail, but it's not the only one. Bilbo serves his guests coffee; he has a clock on the mantlepiece, and it's clearly an everyday thing, though you can read The Lord of the Rings and all its appendices without hearing about anyone who seems able to make clockwork. (And before you tell me Bilbo's clock must have been some priceless ancient artifact - made in Dale, perhaps - imagine how you would react if someone tucked a note under a priceless artifact in your house, and then scroll back up and ask yourself if you're part of that second group of readers.) For someone who has read LotR and all its appendices, the detail might seem out of place - but for a reader who hasn't, who is reading The Hobbit for the first time, the absence of clocks and coffee would make the Shire feel very foreign indeed.

That's not to say that many, or any, readers have a home like Bag End. Few of us have entire rooms devoted to clothes (or can live in luxury without an income - but we'll come back to that next time.) There might be a few quaint details - round doors and windows, the grassy hill above - but nothing feels alien; it's more like a concentrated familiarity. Bag End is home, only more so.

And that's fitting for a book that is, so often, about setting out on journeys and coming back safely. (Tien kaj reen, indeed.) When Bilbo sets out from home to follow the dwarves on their adventure, he isn't leaving one place that's strange to us to go to another that's just as strange. Bilbo's home feels like our home, and the contrast between the familiar Bag End and the wildness of Mirkwood and the Lonely Mountain makes the adventure that much more thrilling.

1. "In Book 2, it says she's twenty-seven - but in Book 7, four years have passed and she's only twenty-nine!" (back to article)

2. "It just looked like Wolverine was fooled by the evil shapeshifter, but since we know he could smell who they were, he must have deliberately let them go!"
"But he knew the shapeshifter was planning to blow up the orphanage, and as soon as he got loose, that's what he did. So you're saying Wolverine is responsible for all those deaths?"
"He had to! Otherwise the rest of the plot wouldn't have happened!" (back to article)

Written on March 3, 2016