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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Nunquam mens: ignis procul, 21 Nov. 2012
This review is from: Hobbitus Ille: The Latin Hobbit (Hardcover)
It's really quite hard to know how to review a book like this: the intention is so excellent and the execution so jarring.

For some readers, the purpose of a book like this is simply to allow you to follow the story and say "Hey, look at me! I'm reading real live Latin, and enjoying it!" And it is indeed engaging: the slower pace of reading allows you to notice things which slip by when you are re-reading the English. On this level, it's just a bit of fun: no point in being pompous about it.

Unfortunately, such books are equally likely to be used as a learning aid by those actually studying Latin. In that case there is a serious purpose in these translations: to make the reading easy and enjoyable by using a familiar and much-loved story while at the same time painlessly giving you a feel for how Latin prose actually works. This is where it fails badly. It's not a question of not conforming to some Augustan canon of elegance: misunderstandings, often amounting to howlers, occur on almost every page. I'm not saying I could do better; but I can tell when a table wobbles even though I do not know how to make tables.

The trouble starts on the title page: where _do_ so many English people get the idea that "ille" can be used as the definite article? All right, it is the ancestor of the definite article in most Romance languages, and was legitimately used in "Winnie Ille Pu", but there the idea was to render the extra emphasis in "Winnie THER Pooh". "There and back again" is rendered as "Illuc et rursus retrorsum". "Back again" is an English idiom, which does not exist in Latin. "Rursus retrorsum" is an ugly duplication: etymologically it amounts to "reversus retroversum". The only sensible meaning is that he went back once, and is now going back a second time: not what the book means.

And so it goes on. I agree with all the points made by the previous reviewer (Johan Winge): my thirteen-year-old son, who has been learning Latin for less than a year, fell about laughing when I told him about "tange et i".

The main fault is insensitivity to shades of meaning. For example:

*"foramen" means a perforation in a surface, such as a hole in your sock. It cannot mean a hole in the ground. Even leaving that aside, "foramen-hobbitum" would mean a hole which is a hobbit, not a hole belonging to a hobbit. And there are many further awkward English-style hyphenations and italicizations, which could have been avoided by standard Latin idioms.

*"as your friends may tell you" is translated by "licet", meaning that it is lawful for your friends to tell you. (And "licet" is used this way in several other passages.) It should be "ut potes discere ab amicis" or something similar.

*"facinus" for "adventure" may be just about defensible, but its normal meaning is "crime". (Admittedly, "adventure" here is very hard to translate: a recurrent joke in the original turns on the ambiguity between "adventure" in the sense of a speculative enterprise and "adventure" in the sense of a dangerous thing that happens to you.)

*"rixantem" for "scuffling". Even apart from the participle question, "rixa" means a quarrel with raised voices, with or without a fight. "Scuffle" in English can sometimes mean a fight. But in the original passage, it has its other meaning, of a noise made by a lot of feet.

*"veri simile" for "probable" (several times): can be used for whether someone's account appears believable, but not for whether something is likely to happen in the future, which is how it is usually used here.

*recurrent use of "tempus" to mean "time" in phrases like "another time" and "this time" (should be "hac vice").

*"caput" for "head" in phrases like "lost his head" and "keeping a clear head". "Caput" has several metaphorical uses in Latin, apart from the literal meaning of a part of the body; but it is never used for "mind" or "mental processes".

In other cases there are outright mistakes:

*Bilbo at one point hopes that the dragon is not sitting on the mountain looking down at them. The Latin makes him hope that the dragon IS doing this.

*in that wonderful exchange "little time to lose" /"little food to use", the Latin uses "time" instead of "food"!

*several times a plural noun takes a singular verb, though this may be a proofreading error.

*several uses of a participle to translate an English gerund, and of infinitives to render phrases like "nowhere to be seen".

Literal rendering of idioms:

*"for many a year" and "many a fair elf" are translated by "multus" in the singular. This idiom simply doesn't exist in Latin.

*recurrent use of "unus" for "one" in the sense of a specimen of a previously mentioned class, as in "a burglar, but an honest one". Again, not a Latin usage.


*some proper names are rendered by ridiculous Anglo-Latin compounds like "Mirksilva" and "Arkenlapis".

*the translator cannot decide whether to use "homines" for "human beings" or for "people" in general (including elves and dwarves): in the Tolkien world, a somewhat important distinction!

In short, it reads as if a student has ploughed through translating word for word with the help of a dictionary: of Latinity it has simply none. I can't quite make out how it happened, as the translator clearly knows a great deal of Latin and presumably has plenty of teaching experience, and some of the verses (for example the hendecasyllabic song about the barrels) are excellent.

But don't let me deter you from getting it. All said and done, it is a pleasant read, as nothing can destroy the charm of the original story; and one day it will have value as a collector's curiosity.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 28 Nov 2012 12:08:10 GMT
Johan Winge says:
Salve! Personally, I would be a bit more forgiving when it comes to the usage of "tempus" and "veri simile", but on the whole of course I agree with you. As to how it could be that the translation is as it is, I think there are two contributing factors:

First, while the translator might have a good passive understanding of Latin, and while he might be an excellent teacher for all that I know (at least with the support of a textbook and grammar), I think it is provable, from an analysis of the consistent types of errors, that his active knowledge of the language is rather patchy. To demonstrate this, let me give just one example of a particularly egregious recurring error, which has not already been mentioned in the reviews here, namely the faulty usage of the reflexive pronoun "se" (as well as the adjective "suus"). Seeing that English does not have this kind of reflexives, it is perhaps understandable if an English student occasionally mixes up "se" and "eum", but what is particularly noteworthy is that the translator also uses these reflexive words in the first and second person! Consider "noli se vexare" (p. xliv), "ubi se abdidistis?" (p. cxxxiii), "secum cogitavi", "se numeratis hobbitum abesse repperimus (both p. cxxxiv), "cum turba sua atque clamore araneas excitauistis" (p. clxxxi), "boni esto, se curate" (p. cxlix), and "cur tu se saepis, sicut latro in latibulo eius?" (p. cclxix). Obviously, this is not the result of carelessness; he simply has no clue how "se" is properly used.

The other contributing factor, I believe, is that the work most likely was rushed, in order to be published before the film comes out. Grammatical errors aside, there are lots of simple misspellings (such as transposed or missing letters etc.), which to me indicates that no one has taken the time to read through the book twice before publication, not even the translator. As you noted, the stronger part of this work is the poems, which perhaps is not surprising considering the translator's demonstrated interest in Latin poetry. Hence, it is plausible that he spent more time on the poems, and perhaps the work as a whole would have benefited if the same effort had gone into the rest of the book. (That said, there are problems with the poems as well; I'm thinking particularly of metrical errors in the quantitative verses: "triginta equi albi colle rubro maneant" is supposed to be a pentameter, forcing the first syllable of "equi" to be scanned long; "hic similis illo, disiunctus quisque habitabat", hexameter, thus long "-is" in "similis", even though it has to be singular which regularly has short final "i"; "necantur reges, montes caeduntur et urbes" has the same problem: first syllable of "necantur" is forced to be scanned long, even though the vowel is short; "sed pedibus tandem sic itur usque domum", pentameter, which means that the first syllable of "itur" has to be shortened.)

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Dec 2012 16:52:00 GMT
Last edited by the author on 6 Dec 2012 17:04:01 GMT
M. R. GREEN says:
Thanks very much, Johan, for this helpful review. It's pretty clear that the Latin reads rather like those Japanese washing machine instructions we used to find both amusing and infuriating. This translator may, like them, have used an electronic translation aid. It's such a pity that the publisher accepted it in this state (probably, as you say, to meet the film premiere deadline). No-one nowadays thinks in Latin and composition into Latin have long since ceased to be obligatory in University Classics courses, so translation into good Ciceronian style will always take time and will probably need two or three colleagues to check successive drafts.

Posted on 21 Dec 2012 19:33:43 GMT
Thank you for this review. I am a self-taught Latin student who wishes to be able to read medieval and renaissance Latin sources for research purposes but am somewhat antipathetic to classical history and literature. I therefore have a collection of contemporary translations such as Harrius Potter that I have found very helpful in improving my reading fluency. It doesn't concern me whether Latin is written in the style in which the Romans would have written, but it does matter to me that the Latin is correct. I would never have spotted any of the errors that have been highlighted by you and other reviewers, as my ability in Latin is at a much lower level, so I am very grateful for this review, and will probably not be buying the book.
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