Out of all the languages that The Hobbit has been translated into through the years, I think Latin would be a language that Tolkien would take special delight. As a devout Roman Catholic, Tolkien would have been very familiar with the archaic language of Latin.
This language has always and continues to be the official language of the Catholic Church and has been used in the celebration of the liturgy for over a thousand years. Up until the 1960s during what was the Second Vatican Council, Latin was used exclusively in the Western Church in the Sacrifice of the Mass. While the Second Vatican Council only allowed the vernacular to be used throughout the world, it was interpreted by many as a complete dismissal of the Latin language. (In reaction to this misinterpretation, Pope Benedict XVI recently established a Pontifical Latin Academy in hopes that Latin will once again be a language widely used in the Roman Church) This infuriated J.R.R. Tolkien, whose love of languages must have fueled his distate of this new use of the vernacular. For example, Tolkien’s grandson, Simon Tolkien, recounts his grandfather’s reaction to the change:
I vividly remember going to church with him in Bournemouth. He was a devout Roman Catholic and it was soon after the Church had changed the liturgy from Latin to English. My grandfather obviously didn’t agree with this and made all the responses very loudly in Latin while the rest of the congregation answered in English. I found the whole experience quite excruciating, but my grandfather was oblivious. He simply had to do what he believed to be right.
So it appears that Tolkien, while he did have an appreciation of the English language, did not agree that this language should be used in Sacred Liturgy. I am sure he found the beauty and archaic nature of Latin to be appealing and it allowed him to be drawn evermore into the mystery celebrated before him.
Consequently, when I heard that The Hobbit was going to be translated into Latin, I was excited. Latin is a beautiful language and one that is very fitting for a devout Catholic such as Tolkien. More pleased was I to receive the Hobbitus Ille on Christmas day!
I am in no way a Latin scholar, but I know enough Latin that I can roughly understand what the text is saying. However, the translator Mark Walker obviously had to “create” many words in order for it to be an actual translation. He has provided a handy glossary in the back of the book and puts an asterisk before the first occurrence of each new word. Here is a short sample from the very beginning of the book:
in foramine terrae habitabat hobbitus: nec foedum, sordidum madidumque foramen, nec extremis lumbricorcum atque odore caenoso impletum, nec etiam foramen aridum, inane, harenosum, in quo nihil erat ad considendum aut edendum aptum; immo foramen-hobbitum, ergo commodum.
And the same passage in the original English:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
What is also very fascinating is that Mark Walker has translated Tolkien’s poetry into classical Latin verse. This means that some of his poems will take on a different character, but one that is not inconsistent with the intent of the author. Walker gives the example of the Dies Irae as a style of verse that is used in the translation.
In the end, it will take me a bit longer to get through the Hobbitus Ille than The Hobbit, but it is a fun way to brush up on my Latin skills and will hopefully entice others to be interested in this most beautiful language. (The next book on my list that intrigues me is the “Latin Letters of C.S. Lewis“)
What do you think? Would Tolkien be pleased to see his works in Latin? Is it good to revive such an archaic language and add new words? Is Latin fitting for a true fairy tale? Click here to share your thoughts.