Tolkien Through Russian Eyes and A Tolkienian Mathomium - Q&A with the author Mark Hooker (07.05.07 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

When I was organizing The Children of Hurin Release Party I was trying to create a guest list that would bring together a nice variaty, namely Tolkien scholars, translators, artists, linguists, ... We had very interesting guests of all fields, who all had one thing in common, namely Tolkien. On the guest list was among others Mark Hooker.
His articles on Tolkien have been published in English in Beyond Bree, Parma Nölé, Translating Tolkien and Tolkien Studies, in Dutch in Lembas (the journal of the Dutch Tolkien Society) and in Russian in Palantir (the journal of the St. Petersburg Tolkien Society). He is most famous as the author of A Tolkienian Mathomium and Tolkien Through Russian Eyes (Walking Tree, 2003). His A Tolkienian Mathomium has just reached its second printing and I can only say that all people who love languages and Tolkien and who want to learn more about Tolkien from a different approach must really read this book. Tolkien himself was a philologist enjoying to play with words and names, and thanks to Mark Hooker we get to understand the meaning of names and the hidden Tolkien humor inside his words!

Tolkien Through Russian Eyes examines the sociological impact of the translation and publication of J.R.R. Tolkien's works in post-Soviet Russia. Mark Hooker provides us with a very interesting tour on how Tolkien's works have been translated, transfigured or even mutilated. Each translator has a slightly different approach to the text. Each translation has a slightly different interpretation of Tolkien. Each translator has a different story to tell. Most of the existing translations are only Tolkienesque, they are not really Tolkienian. This book is a real eye opener and learns us again some more on Tolkien's works and on translating his books.

While many had sent in questions for Mark Hooker, which he would answer during his Question & Answer session at The Children of Hurin Release Party, he was unable to attend because of family matters. I'm most gratefull to Mark Hooker that I'm now able to release the answers to the many questions, with a small introduction by himself.

I regret that I was unable to take part in the Release Part for The Children of Hurin when it was live, but I had a family emergency that made it impossible for me to attend. Below, however, you will find answers to the questions for me that were posted on the Wiki for the event.

Q: In your interview with the website Tolkien Library, in answer to the question “why has Tolkien been so unpopular with the critics?” you said that Tolkien “wrote for an audience of one: himself,” while we know that Tolkien shared his work in draft with the members of the Inklings. Could you comment on this seeming incongruity?

My response to the question of why Tolkien was unpopular with the critics was:

Because Tolkien broke the mold of what was considered ‘Great Literature,’ and wrote for an audience of one: himself. He by-passed the gatekeepers who thought that they defined the standard of Literature, and they were not pleased at having been ignored.

I have to admit that the brevity of my response made it less clear than it could have been, but I will see if I can make up for that here.

The critics attacked The Lord of the Rings, because it did not fit their preconceptions of what “Great Literature” should be. Tolkien had never intended to write something that would fit in the categories that the critics used to define “Great Literature,” because, as he said on numerous occasions, he wrote “The Lord of the Rings to satisfy myself” (L.165). “[T]he book was written to please myself” (L.328), ... [and] I do not suppose that it is of much interest to anyone but myself” (L.131).  He phrased this another way in a letter to Christopher, in which he said that his “long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my [Tolkien's] personal aesthetic might seem real” (L.205).

In describing this state of affairs, I fell back on the jargon of modern authors (I had recently finished a course on creative writing)  and said that he had written “for an audience of one: himself.” This does not mean that Tolkien did not share his work with others. He did, and I do the same with my fiction. It means that Tolkien's first goal when he wrote was to write what he wanted, not what some literary critic thought that he should write.

Since Tolkien did not heed their sage advice about what could be considered “Great Literature,” the critics who lay claim to position of the gatekeepers of Literature with a capital “L” could not let this challenge to their status go unchallenged, and they lambasted his book in the “Literary” press.

[The references to the Letters are to the number of the letter and not to the page in the book on which the letter appears.]

Q: What has been the Russian response to Tolkien after the fall of the Soviet Union?

There is no easy answer to this question. It is really the question that I was trying to answer in my book on Tolkien in Russian translation, Tolkien Through Russian Eyes. Tolkien did not really become available in Russian until after the fall of the Soviet Union. I like to say that he was banned in the USSR, but Russians always respond that I cannot prove he was banned because I don't have a piece of paper that says so. Piece of paper or not, you could not buy a copy of all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings in Russian until after the fall of Communism.

There were, of course, underground translations of The Lord of the Rings into Russian in the early 1960s and mid 1970s that circulated in what is known as samizdat, that is one original and five carbon copies done on a typewriter. I know people who typed The Lord of the Rings out in Russian a number of times so that it could circulate in samizdat. Copying machines were controlled items of technology in the USSR, and you could not just walk into a copy shop and say “I want a 100 of these.” Not only is typing The Lord of the Rings out by hand a major feat of endurance, reading that fifth carbon copy is also not the easiest thing in the world, yet people did both to see what Tolkien had to say.

Tolkien has a very enthusiastic, evangelical, erudite following in Russia these days. In some ways it reminds me of Tolkien in America in the 1960s. There is everything from very serious Tolkien scholars, to folks who like the movies, to folks who want Tolkien canonized for all the Russians who converted to Christianity after reading him.

Q: If you walk down the street into a bookstore in Moscow or Novgorod today, can you pick out a The Lord of the Rings translation of your choice among Gruzberg, Rakhmanova, etc. just like walking through a cafeteria?

I have not been in a bricks-and-mortar Russian bookstore recently, but judging by my favorite on-line Russian bookstore (www.ozon.ru), you would certainly have a choice of which translation to buy, though not a choice from among all 9 of the Russian translations of The Lord of the Rings. The marketing power of the publishing houses behind each of the different translations would seem to be what makes the difference. The translations from the larger houses are always in stock, while the translations from the smaller presses are harder to find. This is the same kind of thing that you would find here in the USA, where on a visit to one of the big-box bookstores you could find The Lord of the Rings, The History of Middle-earth, Companion, Carpenter and The Hobbit, but not one of my books, or even Foster, for that matter.

What is, perhaps, more interesting is the piece of information behind this question. There is not just one published translation of Tolkien's works in Russia as is common in other countries. The Russian book market offers its readers a much greater “choice” than does the English-language book market. There are seven Russian translations and two re-tellings. If a Russian reader does not have much time, and just wants the plot highlights, there are the Bobyr' and the Yakhnin re-tellings. If a Russian reader wants a Russian story instead of an English one, there are the Murav'ev & Kistyakovskij and the Volkovskij. If a Russian reader wants a new-age Tolkien, there is the Grigor'eva, & Grushetskij. If the Russian reader wants an annotated The Lord of the Rings, there is the Kamenkovich & Karrik. If a Russian reader wants a text with all the big words simplified, there is the Matorina. If the Russian reader wants to read Tolkien, however, they have to read him in the Original, and to help them get their English up to speed, there is the Gruzberg and the Nemirova. Choice is the hallmark of a market economy, and the Russians are obviously doing their best to become one.

[For a detailed who's who of the Russian translations, see: ; Mark T. Hooker, “Nine Russian Translations of The Lord of the Rings,” in Tolkien in Translation, Thomas Honegger (ed.), Switzerland: Walking Tree Publishers, 2003; or Mark T. Hooker, Tolkien Through Russian Eyes, Switzerland: Walking Tree Publishers, 2003.]

Q: Is there any sign of Tolkien being translated into non-Russian languages of the nations of the former Soviet block, e.g., Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, etc.?

There were approximately 130 different languages spoken in the former Soviet Union, and most of them are incomprehensible to me. My field of specialization is the Slavic languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, etc) and I picked up my skill in the Germanic languages (German and Dutch) almost by accident. I, therefore, do not normally follow what is being published in the languages of the former USSR, but when I saw this question on-line before the start of the party, I did a quick web search in Russian and in English and was not able to find any bibliographies, reviews or publication notices for translations of Tolkien in any of the languages of the former USSR, except for Ukrainian and White Russian.

Thought it did not show up in the web search, I know personally of an old (late 1970s) Armenian translation of The Hobbit via a colleague who reads Armenian, and it appears to be a translation from the Rakhmanova Russian translation rather than from the English original. It has the same classic Belomlynskij illustrations and the same lacunae as the Rakhmanova. 

The Rakhmanova was, of course, the first officially published translation of any of Tolkien's works into Russian. It remains my favorite Russian Hobbit because of the style and grace of Rakhmanova’s language. It came out in 1976, and I am very pleased to have a first edition.

Q: The Russian translations are they any good? And which one is the best?

Some of the Russian translations are very literary, though I would recommend that you read Tolkien in English, if you want to study Tolkien. If, on the other hand, you want to study Russian, I would recommend the Murav'ev and Kistyakovskij translation as the one with the kind of Russian that you would want to learn. Just looking at what they did to the names would be a big boost to your vocabulary and knowledge of Russian word formation.

The annotations to the Karrik and Kamenkovich translation are very interesting, and are worth reading if your Russian is up to it.

As I said above, the Rakhmanova is my favorite Russian Hobbit because of the style and grace of her language.

Q: Will there be a Russian translation of The Children of Hurin?

I have no inside information about that, but I suspect that there will be.  The Russians are very studiously translating The History of Middle-earth and are up to volume IV. The translation team working on the project is very meticulous and it is almost impossible to find fault with their work. I consider it unfortunate that they are not planning on retranslating The Lord of the Rings. I would love to read their version of it.

Q: To write an article for Beyond Bree, how do you start? You just open the book and pick a word or a name... or how does it happen?

Yes, it is almost that simple. As I read translations of The Lord of the Rings or works of literature or history that Tolkien might have read, or commentary on Tolkien's works, when I come across a translation that tickles my fancy, or a word that suggests some interesting insight on Tolkien's works, or a comment with which I cannot agree, I make a note of it and start looking the word up in the array of reference sources that I have available both here at The History of Middle-earth and in the university library. 

The key to the process is really the answer to the next question:

Q: I guess that writing these articles is a lot of fun for you... or so it feels when I read them?

Being retired, I can write about what I want, so I choose things that are fun to do. I am essentially doing what Tolkien did. I am writing for myself. (See the question above.) The advantage to this approach for the reader is that I am willing to put a lot more time into finding a satisfactory answer to the question that I have asked myself than I would be if the question was one that did not interest me as much.

A German reader commented that she found my writing “whimsical,” which I see as a compliment. I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that, being a linguist, I find Tolkien's jokes witty and funny, and I like to try and share my sense of enjoyment with the reader. Far too many analysts fail to see the humor in Tolkien's linguistic jokes.

Q: Do you plan on publishing any new books in the future?

It is strange that you should mention that. An eMail I recently got in reaction to my most recent article in Beyond Bree (“Boffin of the Yale”, April, 2007) said that soon I would have enough new material for a second volume of A Tolkienian Mathomium. I suspect that my correspondent is right. When your day job is writing articles about Tolkien, it is easy to build up more material than you can get published in journals, and if you want to see it in print, you end up thinking about doing a book.

My current project is the name Maggot. Following the same approach that I used for Boffin, I have discovered some interesting facts about the name Maggot that suggest Tolkien may have been aware of them. I will not give away the punch line, but the ingredients are a close reading of everything about Farmer Maggot in The History of Middle-earth and in “Nomenclature,” a knowledge of Welsh name formation, and of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae. If the article becomes too long for Beyond Bree, you will have to wait until the book comes out to hear the joke. It's got muddy feet in it.

Q: How did you come to choose James Dunning’s art to illustrate A Tolkienian Mathomium?

I met Jim Dunning at a Welsh course in Caerfyrddin in Wales. We discovered that we were both Tolkien fans, and he became one of the test readers for my articles. He’s a tough critic and makes good suggestions to make the articles better. It was actually his idea to collect all my articles in a book so that they could reach a wider audience. When he noticed that I was including illustrations in the book, he volunteered to let me use some of his art work in it as well. He sent me a sample, and I liked what I saw, and it went in the book. The picture for The Hobbiton Daily News of Bilbo getting ready to donate his corslet of chain mail to Mathom House was drawn especially for A Tolkienian Mathomium, and is actually my favorite. It looks much better in the original size.

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