The J.R.R. Tolkien fansite, TheOneRing.net, carries some news on the release of An Hobad, the Irish language version of Tolkien’s children’s classic the Hobbit. Very interesting it is, including details on some of the issues around finding a suitable word to translate the term Elf as Tolkien employs it.
“Part of the evening was taken up by media interviews with the extraordinary people involved in the translation. Professor Nicholas Williams (who previously translated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) explained that a particular difficulty in the translation was the absence in Irish mythology of an exact equivalent of Tolkien’s Elves. The search for a suitable word resulted in a years-long delay while Professor Williams and the publisher, Michael Everson (himself a formidable linguist, typesetter and font designer) sought to find common ground on the matter. In the end, a new word was created, Ealbh, based on a borrowing into Scottish Gaelic from Norse – a solution Tolkien might well have approved of!”
Maybe Tolkien would approve of it but I certainly don’t. What a terrible decision. And an awful Gaelicisation. Yes, I know it’s based upon an original Scottish word ealbhar, so has genuine Gaelic roots, but that word in turn is a borrowing from Old Norse álfr “elf”; and in Scottish the original borrowing now means “a good for nothing”. I should also point out that ealbh is an alternative spelling of the existing Irish word ealbha which means “a drove or herd of cattle”. Is that a suitable root for the Eldar of Middle-earth? And one that Tolkien the philologist would approve of?
As for the claim that there is no exact equivalent of Tolkien’s Elves in Irish mythology, stuff an’ nonsense. Tolkien’s Elves are straight out of Irish mythology, via the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Aos Sí.
There are many Irish terms for the Otherworld Folk which would have been entirely suitable for the Elves of Middle-earth and all derived from the base word Sí “Otherworld”. I have listed most of them here. Yes, some might say it is “culturally” incorrect (and perhaps confusing) to apply the same word for the supernatural race of Irish, Scottish and Manx myth to J.R.R. Tolkien’s imaginative creations. But since that imaginary race is so heavily based on its Irish counterpart, and since context would clearly indicate which race is being discussed, I see no harm in it.
In any case there are plenty of now fairly obscure Irish Otherworld terms that could have been used: and with far more gravitas and authenticity. Ealbh is right up there with rampaí as an indicator of our lack of confidence in our own language and culture. One only has to look at other non-English versions of The Hobbit to see the ready use of culturally-specific translations without the need for awful bastardisations. Elf would have been rendered far better in Irish as Sióg or Síogaí than the mongrelised Elabh. Or if they were felt too modern or too loaded with other connotations then one could have used Síodhaí, Síodhbróg or even Sídheog (all meaning an inhabitant of the Otherworld or an Otherworld domain).
Of course one could point to the translation of the term Hobbit itself: Hobad. Why? It is perfectly clear that the Halfling Hobbits of Tolkien’s Middle-earth have a close role-model in the Little People of Irish Folklore, the Lucharacháin or Leipreacháin. Yes, that’s right: Leprechauns. However the more literary term Lucharachán for Hobbit would surely have been more suitable, and more indicative to an Irish-speaking reader, than the utterly meaningless Hobad.
I wish the translators of An Hobad every success. They have done wonderful work and so far I have heard nothing but praise for the job they have done (a job, in fact, apparently superior to many other translations made of Tolkien’s first published work of Middle-earth legendarium). I will certainly be purchasing it and I recommend others do the same.
I’m just hoping that Ealbh dies the linguistic death it so richly deserves. But I doubt it.
UPDATE: Two videos on the release of An Hobad, one from Grafton Media and the other from Club Leabhar via Gaelchultúr (focusing mainly on the translation Eachtraí Eilíse i dTír na nIontas or “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by the same translator of The Hobbit).
UPDATE: Michael Everson, the publisher of An Hobad, has been generous enough to contribute several comments below vigorously defending the use of the word Ealbh for “Elf” in the translation, and the reasons for doing so.
- “An Hobad” – The First Publication In Irish Of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” (ansionnachfionn.com)
- Enclaves And Exclaves. Why A Europe With Borders Is (Sometimes) More Fun (ansionnachfionn.com)
- “The Hobbit” now available in Gaelic! (hobbitfandom.net)
- ONE family tree! (quenya101.com)
- ‘Hobbit’ CinemaCon Footage Recap: A Wondrous Return to Middle-earth (screenrant.com)
- Review: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (thesolitarybookworm.wordpress.com)