Hobbits in Bohemia

Film The Lord of the Rings

By Jan Velinger Any fan will tell you that The Lord of the Rings is one of the most impressive adventure sagas ever written. Yet, Tolkien's trilogy only hit former-Czechoslovakia twelve years ago, although it was published in Britain in the 1950s - the former Communist regime shunned the books because they represented evil as coming from the East. After the fall of Communism in 1989 the first instalment was published, and Tolkien became the rage in Bohemia with all the vengeance of a goblin attack. This thanks to an acclaimed translation by Stanislava Posustova, a librarian at Prague's Charles University's English department, who is also an independent translator. Now, as The Fellowship of the Ring finds newer and newer audiences around the Czech Republic, I was able to speak to Mrs Posustova about her translation, and her on-going passion for The Lord of the Rings....

When was the first time that you got your hands on a copy of The Lord of the Rings, and what kind of impression did it make on you?

"Well, it was in 1979, when the library at Charles University, where I had been working, bought a copy from some literary man and I decided to read it just to find out what it was. I enjoyed it so very much that I immediately became a Tolkien fan."

Did it occur to you at that point that you would eventually translate The Lord of the Rings, and other Tolkien texts as well?

"Well, I started right away in fact, because my father had read The Hobbit and liked it, and so I thought, well, I'll try a bit of it and translate some pages just for his pleasure, because there was no hope of publishing such a book."

That was one of the things I wanted to ask - in terms of the former regime, was this a book that would have been considered ideologically "wrong"?

"There were quite serious ideological problems, because the East as the seat of evil [ie. the country of Mordor in the trilogy - editor's note] was very unacceptable. It took several literary men who had good names with the regime to write their opinions that it was not meant politically but as Fantasy. So, it was considered for publication, but it still took ten years before it came out. After the problem of ideology was overcome, there was the problem of the size of the book, because they were afraid that it would take up too much paper and that it wouldn't sell... A new editor came, who was more interested in it, and carried it through."

What kind of feeling is that, when it takes so long for you to see the fruits of your labour realised, not knowing all along whether your translation would be published?

"I wasn't much surprised and I had little hope that it would be published soon, because it was the time when a lot of books were circulating illegally. I gave my translation to a group of people who I knew would be able to make more copies of it, so it circulated in the '80s in this version, so quite a lot of people got to know it before it was ever published in the book form."

When the book finally made it to market, what were some of the first reactions?

"It caused an unexpected sensation, because it was a book which sold out very soon, and got very popular: it even got the publishing house Book of the Year award. It caused a lot of talk, not as much as the film does now, of course, because the advertising campaign was not as big!"

How did the Czech public respond to the world of hobbits and Middle Earth? Did they adopt it?

Film The Lord of the Rings
"Young people did, definitely, because there were children playing at hobbits, and I know it from reactions because there were mothers and fathers coming to me and telling me their children were quite wild about it, and it was very pleasing. I saw young people reading it on the Underground, and you know, I saw that it really got the people!

Is Tolkien on the curriculum at Charles University and, in general, how is The Lord of the Rings trilogy viewed by the students and staff?

"Well... it is not on the curriculum, because even here it is not considered serious literature by most of the teachers, while all the students come to university, having read it as children and young people, so they usually know it, and some of them are Tolkien fans who usually come and tell me about it..."



On the other hand, there is a book by Tom Shippey, which defends Tolkien's work: he makes the argument that Tolkien continues a tradition of storytelling which traces its roots back to sagas like Beowolf, at the same time using innovations in language which show him to be a clearly modern writer. So, I wanted ask you your view on that...

"I enjoyed [Shippey's] book very much and I think it was very just to Tolkien, it showed much understanding of his work. I suppose it was partially because Mr Shippey is also an Anglo-Saxon scholar, and he knows it was no mean achievement to make something like [The Lord of the Rings]. So, I hope the book will be published in Czech because one publishing house is now considering it for publication."

Is it unfair that Tolkien's work gets such a rap, considering his technique compared to other Fantasy writers? Is it unfair that The Lord of the Rings is treated only as a genre?

"Definitely. The problem is, probably nobody knew what to do with it...it was something so unexpected and it defied definition, so they probably put it into the Fantasy genre just to get rid of it, and not to have to treat the phenomenon as something new."

How did you find working with the language, with Tolkien being so influenced - as he was - by Old English, Old Norse, the Celtic languages... How does that translate into Czech?

Film The Lord of the Rings
"Fortunately, I did not have to translate the Elvish languages, which were meant by him to be meant to be something unusual, and to be kept separate from the English text... But I saw that he would have liked the Anglo-Saxon-based names to be translated, because they were to help the reader to understand the history of the English language. I tried to translate it into Czech as well as I could, sometimes it was difficult, the difficulty was with style, because English has a greater variety of styles to use. We have no such high-flown language, for instance, as he gave the men of Gondor or the Elves. The Czech translation does not have as much stratification of language as the English original. As far as the names were concerned, I went into Anglo-Saxon and Middle English dictionaries to find the roots of words and I often found the names were created on a similar basis to Czech place-names especially, because they were usually taken from a landscape feature, so it was quite possible to find a Czech equivalent, or to make something which would sound like real Czech names!"

What would a place like Bree [one of the first towns the hobbits visit in the books] be called in Czech, and what is the root of Bree?

"As far as I know Bree means "a small hill", which is hurka in Czech and means exactly the same in Czech. Hobbiton and Hobbitin [long second "i" sound, as in teen] was just the same, because in Czech it is formed the same way as in English. Buckleberry, Brandywine, and all these things, could be translated into Czech fairly well, because it was possible to find Czech equivalents and to combine them."

In terms of the Czech analogue, a name like Frodo Baggins was translated like Frodo Pytlik ["i" has a long e sound, as in leek] - to my ear that sounds it sounds almost like it would have a Slavic root...

"Well, you know, pytlik means "a small bag", but this name wasn't invented by me but by the translator of The Hobbit. So, I had to use some of his words, and sometimes I wouldn't have made it in the same way, but I had to take them, because Frodo was the nephew of Bilbo, and Bilbo began The Lord of the Rings, so I had to take it over. This was the same with the Water, and Bywater, and some of the names that are in The Hobbit."

Maybe my association is only because of Brouk Pytlik [a famous insect character in Czech children's stories]...

Film The Lord of the Rings
"Yes! That's why I wouldn't have used it, you know. But, I suppose the translator stressed the funny side of The Hobbit, and his translation was perfect. But then, The Lord of the Rings is not such a funny book, it soon changes in tone into serious... If the book is a book which did get into my heart, I must say, there was never so much pleasure as when translating Tolkien. I feel absolutely happy when translating, because for me there is no feeling like living on the border of two languages, and seeing what the Czech language is able to do with the English original."

What do you think is the most admirable about The Lord of the Rings?

"It is important in a century when good and evil got so mixed up. Aragorn's answer to Eomer that Good and Evil haven't changed sides since yesterday, seems to me important. It was important for me that Tolkien stood for the good and wasn't afraid to make positive heroes, and to lead every literary character to the choice between good and evil, because everybody is brought to the point when he has to choose."