J.R.R. Tolkien's Frodo lives - in Lithuanian

  • 2000-03-23
  • By Darius James Ross
VILNIUS – The third and final volume of J.R.R. Tolkien's international, best-selling fantasy novel, "The Lord of the Rings," is set to appear in Lithuanian translation early this fall. This first two volumes have been, without a doubt, well translated and the publishers have learned to take care in choosing appropriate artwork and quality binding. Nevertheless, enthusiasm for this work has not yet begun to take off in the country.

An unlikely translator Andrius Tapinas was in his second last year of high school when his father, well-known Lithuanian journalist Laimonis Tapinas, brought him a thick volume of English prose borrowed from the library and told him that he simply was not going to learn proper English at school – his only hope was to get to work translating the book he had selected for him. It was 1994. Andrius was 17, and the book was the last volume of Tolkien's masterpiece. The son dutifully obeyed but was completely puzzled by what he began reading. The story and characters were perplexing. He needed to look up every third word in the dictionary.

"I was reading what seemed like gibberish," said Tapinas. He found Volume I shortly thereafter and with some assistance from his mother, a Lithuanian language specialist, managed to decipher it and get it translated.

The newly-formed private Alma Littera publishing house took a gamble, paid him in coupons equalling $90 (the litas was not yet circulating), and went to press with 5,000 copies printed on glossy newsprint bound in a cheap jacket. It was well received by critics, but sales were not spectacular. With a bit of effort, one can still get a local bookseller to dig one of the dusty volumes out of the basement.

Tapinas started work on Volume II only to have it to enter in a high school writing competition. If he won, he would be exempt from final English and Lithuanian examinations. He won, and Alma Littera went to press with a run of 2,500 copies in 1998 but put a much better effort into finding a decent artist and better binding.

"The judges were astounded at the quality of the translation and at the ability of such a young man to write at such a high level of Lithuanian. I am very pleased with the project," said Brone Balciene, editor at Alma Littera and translator of Tolkien's popular children's novel "The Hobbit."

Tolkien's world

The Lord of the Rings weighs in at well over 1,000 pages in small print. Some dismiss it as the work of an eccentric mind who simply couldn't cope with reality and thus retreated into the imaginary and escapist world of wise elves, evil trolls, crafty dwarves, mischievous halflings and mortal men. This would be an oversimplification. Tolkien was, and is, considered a world-class philologist who could mesmerize his students at Oxford with recitations of Old English classics such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight both from memory and in their original tongue.

In "The Lord of the Rings," Tolkien not only created a fantastic, heroic tale with a huge cast of characters, but also entire languages, complete with grammars and alphabets as well as a myths and ballads for each race. The geography of 'Middle Earth', as his world is known, was represented in extensive maps. Tolkien was firmly anti-Darwinian and truly belived that humanity and this planet's finest hour were deeply buried in an Atlantis-like, magical past. The fact that he lost all his childhood friends in World War I and wrote the bulk of the novel during World War II may have something to do with this, though he was always careful to downplay any allegorical allusions in it. What is certain is that he is the unequalled creator of a work that is not far behind the Bible in world-wide sales as well as the unknowing founder of an entire new literary genre.

The Tolkien 'cult'

Andrius Tapinas has spent hours in Internet discussion groups on Tolkien.

"The Swedes and the Dutch swear at their translators regularly. The Russians are happy with theirs, and the Poles managed to generate enough public support to get their Lord of the Rings re-translated," Tapinas said.

There once was a Tolkien brotherhood with 70 members in Lithuania but it has since dispersed.

"I'm not sure why the Tolkien phenomenon hasn't yet taken off here. Maybe it's just a matter of time. The Scandinavians love him because of their attachement to their own rich mythology and the parallels in Tolkien. They have regular festivals with tournaments, games and costumes that are very well attended. What I do know is that real Tolkien fanatics here will read the novel in Russian or the original English," he said.

The third volume, "The Return of the King," has been submitted to the publisher. Tapinas is now 23 and, with an economics degree under his belt, is working as a business news producer at a national television station. He won't reveal his fee for his latest stint, but says he earned a lot more than for the first two volumes as he's learned his worth.

"I tried to "retire" but Alma Littera insisted, so I just negotiated a better deal," Tapinas said.

He will be starting a graduate journalism degree this autumn and is now translating one of Terry Pratchett's 26 fantasy novels into Lithuanian. Just 25 more to go after that.