What is the Hebrew for Hobbit?

6 12 2006

Translation is a funny old thing. No text can be perfectly transferred from one language to another, and every effort to transpose a piece of writing across a language divide is only ever going to fall short of the mark. Does one maintain the style and format of the original, or does one attempt to duplicate the meaning? In other words, does one sacrifice content in order to preserve the form, or form in order to preserve the content? Ultimately, of course, one must sacrifice both.

In some rare instances, the translated version is actually superior to the original. Allen Ginsburg’s Kaddish is a case in point, where the “Hebrew” more adequately conveys the allusions that Ginsburg was attempting to create. I say “Hebrew”, with the inverted commas, because the relevant sections of the poem (those sections that correspond to the words of the Jewish Kaddish, or Mourner’s Prayer) are actually in Aramaic. Nonetheless, the version of this poem as it is composed in Hebrew is of significantly greater impact than the verbose original – a fact that, I believe, Ginsburg himself acknowledged.

In most instances, however, the translation is but a poor reflection. Jokes are missed or changed (in some instances, new ones are created elsewhere in order to compensate) and the mood of the original is replaced by an approximation. Carroll’s Jabberwocky might be the most famous example of the latter situation, as almost 30% of the total number of words within the poem were invented on the basis of their ‘feel’ in the English language. Of course, one might argue that there is no one English language and that the feeling that you get when you read “frumious” is not the feeling that I get when I read “frumious”. Nonetheless, in translating the poem into another language (and it has been translated into several), the translator must determine how such a word makes them feel, and they need to find a similar-feeling word within the language of their composition. One Hebrew translation that I found for this poem (by a certain Aaron Solomon) rendered this word as מתקצפים. The root of this word (which appears here under the guise of a nonsense participle) means ‘furious’ in English and, through an inversion of two of the letters, ‘snatching’. Highly appropriate for the adjective appended to Carroll’s nonsense “Bandersnatch”.

Highly appropriate though it may be, תפסנים מתקצפים does not equal “frumious Bandersnatch”, and is only one particular author’s approximation. Other translations feature alternative attempts and, in each case, the mood of the entire piece is different to that of the original. Another classic example where this is the case is in the translation of The Lord of the Rings, a novel that also features a number of made-up words – or words of made-up semantic value, even when they etymologically predate Tolkien. An example of this is the word for “dwarf”. In Mishnaic Hebrew/Aramaic, this word is ננס (nanas, or nanus), which literally means ‘puny’, or ‘stumped’. To the best of my knowledge, this word is only used in Israel to refer to dwarfism as a medical condition, so translations of Tolkien instead feature the alternative גמד.

גמד (gamad) is a word of later derivation than ננס and stems from an older verbal root that means ‘to squash’, or ‘reduce in size’. This word is also employed for garden gnomes in Israel, and was adopted for the translation of the race of creatures known as Dwarves in Tolkien’s literature. Does this word adequately reflect Tolkien’s concept? Certainly not, although one might also argue that the word “dwarf” is also redefined by the reader as the novels progress. One of the ways in which Tolkien indicates to us the exoticism of this well-used English term is by employing the adjective “dwarvish”. In English, the adjective formed off the noun ‘dwarf’ is spelled with an ‘f’, but by altering the letter to a ‘v’ Tolkein is able to communicate something of the individual nature of this people. These are not the mythological dwarves with which his readers are familiar, but another, older people entirely.

Can this be communicated in the Hebrew? If it can, Moses Hanaami’s translation of The Hobbit fails to do so. Rendering the word as the familiar גמד (garden gnome, etc), Hanaami deprives his (admittedly, youthful) audience of the same sense that Tolkein conveys in the original language. Ruth Labanit, on the other hand, resolves this problem in her translation of The Lord of the Rings through the seemingly-simple addition of an א at the end of the word. Translating the noun as גמדא (gamda), Labanit preserves the general meaning whilst actually making the word look to be of Aramaic origin. In the same way that an English author may employ words that look Latin or Greek as a means of creating the impression that they are archaic, so too may an author of Israeli Hebrew do the same with Aramaic.

Is it always appropriate to try? Gaster seems to think so and, in his 1961 classic (Thespis) he translates portions of Canaanite poetry in accordance with this principle. Rendering ‘Kthr-w-Khss’ as Sir Adroit-and-Cunning and ‘Qdsh-w-Amrr’ as Sir Holy-and-Blessed, Gaster believes that he is preserving the integrity of the original text. This may be all well and good when the names translate so easily, but rendering ‘Horon’ as Lord of Hell is going a bit far. Gaster might be correct in his assumption that this was the original force of the name, but my personal feeling is that names should be transliterated first and that explanations of those names belong in footnotes and appendices. Whether or not that may be the case, there are certainly incidents where words do not have an appropriate translation and must simply be rendered phonologically instead.

To that end, one of my great sources of entertainment when I was in Israel came through reading the titles of films in video stores. The Devil’s Advocate became מלכודת לפרקלית (‘The Solicitor’s Trap’ – assumedly because the original expression would be lost in translation) and Lost in Translation became אבודים בטוקיו (‘Lost in Tokyo’: how ironic!). Sometimes the new titles were remarkably prosaic (Virgin Suicides became ‘Five Sad Girls’) and sometimes they were reasonably apt (Lord of the Rings remained, of course, ‘Lord of the Rings’). Sometimes, however, they were simply transliterated. In the case of proper names like Chicago that can hardly be surprising, but in the case of nouns like Heat it seems rather odd. At the time, I put it down to the fact that the Hebrew word for ‘heat’ (חום) might be misread for ‘brown’ (spelled the same, though vocalised differently). To this day I can think of no alternative explanation.

The same goes for certain other nouns as well; the quality of Carroll’s Jabberwocky lies in the fact that so many of the words are nonsense (I have not seen translations of Dylan Thomas’ poetry although I assume that the same rule applies), but the quality of Tolkien is in the believability – the utter immersiveness – of his fabricated world. It may be well to translate nonsense within Carroll’s poem, but it is unwise to do the same with Tolkien. Where a word, such as the word for “dwarf” or “elf”, already exists in some form then that form should be modified accordingly and duly employed. Where the word does not exist, such as in the case of Hobbits and Orcs, it would be a mistake to think that one is capable of rendering it into another language.




15 responses

6 12 2006

Hebrew ‘nanus’ = dwarf?

Interesting–Greek ‘nanos’ = dwarf, and Latin ‘nanus’ from the Greek, as well as English ‘nano-‘.

What’s the Greek / Hebrew relation? Is this a loan via the LXX, or somewhere else, or pure coincidence?

7 12 2006
Simon Holloway

I’d not thought of that, though yes, that is almost certainly its origin. The word is Aramaic and Jastrow argues for a Semitic etymology but, then again, Jastrow always argues for a Semitic etymology. He sees the root as nss, where the doubled consonant becomes n + consonant. This happens frequently with verbs, but I think he’s barking up the wrong tree with this noun. Thanks for the observation.

(But no, I couldn’t suggest how the word ended up in Aramaic. There was a lot of cultural interplay, remember, so I don’t think you need to look at individual textual influences)

7 12 2006

I’m not aware of a great deal of Semitic borrowing in ancient Greek–maybe some trade-words (eg. balsamon) or something like that, or names like ‘Adonis’, or letters of the alphabet–obviously I can’t speak about the other way around. “Dwarf” seems an odd borrowing, from a semantic viewpoint. What other Greek words are there in Hebrew? I do not know anything about Hebrew-Greek relations before Ptolemaic Alexandria, though I guess there must have been some. I’d be interested to know where in the Bible nanas comes–in a late book like Daniel? I’d be curious to check the Greek of it. This would fit in with my historical understanding better than if it were, say, Genesis.

7 12 2006
Simon Holloway

Sorry, I didn’t make myself appropriately clear. The post has now been edited to state that the “Mishnaic Hebrew/Aramaic” word is nanas. This word never appears in the Bible, but it does turn up in the Babylonian Talmud. There were Greek influences in Biblical Hebrew as well (although they are variously debated) but Greek loanwords were considerably more plentiful in later forms of the language, as you rightly suggested.

7 12 2006

Ah I see, thanks.

8 12 2006

So do you think Orcs and Hobbits should have been transliterated?

I would also be interested in how they managed to transliterate Heat given that Hebrew lacks the long e phenome. Hit wouldn’t be quite the same..

9 12 2006
Simon Holloway

Bingo, that was exactly what they did: היט. Technically, that is the long /e/ phoneme: a hireq followed by a yodh – but it also gets used just as a vowel marker (it’s known as a mater lectionis, or ‘mother of reading’), so hard to tell. An Israeli would read it as ‘hit’.

20 12 2006

Thanks for interesting post.

I would argue, however, pace etymology, that principal associative connections of Heb terms “gamad,” “shedon” and “shed” (utilized by Hanaami) were not radically different from those of the corresponding English terms, “dwarf,” “elf” and “goblin,” since Israeli children (at least of prior generations), like their English-speaking counterparts, would have imbibed the terms mainly through (translated) European fairy tales. Admittedly, the correspondence holds up least well for Hanaami’s “shedon,” since the Hebrew term is close to “shed” (goblins); however, to some extent, this situation mirrors the disjunction between Tolkienian and folkloric elves, which seems greater the gaps between his dwarves and goblins and those of tradition.

Your point about “dwarvish” and “gamda” is interesting, though Tolkien chose, at least initially, to stay close to classic English and Germanic antecedents (“dwarvish,”quoted under entry for “dwarfish,” has an OED antecedent, as T would certainly have known, as do “hobbit” and “orc”). As you point out, T looks to redefine the terms in the course of his work. He employs a changing mix of traditional and invented attributes, terms and, of course, languages. In the Hobbit, he’s closer to the traditional (one of many examples is ther peevishness of forest elves, who turn noble on us in LOR) and chooses to stick with the traditional terms, which justifies the Heb translator’s similar choice.

All of which brings me back to the mention of “Moses Hanaami” in your post, a name I hadn’t seen in years. Long ago, Moshe Hanaami (alav hashalom) taught university-level Hebrew lit for a year or two in NYC, and I was one of his students. He was a poet and fine translator, particularly of poetry – I remember his passing around a photostat (quaint word that) of his rendition of ”Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening” to break the abstract monotony of Yalag and Michal, of whom he had a low opinion. I have no idea if the Hobbit was congenial to him or if his translation really was successful – though you’ve stimulated me to further inquiry. I am sure he would have approached the project with his usual conscientiousness and discernment.

21 12 2006
Simon Holloway

Thanks for that, Ginat – especially the information regarding Hanaami himself! I’d not considered the semantic range that these words have for native Israeli speakers: a fact that, as you observe, limits my ability to fully critique his translation. I’d also not been aware of the fact that Tolkien’s adaptations of these words had English-language precedents and I’m now curious to know where they are. Not having access to the OED myself, perhaps you can give me some more information?

My online dictionary (Oxford American) suggests the Latin orcus (“hell”) as the etymological origin of ‘orc’, since it developed into the Italian orco as “demon, monster”. Was this the usage that you had in mind for this particular word, or does the OED list specific uses in English as well? I suppose that this might have also served as the origin for ‘orca’, the “killer whale”..? So far as Hobbits are concerned, the Oxford American suggests that the word was invented by Tolkien himself.

Still, even if both of these words were of older usage, I can’t help but feel that most people who approach The Lord of the Rings for the first time do not know what an Orc – nor a Hobbit – actually is. Can Israelis claim the same ignorance regarding שדים? Would not their appreciation of these creatures be coloured by pre-conceived notions regarding their nature?

And, finally, that’s a rather astute observation: the difference between Elves in The Hobbit and Elves in The Lord of the Rings. I’d not considered before the extent to which Tolkien’s world changed between those two texts, being more concerned with the internal fabric of the latter. Should I ever pursue a greater understanding of Middle-earth (my MA in English Literature is still requiring a major project on which I am undecided) then I will most certainly bear your observations in mind.

22 12 2006

Agav orc & LOR coinings (but not necessarily “hobbit”) — I’m with you — no one except C.S. Lewis or others of T’s k’nufia, ilk or inkling would have recognized the roots. I don’t think this detracts from the primary point as to T’s adherence to the common terms elf, dwarf, goblin, troll, etc., esp. in the Hobbit — and as to the rough equivalence of the Hebrew terms, including “shed,” even if that word might bear some additional freight, particularly for the Yeshivish Tolkienian.

The passing mention of the other terms (orc, hobbit) really gets to another point — that T grounds even his “exotics” with English (& other) roots. His use of the materials at hand (both common and exotic) makes perfect sense not only in terms of the genesis of his personal mythology in folklore & philology, but also functionally, in terms of the sense of reality he wishes to convey. One feels that T’s secondary world vies with ours for attention and alleigance — that in some sense that “his” world is (or ought to be) “real” or more real than the commonplace one. T’s elaborate “historical” backgrounding is important here, but so is his creation of an organized myth from the found materials of our (or their) scattered bubbe maises. Consciously or not, we’re thinking (or wishing) yes, this might really have all been so, all these legends might really be the the remnants of an older knowledge and reality, that’s what elves are all about……

Hobbit — you and the Oxford American are correct that there’s no direct, letter-for-letter antecedent, but surely the first and second OED meanings of “hob” are relevant and might have been so construed by a more or less common British reader: “1. A familiar or rustic variation of the Christian name Robert or Robin. … A rustic or clown” and “2 .Robin Goodfellow or Puck;a hobgoblin,spirte, elf.” The second quote under the first sense (Langland, 1399) refers to “hobbis” A few entries down on our way to the adjectival form “Hobbish” we get to “Hobball” [clown, fool, idiot] and its variants, including hobbel, hobil, hobbil and pass “Hobbet-it” [seed basket and local measure]. I’m sure I’m reinventing the “hob [and variant forms] plus diminutive” wheel here & if we bothered to google we’d find more exhaustive & definitive treatments.

First OED sense of “Orc, Ork” is the cetacean. Second sense is “a devouring monster, an ogre” with same derivations you cite plus OE quote meaning “orc giants and hell devils,” “orcneas” in Beowulf & some lovely quotes, e.g., Sylvester, 1598: “Insatiate Orque, that even at one repast Almost all Creatures in the World would waste,” but even better (under comb. form), P. Fletcher (with no less than four quotes, all from Sicelides, 1631), including: “That Orke mouth of thine did crumme thy porridge with my grandsires braines” and the verb, “Orkt” [to make an orc or monster of] as in “I Orkt you once, and now I’ll fit you for a cupid.”

But on my side of the globe it’s shedim time, and I’m weary, eke orkt, as in “Jekyll orkt Hyde.”

2 01 2007
Dave (Balashon)

Not long ago, we borrowed a copy of the Hobbit, translated into Hebrew. However, it wasn’t translated by Hanaami, but rather by a group of Israeli POWs in Egypt (I think during the War of Attrition.) The had received The Hobbit in English (from the Red Cross?) and formed a committee to decide how to translate it.

I never got around to reading the translation, but the introduction was fascinating.

10 04 2010

Orc is used in Beowulf in the plural form, orcneas. It is thought to have meant “spirits” by a great per centage of Old Enlgish scholars. Maybe a Hebrew word meaning monstors would be suitable. Funnily, a word like “Golem” could suit Gollum, an unformed character. Shed would be better for a black rider. Gollum, when he mentions his name, at least in the movie – I’ll have to look at the book again – when he hears his name Smeagol again, would in Hebrew reiterate “shmi”, similar in sound to the beginning of the recalled name itself. He and his cousin were fishermen, and thus Deagol suits the diyg, or fisherman who finds the ring then soon finds his death.

Hobbit is a word in a 19th century list of superstitions of the English in a certain old townships.

Aramaic – or even Biblical style Hebrew could suffice to correlate to the Rohirrim, whose name sounds like a masculine or common Hebrew plural already to my ear.

Gamdiy`, with an aleph on the end, might approximate “dwarvish”. The word “elf” is worked out by tolkien to mean “firstborn”. It may be in part at least along the analogy of its sound to the first Hebraic letter, aleph itself. All three peoples are human, so all three are `adhamiy, but only men are specified as mortals, so perhaps as `enash. Sometimes, in the sense of person, an elf is identified as such and such man, thus, in that sense, `ish could at times be employed even for an elf.

Since dwarves are also called Khazad, having more of an Arabic form in the pluralization, and thee was some idea of Semitic triliteralized rooting of dwarf words, and since their name sort of sounds like the Hebrew word for Chaldeans – “Kasdim” – perhaps Aramaic or Rabic words could be employed with them. But for their names, one need not worry, since their actual names are a secret, and the known ones bestowed from foreigners’ tongues. Nordic names for them will remind us that they met strange far off men somewhere along the line. The one known Khazad name is Mim, which sounds like a Hebrew letter name.

10 04 2010

Perhaps shed is better applied to a barrow wight – shed for wight.

10 04 2010
Simon Holloway

I appreciate your thoughtful comments, Petros, but I think you are in error. You have made the mistake of favouring a translation based on phonological approximation rather than on semantic equivalence, and I don’t think that your two sets of terms have similar meanings. Consider, for example, Tolkien’s insistence that “Moria” had nothing to do with the mount on which Abraham didn’t sacrifice his son, but was merely a coincidence. I think that the other instances you bring are likewise coincidental.

There is some relationship between Gollum and the golems of Jewish folklore, in the fact that neither possess a will of their own. But Tolkien wrote for English authors, for whom the name was supposed to be reminiscent of the sound of sloppy swallowing, and this association is lost if we render it into Hebrew simply as גולם.

So too with your other examples: the similarity between “Rohirrim” and a Hebrew plural, “elf” and aleph, Deagol and דג… I think this is fun, but I don’t think it makes for a good translation. You need to consider what these names invoke for English readers, and then try to invoke the same for readers of Hebrew. Otherwise, all you will be doing is adding a superstratum of wordplay that didn’t exist in the original. Not necessarily a bad thing, but an inaccurate thing from a translational perspective.

21 05 2011
Jared Ben Steven

Shed I’ve always taken to mean a demonic spirit with no physical form, I’d agree it’s better for the Wraiths. I’d use words like Rephaim, Karnaim, Suzim and Im (From Genesis 14:5) for the Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Uruk Hai ect. And Nephiel (Singular of Nephilim, Fallen Ones) for Balrog.

Elves I would possibly just transliterate since it looks like it could hypothetically drive form the Hebrew El. They basically are somewhere between Angels and Humans.

This is a very interesting discussion, I’m thinking of writing a fictional story set in the Pre Flood word that features some distant cousins of Modern Humans (Descendants of Adam but not Enos son of Seth) as being like Elves, Dwarves, Hobbits, Druidian and nearly human races of Tolkien like fantasy tales. The Dwarves are offspring of Tubal-Cain and the Elves of Adah. Since I believe Hebrew was the Pre-Babel language this info is very helpful inspiration for me.

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