The Book of Jonah - Translated by J. R. R. Tolkien (30.05.09 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

The Book of Jonah translated by J.R.R. Tolkien
Most people know J.R.R. Tolkien as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is less known that Tolkien was actually an Oxford professor and a philologist. Most have never heard about tolkien's academic works and so many people were very surprised to see that the latest 'new' Tolkien book was called "The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun" and was tolkien's version of The Old Norse Myths.

But perhaps most unknown about J.R.R. Tolkien is that he was an editor of The Jerusalem Bible, published in 1966 just after the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. tolkien's contribution was the translation of Jonah, one of the most famous bible stories.

Darton, Longman and Todd, the publisher for this new paperback volume, were also the original publisher of the original 1966 Jerusalem Bible. They have now studied the original manuscript of tolkien's translation of the Book of Jonah and will now re-publish it.

So far I was not able to find out much about this new Tolkien book, but will soon release an interview with the editor of the book that should answer some questions.

History of The Jerusalem Bible

In 1943 Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical letter on the promotion of Biblical Studies, Divino Afflante Spiritu , which encouraged Roman Catholics to translate the Scriptures from the original Hebrew and Greek, rather than from Latin. As a result, a number of Dominicans and other scholars at the École Biblique in Jerusalem translated the scriptures into French. The product of these efforts was published as La Bible de Jérusalem: La Sainte Bible traduite en francais sous la direction de l'Ecole Biblique de Jerusalem in 1961.

This French translation served as the impulse for an English translation in 1966, the Jerusalem Bible. Most parts of this new English translation of the Bible followed the original Hebrew and Greek, but in passages with more than one interpretation, the French translation was generally followed. However for a small number of Old Testament books, the first draft of the English version was made directly from the French Bible de Jérusalem, and then a revised draft by comparing this word-for-word to the original Hebrew or Aramaic. All the footnotes and book introductions are almost literal translations from the French.

Translation of The Jerusalem Bible

The translation itself uses a literal approach that has been admired for its literary qualities, perhaps in part due to its most famous contributor, J.R.R. Tolkien (even though his primary contribution was mainly the translation of Jonah). The introductions, footnotes, and even the translation itself, reflect a modern scholarly approach, reflecting the conclusions of scholars who use historical-critical method.

The Jerusalem Bible was the first widely accepted Roman Catholic English translation of the Bible since the Douay-Rheims Version of the 17th century. It carries the Church's imprimatur as being correct in all matters of faith and doctrine. This means it is an official Roman Catholic Bible. The Jerusalem Bible was considered such a high quality advanced English translation of the Bible that the Holy See used it in the European liturgy and the Mass. It has also been widely praised for an overall very high level of scholarship, and is widely admired and sometimes used by liberal and moderate Protestants. The overall text seems to have somewhat of a "Mid-Atlantic" nature, neither overwhelmingly British nor particularly American, making it acceptable to both groups in most instances. Overall, it has come to be considered as one of the better English translations of the Bible made in the 20th century.

Tolkien and The Jerusalem Bible

Father Anthony Jones, the general editor of the translation project, was very impressed by The Lord of the Rings and knew J.R.R. Tolkien was an expert in English philology. He invited J.R.R. Tolkien to join the board because he wanted to provide a good English style and maintain an accurate translation. He hoped that Tolkien would agree to translate the earliest books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, but Tolkien was able to contribute little because he had too much other work and answered he was no French scholar. Father Anthony Jones pointed out to Tolkien he mainly wanted him to collaborate because of his expertise in English. Finally Tolkien served as an editor, but to which capacity is nowhere definitively described. According to Tolkien himself, in a letter to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer of 8 February 1967, he was originally to have translated a large amount of text, but under pressure from other work, completed only Jonah ("one of the shortest books"), and otherwise "was consulted on one or two points of style, and criticized some contributions of others". Anthony Kenny, the nephew of Father Anthony Jones and also the person who will provide the forward of this new book, wrote in A Path from Rome: An Autobiography, first published in 1985, that Tolkien was asked to translate Judges and Jonah, but in the end contributed only a revision of the latter. According to Carpenters Biography, Tolkien’s only contribution was the original draft of a translation of Jonah, which was extensively revised by others before publication. But it was reported in the Tolkien Society bulletin, Amon Hen, no. 26 (May 1977), that according to Darton, Longman, & Todd Tolkien also worked on the Book of Job, providing its initial draft and playing an important part in establishing its final text. Proof of this was never found (so far).

tolkien's main part was the translation of the Book of Jonah - a book in the Old Testament that tells the story of Jonah and the whale. Regretfully he had to resign prematurely from the Jerusalem Bible project and in one letter referred to his listing as a principal collaborator as an "undeserved courtesy."

It is however of importance that Tolkien did originally translate from French, and not from the Hebrew text, and that tolkien's manuscript of the translation of Jonah has in tolkien's hand marginalia that in part consist of Hebrew words penciled in. We can assume that Tolkien used either the Hebrew text or a Hebrew Lexicon during his translation work.

What to expect in this new edition of The Book of Jonah?

At first this book can best be seen as a beautiful new presentation of one of the best-loved Bible stories in a translation by J.R.R. Tolkien.

There is a Foreword by Sir Anthony Kenny, where he "recalls his own memories of working on the Jerusalem Bible and the impact made by its groundbreaking publication." This will probably be a retelling of what we already have read in A Path from Rome: An Autobiography.

According to the publisher in the main text "Brendan Wolfe tells the little-known story of how Tolkien, then at the height of his fame as the author of The Lord of the Rings, agreed to join the team of Catholic writers and scholars working on a major new translation of the Bible into English in the early 1960s. The result was the Jerusalem Bible, still celebrated for its elegant, timeless English. Wolfe shows the resonances between the story of Jonah and the whale, Tolkien’s contribution to the JB, and themes in his other writings." The publisher also states this book will contain previously unpublished material and also call this "tolkien's translation" - which makes this book very interesting if they are correct.

A very interesting letter by Tolkien to his grandson Michael on 24 April 1957 said:
"Incidentally, if you look at Jonah you'll find that the 'whale' - it is not really said to be a whale, but a big fish - is quite unimportant. The real point is that God is much more merciful than 'prophets', is easily moved by penitence, and won't be dictated to even by high ecclesiastics whom he has himself appointed."
These days the whale has been in the picture a lot, and it might also be one of the topics covered in this book. It will be interesting to see if this remark by Tolkien was on the original translation manuscript and so that 'whale' might in this new book be translated as 'big fish' (For sure the cover image shows a 'big fish' and not a 'whale'). All this is of course speculation, but one starts thinking what the content of this book could be if you read it will have 104 pages and Jonah is such a small tale! For sure this book will be an exclusive translation of one of the best-loved Bible stories by one of Britain’s best-loved authors, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Title: The Book of Jonah
translated by J.R.R. Tolkien


Brendan Wolfe (Editor),
Anthony Kenny (Forword)

Type: Paperback
Pages: 104 pages
Publisher: Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd
Publication date: August 2009
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0232527679
ISBN-13: 978-0232527674
The Book of Jonah translated by J.R.R. Tolkien

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