Did you know that the same author who wrote about hobbits, elves and orcs also translated the Book of Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible? J.R.R. Tolkien, best known for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, was asked in 1957 to contribute to a new translation of the Bible coming out of England.
The task was led by Fr. Alexander Jones, an English priest who started a project to translate the Bible based on the original Hebrew and Greek texts. This was in response to Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu that encouraged scripture scholars to translate anew the Bible based on the original languages, instead of the Latin Vulgate.
Fr. Jones was inspired by a new French translation and, when in doubt, the translators of the English edition consulted the French. The project was innovative and the goal was to create a modern literary translation.
Tolkien was a well-known philologist and author at the time and Jones decided to contact him in hopes that he could contribute. Tolkien accepted the task and was given the Book of Jonah. After his initial draft Jones wrote back, saying, “In truth I should be content to send you all that remains of the Bible, with great confidence, but there is a limit to generosity and opportunity!”
Unfortunately, what now appears in the Jerusalem Bible has been highly edited after Tolkien submitted his final draft. This was for various reasons, but now for the first time it is possible to read Tolkien’s original translation.
While there was a recent attempt to publish this material in book form, the only place to find it is in The Journal of Inklings Studies. It is available online, through a digital subscription, and allows Tolkien enthusiasts to see how Tolkien translated the book of the Old Testament. What ended up in the Jerusalem Bible can also be viewed here.
When comparing the two there do exist several lines that were left unedited in the final edition. For example, Tolkien translated Jonah 2:1 as, “And Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
This was phrasing was important to Tolkien as he wrote in a letter, “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.”
The most “Tolkien-esque” line in the whole book is Jonah 2:6-7, which reads in both his draft and the final translation as, “The seaweed was wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains.”
This last phrase might sound familiar and is found in The Lord of the Rings, when Gollum sees the Misty Mountains for the first time, “It would be cool and shady under those mountains. The Sun could not watch me there. The roots of those mountains must be roots indeed; there must be great secrets buried there which have not been discovered since the beginning.”
While it would have been great to possess an entire Bible translated by Tolkien, what he does leave us is fascinating and gives us insight into a devout man, who wrote everything in light of his Catholic faith.
Listen to rare recordings of J.R.R. Tolkien reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’