“The Book of Jonah”
J.R.R. Tolkien’s great passion was in languages. His academic fellowships at Pembroke and Merton Colleges of Oxford focused on English in its ancient and modern forms; his original scholarship revolved around contributing to dictionaries and linguistic guide books. He wrote copious amounts of poetry, crafted a set of Elven and dwarven languages, and compiled a set of instructions for comprehending the names of characters in the Lord of the Rings. And he penned translations of “Beowulf,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and “The Book of Jonah,” while also working closely with publishers who wished to translate The Lord of the Rings into other languages. If a project had some association with language, it is likely Tolkien expressed an interest in it.
In “The Book of Jonah,” Tolkien reveals his inclinations and observations on two matters that only appear in The Lord of the Rings indirectly and with subtlety: theology (of which was discussed in the reflection “On this Fish, of which the Author is Fond” from 2015) and translation. Tolkien strongly believed that a language only thrived when it was interwoven with a mythology, and that it was in myths that the fundamental linguistic elements were passed from generation to generation. Translating a portion of the Bible, then, served Tolkien two purposes: to better understand the world of the ancient Jews through their language and to make the biblical story a part of the English Christian mythos. At the very least, Tolkien seems to have contributed to some success on the latter desire, as The Jerusalem Bible remains one of the primary editions of the Bible for personal and liturgical among Catholics in England, Wales, and the English-speaking world.
As a serious scholar of languages, Tolkien understood the inherent risks in the act of translation. Nuances are lost; puns and turns of phrase no longer fit into original patterns. Strike out a path that heavily depends on transliteration and literal translation and one risks creating stilted and unnatural concordance; the alternative method of crafting anew the meaning and form of the original language into comparable phrases and patterns of the new language risks interpretive abuse and contextual destruction. For a book as important and wide-reaching as the Bible, such philological concerns are evident; yet even the translation of a small person project requires care and proper mindset. Tolkien was deeply disappointed in early attempts to translate (into Dutch and Swedish) The Lord of the Rings, especially the liberties taken with names, locations, and verse. From his perspective, the language now hindered the myth of Middle-earth, not augmented it.
Much of the historical, literary, and biblical material of value for an English speaker is translation, and so the opportunities and challenges of languages run deep through our understandings of the past, our celebration of culture, our worship of the divine. The art of translation cannot be taken lightly, nor dismissed by the average woman or man. “The Book of Jonah” offers a small chance to reflection on the power and the problem of linguistics, and amidst the humor, the moral, and the foreshadowing of Jonah’s journey there fundamentally remains the words.
2015’s Reflection: “On this Fish, of which the Author is Fond”