BREIZH AMERIKA PROFILES | Josh Tyra
Josh is a Chicago-based language enthusiast. We sat down with him to learn about his connection to Brittany, France and how he helped in translating J.R.R Tolkien's, The Hobbit into Breton.
The Hobbit has become one of the best-selling books of all time, having sold over 100 million copies worldwide. J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novel was initially published on September 21, 1937, and the New York Herald Tribune swiftly nominated it for the Carnegie Medal and granted it a prize for finest juvenile fiction. The Hobbit has never been out of print and has spawned a film adaptation series, which debuted in 2012 and went on to become one of the highest-grossing film franchises of all time.
[Breizh Amerika] What is your link with Brittany?
[Josh Tyra] In 1996, When I was 17 and a burgeoning language buff, I went to Brest for a summerlong French-language immersion course. I arrived very curious about the Breton language as well. I didn’t know a single word of it, but I asked virtually everyone I met if they could speak Breton or knew anyone who did. I stayed with two host families that summer, and I was pleased to learn both of them had a connection to the language: a grandfather in one family, in Le Relecq-Kerhuon, was a native speaker; a little girl in the other, across the bay in Plougastel, was just beginning a bilingual track at school. I also scoured bookstores and began to amass Breton grammars, dictionaries, and magazines—a whole suitcase full by the time I went home! To the consternation of my French teachers, I think I spent more time studying Breton that summer than I did working on my French homework. On subsequent trips I made more personal connections—and bought more books!—and I kept studying the language through the years.
When social media took off, I made some good brittophone friends online and got a chance to practice with them. In 2017, my former high school choir in Indiana invited me to compose a new song for them and to conduct the first performance. I decided to write an original poem in Breton and set it to music. The result was “Glas eo ar Mor” (“The Sea is Blue”), which I would describe as a love song to Brittany and to the Breton language. The lyrics play with the multiple meanings of the word glas (“blue, green, pale, gray, bracing,”) while the music is meant to evoke the rise and fall of ocean waves. A clip from the first performance was featured on the Breton-language chat show Bali Breizh, and I later got an email from a woman who told me she was a Breton speaker from birth and loved the words to my song. That really meant a lot to me!
How did you get involved in the second edition of the Breton translation of The Hobbit?
One of my prize bookstore finds in Saint-Brieuc in 2001 was An Hobbit, the newly printed first edition of Alan Dipode’s Breton translation of The Hobbit. I was thrilled when I found it: I’ve been a lifelong Tolkien fan, ever since my father read The Hobbit to me as a little boy, and I love using translations of familiar books to help me learn a new language. I was lucky to get a copy, because this edition went out of print fairly quickly. Later I became aware of Michael Everson, a linguist, fontographer, and publisher now based in Dundee, Scotland. His unique publishing company Evertype specializes in Celtic and other minority languages, the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll, and some related topics. When I saw he had published The Hobbit in both Irish and Cornish, I thought Evertype would be the perfect place for a second edition of the Breton Hobbit, so I wrote to him. He already knew about Alan’s translation and was keen to publish it. He asked me to look into the copyright status, and thanks to social media I soon made contact with Alan’s son and got him connected to Michael. With the original publisher no longer in business, Alan was the sole copyright holder for the translation, and he agreed to Michael’s proposal to republish it.
At this point, Michael mentioned to me what we came to call the “God problem”: Tolkien’s characters often use “minced oaths,” mild old-fashioned exclamations such as “Good gracious me!”, “bless my soul!”, “my goodness!” and “oh dear!”, all euphemisms for stronger imprecations. Alan had rendered many of these expressions with the Breton phrase ma Doue ! (literally “my God!”). This was a legitimate translation option, since ma Doue is frequent in spoken Breton, where it has a bit less force than its English equivalent. Michael, however, felt that ma Doue and a couple of similar expressions (such as petra an diaoul…? “what the devil…?”) were out of place in The Hobbit. Although Tolkien was a devout Catholic, he never had his Middle Earth characters make direct references to Judeo-Christian religion. So Michael asked me to research some alternative phrases. I found many possible substitutes and sent my findings to Alan, who proved more than happy to make the requested changes. He used some of my suggestions and incorporated many other expressions I hadn’t even been aware of. Apart from the 30-odd instances of the “God problem,” I had also found three other passages where I felt the Breton might be retooled to better reflect the English as I understood it. I made so bold as to include these in my list of suggested changes, and I was delighted when Alan accepted them as well. This gave me confidence, and I began to think the project might benefit from a native English speaker’s point of view on the whole translation—to say nothing of a second pair of eyes on the lookout for typos, of which many remained in the first edition. Since there were no other volunteers, I began to go through the entire Breton text word by word, line by line, comparing it to the original English. From the very start, Alan was extremely generous and collaborative as he patiently allowed me to query his translation choices down to the minutest detail. We developed a very warm rapport in the course of our work, and this project turned out to be one of the richest, most rewarding, and most enjoyable experiences of my life.
How long did it take and what was the reaction in Brittany?
The initial revision process took nine months, from June 2019 to March 2020. After the book was typeset, we spent about two months on further proofreading, and the book finally came out in August 2020 (in the middle of the first pandemic lock-down!). All told, I read the entire text word-for-word three times, and Alan read it at least that many.
The work continually reminded me how much I have left to learn. Sometimes Alan would accept my suggestions, but just as often he might tell me, “No, we can’t really say it that way in Breton.” An early problem we encountered was that I was unable to find some of the words in the Breton dictionaries at my disposal: I owned only one major dictionary and a couple of student ones. Even supplementing those with some very good online resources that had become available, I could not always track down the words Alan had chosen. He remedied this problem in the most extraordinarily generous way: heavy boxes of books began to show up on my doorstep—rare and out-of-print dictionaries and grammars that Alan had travelled the length and breadth of Brittany to find in used bookstores (and no doubt spent a fortune to have shipped to me!). Among them was one very scarce volume on Old Breton from his own personal collection, which he sacrificed to me after learning it was on my wish list. Thanks to his overwhelming kindness, I got the tools I needed to complete the job much more efficiently.
Although the project certainly expanded my knowledge of Breton vocabulary, grammar, and style, it also tested the limits of my English. I quickly discovered that a native command of English was not enough for a thorough understanding of the text. Tolkien’s English, though similar in many respects to my own, is not identical to it; and for a so-called “children’s book,” The Hobbit contains a large number of words quite outside the working vocabulary of even an educated English speaker. Often I overconfidently assumed I had understood a passage, only to find after further research that I had been quite wrong. Then there was the perennial bane of translators, genuine ambiguity. Even now there remain a couple of passages where the merits of two opposing interpretations still present themselves to my mind, and I can still get caught up arguing first one side and then the other, as if I were staring at the famous “vase or two faces” image.
The project also confronted me at every turn with the question, “What constitutes a faithful translation?” I was initially disposed to be overliteral out of sheer loyalty to the source text. This even became a standing joke between us! As the project proceeded, my approach relaxed—but not completely, as Alan can testify! In the end, I’m very proud of our work. The resulting text is still largely the same as Alan’s 2001 version, but I feel confident that we have arrived at dozens of improved readings. Not only that, but the majority of the typos, omissions, and other such mechanical errors have been corrected.
The reactions I have read from Brittany, primarily through social media, have been overwhelmingly positive. One young woman wrote, “I’m even more excited about learning Breton now that I have found this book!” That is my favorite comment so far, because it goes to the heart of why I participated in this project. I think if you want to encourage people to read in a given language, there are certain books you want to have in print, and The Hobbit is one of them: it consistently figures in top-ten lists of bestselling books worldwide. So this is my modest contribution to Breton literature and to promoting the longevity and health of the language. If it can generate excitement about learning Breton and reading in it, this edition will have fulfilled its goal. (By the way, for those who prefer not to patronize a certain global retailer, An Hobbit is available through AbeBooks, Book Depository, and many other online booksellers.)
Another reason to get excited about this edition is how beautifully and lovingly it has been produced: all of Tolkien's original maps and illustrations are included, and thanks to Michael's custom fonts, all the captions and legends look as if they had been hand-lettered by Tolkien in Breton. Where passages appear in Tolkien's Dwarvish runes and Elvish script, these have been not only translated into Breton, but represented using forms of those alphabets that Michael specially adapted to Breton phonology. It's this unheard of attention to detail that makes this Hobbit—and all of Evertypes' Hobbit translations—very special.
What are your future projects?
I’d like to continue promoting An Hobbit in any way I can. One thing we have done to raise awareness of the book is to produce four YouTube videos: short selections from the first four chapters read aloud in Breton by Alan and his wife Marivon Berr, with the text shown on screen and subtitles available in French and English (to view them, visit Evertype’s YouTube channel). We have more of these in the works—the next video in the series will feature the famous character of Gollum, and I’m eager for the world to hear Breton Gollum-speak! It’s really colorful. We’ve even had some requests for a full-length audio book, and I think that would be fantastic. I’d love to hear some really dramatic readings with a good variety of voices, accents, and ages. But this is as yet only an idea, and would take quite a lot of resources to produce.
I can also confirm that the Breton version of The Lord of the Rings (Aotrou ar Gwalennoù) is in an advanced stage of preparation, and I have already had some involvement in that massive undertaking. Any more on that subject I dare not say!
Also on my “to-do” list: I would like to translate F. Kervella’s enormous Yezhadur Braz ar Brezhoneg (Comprehensive Grammar of Breton) into English. I think this would be a significant contribution to Celtic linguistics. It would allow wider scholarly access to an important work that has influenced the writing of generations of Breton authors and translators, including Alan Dipode. I’ve made a good start on the translation, but it’s obviously going to be quite a job to finish it!
As for my music, I would love to hear “Glas eo ar Mor” performed by a choir in Brittany, maybe even with a full orchestra. I’ve been talking with an interested group in Brest, but unfortunately, their rehearsals are still on hold due to the pandemic. We may have to wait a while, but hopefully one day the song will be heard live in Brittany!
is an organization established to create, facilitate, promote, and sponsor wide-ranging innovative and collaborative cultural and economic projects that strengthen and foster relations and cooperation between the United States of America and the region of Brittany, France.