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A Frisian translation of The Hobbit
was published in August 2009. The translator is Anne Tjerk Popkema,
an academic linguist. This brings Wikipedia's count of translations
to 75. De Hobbit was published by Uitgeverij Elikser in
Leeuwarden, the capital city of the Dutch province of Friesland,
situated in the north of the Netherlands, where Frisian is spoken.
Frisian is the Germanic language most
closely related to English. Old Frisian and Old English were much
closer than their modern variants. Modern Frisian has been subjected
to a lot of Dutch influence (some might say interference), in much
the same way that Welsh and Irish have been affected by the primacy
of English in the areas where they are spoken. Dutch and Frisian,
however, are more closely related than Welsh and Irish are to
English, and the interference is much more difficult to identify than
it is in Welsh and Irish.
Popkema translated the name Smaug,
something that no other translator has yet attempted. Popkema
explained the linguistic legerdemain behind his translation of Smaug
as Sműch in a private eMail,<sup><sup>1</sup></sup>
"My solution is based primarily on the Modern West Frisian
sműge, which means 1) 'to breathe heavily and audibly,'
2) 'to emit heavy, malodorous smoke' and also 3) 'to boast, to brag'.
In the third person singular this verb takes the form sműcht.
Secondarily the solution draws on the Old Frisian noun *sműgia,
meaning 'to (secretly) creep into someplace.' I found this a nice
touch in the case of Tolkien's dragon. My starting point for this
linguistic excursion was the Old Germanic verb smaug-, from
which the Modern English smoke is derived."
While the words for smoke and
secretly creeping are from different proto-Indo-European
stems, by the time that the Grimm brothers compiled their classic
dictionary of the German language<sup><sup>2</sup></sup>
in the nineteenth century, the orthography of the words representing
the two concepts had grown together. Grimm attests:
with the meanings 1) smoke and 2) a trickster (ein loser betrüger)
with the meanings 1) smoker and 2) a dissembler, an artful dodger
(think Dickens: Oliver Twist.)
with the meanings: 1) to smoke and 2) a secretive,
malicious, insidious action (noting an apparent relationship to
the verb to smuggle).
History of German Language Roots (1874), lists a number of
cognates for smoke, including the Gadhelic Sműch,
the Anglo-Saxon smoca (glossed in Latin as fumus) and
the Greek Σμυχω (smykho, to burn in a
smoldering fire; to make smolder away.)<sup><sup>3</sup></sup>
The Proto-Indo-European root for smoke is *smeug(h)-/smeuqh-.
In Old Lithuanian smoke is smáugiu; in Teutonic
it is *smauk. In Middle-high German it is smouch,
and in Old Dutch it is smooc. An excursion into the Slavic
languages adds an even more interesting twist to an etymological
study of this consonant envelope. In Old Church Slavonic the word for
dragon is смокъ (smok”), in
Old Czech it is smok, and in modern Polish the word for dragon
still is smok, which is pronounced almost exactly like the
English word smoke. Having followed this linguistic trail, it
seemed at the time that Smaug = Smoke would be a
particularly picturesque name for a fire-breathing dragon, but
Tolkien had another idea.
explanation of the origin of the name Smaug in a letter to the
editor of The Observer (1938) derailed the train of thought
engendered by the list of cognates meaning smoke above. In
this letter Tolkien says that the name Smaug is a
“pseudonym—the past tense of the primitive Germanic verb Smugan,
to squeeze through a hole: a low philological jest” (L.31),
referring to the passage in The Hobbit in which the company is
looking at the map of the Mountain, and Gandalf explains that Smaug
could not possibly have used the hidden passage to the lower halls,
“because it is too small.” (H.32)
reference to the Old Frisian verb *sműgia, which carries
a connotation of surreptitious entry is related to the English verb
to smuggle. This verb is indeed an excellent basis for
the name of a dragon who "steal[s] gold and jewels" (H.35).
While the name's hidden meaning may not be transparent to the casual
reader, neither was Tolkien's "low philological jest,"
until he explained it in his letter to The Observer.
A look at the
Skeat's etymology of the word smuggle<sup><sup>4</sup></sup>
is instructive for both Tolkien's and Popkema's philological jests.
SMUGGLE, to import or export secretly, without paying
legal duty. (Scandinavian) Phillips, ed. 1706, gives the phrase 'to
smuggle goods.' Blount's Gloss., ed. 1674, has: 'Smuglers, stealers
of customs, well known upon the Thames.' Sewel's Dutch Dictionary,
ed. 1749, gives: 'Sluyken, to smuckle; sluyker, a smuckler.' The word
is not Dutch, the Dutch smokkelen,
to smuggle, being modern, and unnoticed by Sewel and Hexham. It is,
however, plainly a sailor's word, and of Scandinavian origin. —
Danish smugle, to
smuggle; a frequentative form (with usual suffix -le)
from the old strong verb found in Norwegian smjuga
(past tense smaug),
to creep; whence also Danish t smug,
adverb, secretly, privately,
contraband trade. Closely allied to Danish smuge,
a narrow (secret) passage, Swedish smuga,
a lurking-hole, Icelandic smuga,
a hole to creep through, smugall,
All from the strong verb found in Icelandic smjtiga
(past tense smaug,
plural smugu, past
to creep, creep through a hole, put on a garment which has only a
round hole to put the head through; compare Swedish smyga,
to sneak, to smuggle. Cognate with Anglo-Saxon smeogan,
smiigan, to creep
(past tense smedg,
plural smugon, past
Middle High German smiegen,
strong verb, to press into (Fick, iii. 357); all from Teutonic base
SMUG, to creep. Compare Lithuanian smukti,
to glide, i-smukti, to
The Digital Library of
adds another dragonish nuance with its definition of Smuigen/Smuiken,
citing the Anglo-Saxon smugan= creeping like a snake
into the narrowest and most cunning holes to hide. It likewise points
to the Anglo-Saxon smoega- or smegma-wyrme (lint
worm found in the intestines).
To achieve the same historical
linguistic effect as Popkema's name has, Schuchart would have to have
named his dragon *Smuig, based on the Old Dutch verb form
smuigen attested above and defined in Wedgwood<sup><sup>6</sup></sup>
as to eat and drink in secret, to do anything secretly,
furtively, related to the Dutch adverb ter smuig/ter smuik,
of the same meaning. In modern dictionaries these words are found as
sluiken and tersluik(s) (see Skeat, above), but sluipen
is more commonly used by native speakers in this meaning today.
The two German translators, Scherf and
Krege, both kept the name Smaug. They could have, however,
given it a more modern specifically German orthography by spelling it
Schmaug, on the analogy of the modern German spelling of the
verb to smuggle = schmuggeln.
Tolkien's notes in Nomenclature often say "assimilate
[the name] to the spelling of the [target] language."<sup><sup>7</sup></sup>
The German translators could have also taken refuge in Schmauch
(see Grimm above), which, in the meaning of trickster, would
have fit Tolkien's dragon well.
All these linguistic tricks employ
archaic forms that are not found in the run-of-the-mill modern
dictionaries, and I doubt that any name for Tolkien's dragon based on
them would have been any more transparent to their readers than Smaug
was to the readers of the original, who didn't happen to be
professional linguists, and had not read the letter to The
I applaud Popkema's linguistic sleight
of hand in translating the name Smaug into Frisian, but
suspect that his non-specialist readers who do not read this article
will only read the name Sműch as an asthmatic
fire-breathing dragon inclined to braggadocio, which is not, per se,
a bad image to have for Tolkien's villain.
Sunday, December 20, 2009 4:00 PM
Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, (in
16 volumes), Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1899, volume 9, pp. 951-956.
Ernst Wilhelm Förstemann, Geschichte des Deutschen
Sprachstammes, (in two volumes), Nordhausen: Verlag Fred.
Förstemann, 1874, vol. 1 (Die vorslavogermanische Zeit),
Walter William Skeat, An Etymological Dictionary of the English
Language, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898, p. 567. All
abbreviations expanded per the glossary contained in this volume.
5The digitale biblioteek voor de Nederlandse
lvo 23 December 2009.
Hensleigh Wedgwood, A Dictionary of English Etymology, New
York: Macmillan, 1878, p. 609.
For examples, see the entries for Scary, Staddle, or
It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.