The Hobbit in Esperanto, Chapter 4: Drawing the Line

Esperanto is fond of compound words — elsewhere in Chapter 4 the goblins ĝojkriis, "shouted for joy", while the dwarves' captured ponies kunpremiĝis, "huddled together" ("pushed themselves together"). Bilbo can't even egalpaŝi, "keep up" ("walk equally").

Even if you haven't seen those compounds before, their meaning is clear; they all come from common roots. But when Fili and Kili are described as akrokulaj, I was stumped.

When the thunderstorm hits early in the chapter, Fili and Kili dash off to look for shelter because (being fifty years younger than any of the other dwarves) they're the most akrokulaj. I didn't have a copy of Tolkien's original English in reach, but given the context, akrokulaj probably meant "spry" or "nimble". It even looks a little like "acrobatic" (akrobata in Esperanto), though I didn't see any way one could be derived from the other.

The word wasn't in either of the online dictionaries I like, though Google did turn up a reference to an eager-looking spider called an akrokula araneo.

Akr- is a common Esperanto root that means "sharp", and kulo is a less common root that means "bloodsucking insect". Akrokulaj would therefore be "like sharp bloodsucking insects", which would make no God damn sense whatsoever.

So I gave up and asked more experienced Esperantists, and found out I'd been barking up the wrong tree. Or down the wrong root.

In Esperanto, when you form a compound word, you can just jam both parts together. That's what you see in the examples above:

ĝoj + kriis

kun + prem + + is

egal + paŝ + i

But that can lead to a pile-up of consonants, as in my least favorite Esperanto word to say, ŝraŭbŝlosilo ("wrench"). The harder a compound word is to pronounce, the more likely Esperantists are to use a vowel at the end of the first part. Akr + kulo with no vowel would be akrkulo, which is just awful (and keep in mind that you have to trill that r), making it a good candidate for including the vowel and forming akrokulo (and the adjective akrokulaj).

Except that's not what was going on at all.

I'd misparsed the word without even realizing it. Akrokulaj doesn't come from akr + kulo; it's from akr + okulo, "sharp" + "eye". (Tolkien's original is in fact "They had very sharp eyes".) Even though okulo "eye" is a much more common word than kulo "midge", I'd divided the compound akrokulaj — without even thinking — so that the second root began with a consonant. And since both roots were legitimate, I hadn't noticed that there was a second way to divide up the word.

(Interestingly, another word that turns up in this chapter — elfamikoj — gave me a similar problem, but only for a moment. El + fam- + ik??, "of fame ... something?" But since there's no Esperanto root ik, I quickly realized I had to backtrack and look for another interpretation. Elfamikoj is actually elfo + amikoj — "elf-friends".)

One of the German-speaking Esperantists told me there's a German word which lends itself to similar wordplay. Altbaucharme means "the charm of old buildings" (alt + Bau + Charme), but can also mean "old belly arms" (alt + Bauch + Arme).

As for the translation in general, this chapter unfortunately takes a vivid passage in Tolkien and makes it bland. Bilbo and the dwarves see their baggage "being rummaged by goblins, and smelt by goblins, and fingered by goblins, and quarreled over by goblins", but the Esperanto translator merely points out the packages kiujn la goblenoj jam malfermis kaj sercxis kaj jam pridisputis ("which the goblins had opened and searched and argued over").

Fortunately the later comparison of the goblins' howling to hundreds of wild dogs and cats being roasted slowly alive fares better, and includes the handy compound kunrostataj, "roasted together", which I plan to start using immediately.

Written on April 8, 2016