From the end of the Six-Day War in 1967 until 1970, Israel fought a low-intensity conflict, known as the “war of attrition,” with Egypt, Jordan, and the PLO. Ten Israeli air-force pilots were captured in the final year; after four months of solitary confinement, all were thrown into a single cell. Around that time, one of the pilots received a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Chen Malul describes what happened next:
The four pilots in the cell [with a solid grasp of English] decided to translate The Hobbit for those who would find it hard to understand. The pilots initially translated specific words and expressions. It did not take them long to discover that the work distracted them from their life in captivity, and soon they found themselves working day after day, for many long hours, on translating the entire book.
The work was done in pairs—one reading the text in English and translating it to Hebrew on the spot. The second’s job was to be an editor: to improve the Hebrew translation and adjust it to the high level of Tolkien’s original work. The many poems in the book presented a complex challenge, and the four turned to their cellmates for help. They later related that “we failed slightly with the poems in the book.” Under the circumstances in which the unprofessional translators found themselves, a labor of love would suffice. The entire project took four months, and it’s unlikely they thought the translation they worked so hard on while in captivity would ever be read outside the walls of their cramped cell.
The prisoners, who were released from captivity only after the Yom Kippur War, [returned to Israel] bearing a well-used copy of The Hobbit, along with seven full notebooks. In 1977, the Hebrew translation done by the pilots and their cellmates was published with financial support from the air force.
There are currently three published Hebrew translations of The Hobbit. . . . The one by the pilots and their comrades is considered the lowest-quality translation of the three, but it’s the translation I grew up on.
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access