Father of iconic "Hebrew Pilots" translation of Tolkien dies

Rami Harpaz lead a group of IAF pilots in Egyptian captivity to translate the iconic fantasy work into Hebrew while in prison, the book introduced Tolkien to Israeli readers and remains iconic.

Cover of the Hebrew Pilots Translation of the Hobbit   (photo credit: IAF)
Cover of the Hebrew Pilots Translation of the Hobbit
(photo credit: IAF)
Former Israel Air Force pilot Rami Harpaz, who led a group of IAF pilots to translate the iconic fantasy work The Hobbit into Hebrew while in prison in Egypt, died last week at the age of 80.
The book introduced Tolkien to Israeli readers and remains iconic.
Harpaz was captured by the Egyptians during the War of Attrition. While in captivity, he was given a copy of The Hobbit – the famous fantasy book by J.R.R. Tolkien – by his brother, who was able to deliver the book to him via the Red Cross.
Prison conditions were harsh and the Egyptians tortured the Israeli prisoners; yet despite of this, Harpaz and his fellow prisoners began to translate the book into Hebrew. Their initial motivation was to allow Israelis who could not read English well to enjoy the book in Hebrew.
Harpaz and three other captured pilots were the translators of what became known as “the pilots’ translation” of The Hobbit.
The translation was done in pairs, with one person reading in English and speaking it out in Hebrew and the translation partner writing it down in Hebrew and then editing it. The final product was seven notebooks written by hand.
The translated book was published in 1977 with funding provided by the IAF.
Harpaz was to spend roughly three years in captivity and was released after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Among Israelis, the pilots’ translation was well received despite – or perhaps because of – it not attempting to offer the Hebrew reader a poetic Hebrew solution to the names of fantastical creatures. When Yael Achmon offered her translation in 2012, she opted to use Hebrew words such as Shedim and Shedonim to describe Goblins and Elves, whereas Harpaz simply used the English words as they would be written in Hebrew letters.
Israeli lovers of fantasy literature believe that Tolkien himself considered the pilots’ translation among the best translations of the work into other languages.
Harpaz was the focus of a theater production titled There and Back Again that drew a parallel between the hardships the fictional character of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, as he endures adventure and pain in the book with the fate of the Israelis who faced torture and humiliation at the hands of the Egyptians.
After his release from captivity in 1973, Harpaz remained in the IAF until 1980 and was active on reserve duty. He had five children.