"Paradui vadovausiu aš!" - Ostapas Benderis

Learning English – The Lord of the Rings way

My parents always wished that I would be fluent in English. Nowadays high school children in Lithuania have almost daily English language lessons supplemented by a healthy dose of English coming to them from television, internet and computer games. My ten-year old son knows what a “pickaxe” and “emerald” is in English, however, he is not so fast to name them in Lithuania. Oh, the joys of Minecraft.

Now, twenty years ago there was nothing like that in my country. English teaching in school was OK, but not enough to speak well. Private teachers were hard to find.

So my parents decided on very simple, easy course of action – they took me to the biggest library in Vilnius and let me choose any book I want to read. With just one caveat – that a book had to be in English.

My choice was easy one – I was entranced by J.R.R. Tolkien‘s The Hobbit which was somehow allowed to be translated and printed in Soviet Union, in 1985. Most likely Soviet censors did not think that “fairytale” can do harm to young socialistic minds. My precious.

I was extremely excited to find a small note at the end of The Hobbit –  “further adventures of our heroes will take place in The Lord of the Rings”. I searched and searched for that book in Lithuanian, but alas – in vain. Confrontation between Western powers and Mordor darkness from the East was too easy to spot even for censors I guess.

So like Gollum – I waited. And waited. And waited.

Independence came and here I was – fifteen year old teenager rummaging around the library and finding biggest treasure of all – The Lord of the Rings. I grabbed the book and wasted no time in starting to read it. But…

Something was wrong. I could place neither heroes, places nor their actions. Nothing seemed logical. The only person I recognized was Gandalf, but why he was galloping through the night together with the hobbit I could not recognize. Did I take the book written by madman? Did I go crazy myself?

Well…something like that happens when one starts reading the trilogy from the last book.

Upon realizing my mistake, I breathed easily, returned the book to the library and came back with another one, bound to be my faithful companion for a long time – The Fellowship of the Ring.

Again somebody wise – like Gandalf or Dumbledore at the least – should have warned me that you should try to improve your English by reading adapted version of Treasure Island or Red Riding Hood and not by trying to absorb masterpiece of English language genius.

First page took me two whole days to read. Every second word I had to use dictionary. Remember – that was year 1992 no internet, no Google Translate and no online dictionaries, only bulky paper tome. Every sentence I had to reread trying to grasp its sense. I was feeling like a builder trying to build wall using all kinds of bricks.

Second page took two more days. Third page, same thing. I gathered that I shall be white-haired as Gandalf by the time I have finished the trilogy.

I grasped at my hair. I had a deep sigh. Maybe even cried a bit. Still I ploughed on. Page by page. Day by day. Bilbo‘s birthday went on, Frodo got the Ring and Gandalf went missing.

Then something magical happened. One page per day became two, then three, four and five. I was exhilarated and on cloud nine. I built my wall, and now I broke it with one huge smash.

Five pages per day. Rivendell. Ten pages per day. Moria. Twenty pages per day. Lothlorien.

I was done. I finished The Fellowship of the Ring and knew that I can read in English.

I was returning with my mother (who was my Lithuanian teacher by the way) from the supermarket, and she casually said: “You know what, darling? You should translate a bit of that book you like so much and apply to the National High School translation contest. That should be fun”.

Fun? Fun to read the same book again and do what I have never done in my life – translate it. Even a bit. Where was fun in that when I could spend the same time playing football, hanging out with friends and chasing after girls?

“Yeah, mom,” nodded I. “That should be fun”

And so it began.

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