During the War of Attrition that occurred between Israel and Egypt, four Israeli fighter pilots were taken prisoner by Egyptian forces and were imprisoned for three years before being released in 1973 after the Yom Kippur War. In order to help pass the time, the four men took to translating a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit from English to Hebrew. Despite the conditions of the translation, the result is still widely regarded as one of the finest Hebrew versions of The Hobbit.
The translation was led by Israeli Air Force pilot Rami Harpaz, who was sent an English copy of The Hobbit by his brother, who managed to send it to him through the Red Cross. Prison conditions were known to be hard, and the Egyptians tortured inmates for information, but Harpaz and his three friends chose to help pass the time by translating the famed fantasy book.
The idea first took root because Harpaz wanted his fellow inmates who couldn’t read English to also enjoy Tolkien’s work. The finished product is known as ‘the pilots’ translation’ of The Hobbit and it is still regarded as one of the best Hebrew translations of thew book, despite the four men having to prior experience when it comes to translations.
The translation was done in pairs as one man would read the English book and recite it in Hebrew. The other would then write it down in Hebrew and make the appropriate edits. The translation ended up filling seven notebooks, all hand written. Thanks to funding by the IAF, the translation was officially published in 1977.
After being released from captivity, Harpaz remained in the IAF until 1980. A theater prediction based on Harpaz’s time as a POW was created called There and Back Again, and compared the pilot to the character of Bilbo Baggins. Harpaz passed away earlier this year in January at the age of 80.