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In his translation of The Lord of the Rings Vladimir Muravyov (В. Муравьёв) translates Tolkien’s expression “pipe-weed” as “трубочное зелье”. While “трубочное” evidently means “related to a pipe” and seems reasonable, Wiktionary (English and Russian) and DeepL agree that “зелье” means “potion”, i.e. an infusion of herbs, implying moisture, while tobacco for smoking (i.e. pipe-weed) consists of dried leaves. None of those three sites gives such a meaning.

Why, then, does Муравьёв translate “pipe-weed” as “трубочное зелье”?

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  • The funny thing that translation was made that long ago that it made its way into dictionaries and references or crosswords. – Swift Oct 5 '20 at 0:10
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    Зелье in the Russian Middle Ages (and so) is not necessarily a "liquid" or "potion" - it's rather a kind of magical or witchcraft or alchemical - chemical composition. With devilish properties. For tobacco and in Russian, this is the standard connection in older style. "дьявольское зелье, табачное зелье" clck.ru/RDdwq –  Пилум Oct 5 '20 at 4:54
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    I haven't read fantasy books, but phrase "трубочное зелье" hurt my native speaker ears. There are surely better matching and modern translations should be available now, since we have so many fantasy games, movies, etc. but Muravyov was doing it before internet (1980), so using "old" slovenian terms is not a bad idea (and btw, he may not be the author, there were earlier translations, see wiki). I wonder how that was translated in Lords of the Rings movies transcriptions. – Sinatr Oct 5 '20 at 8:16
  • @Sinatr: I actually have the book, in which Muravyov and Andrey Kistyakovsky are credited as translators. I think an archaic term is more suitable than something modern. I too wonder what they did in the film. – PJTraill Oct 5 '20 at 12:46
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The word зелье comes from Proto-Slavic *zelьje "grass, vegetation" which kept its meaning in many Slavic languages, including Church Slavonic.

It shares the root with the word зелёный "green", and the latter actually descends from the former.

The meaning of "potion" is a later development.

The word зелье in its original sense is used in Russian every now and then:

  • Кто бы мог подумать, что заморская выдумка ― мороженое и это табачное зелье, которое еще так недавно русский народ называл чертовой травою, найдут покупщиков у самых дверей питейного дома? // Who could have thought that this foreign concoction, the ice-cream, and this tobacco herb, which Russian people had been calling "the devil's weed" so recently, would find buyers at the very door of a drinking establishment?
  • Въ прочемъ извѣстно, что къ ней примѣшивается ваниль, пряное зелье и сахаръ, а не рѣдко бываетъ и безъ двухъ первыхъ примѣсей. // It is known, nevertheless, that vanilla, spicy herbs and sugar are being mixed into it, and it's not rare for it to occur without the first two additives.
  • «‎… Чего нам ждать от него? Злое зелье вырывают с корнем. Вот тебе награда, изменник!» ― воскликнул он и острым кинжалом поразил предателя. // "What shall we expect from him? A pernicious weed is to be eradicated. Here's your reward, traitor"!, exclaimed he and smote the renegade with his sharp dagger.

This word, in my opinion, is a good way to translate "weed" in a Tolkien book.

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  • Thanks, interesting. I noticed the similarity to зелёный. It sounds as though English and Russian Wikipedia and DeepL could do with extending, but I do not feel qualified to do much about the first or able to do much about the other two. I am not yet good enough to understand your quotes on my own, but DeepL makes a reasonable stab at them. – PJTraill Oct 4 '20 at 22:38
  • Actually the DeepL translation of the first quote is less helpful: Who would have thought that overseas fiction is ice cream and this tobacco herb, which the Russian people called bloody grass even so recently, would find buyers at the very door of a drinking house? Or does that make sense in context? – PJTraill Oct 4 '20 at 22:55
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    @PJTraill not "bloody" - чертов here is not an expletive, it's possessive adjective from черт - a devil, imp. Also you may compare another pair - трава - grass, weed, - and отрава - poison, the former actually related to the root of the latter. Also it seems that DeepL got confused by elliptic sentence. – Swift Oct 5 '20 at 0:03
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    Well-known Soviet novelist Vasily Aksyonov actually used this word to denote marijuana: >Я пробовал курить марихуану. Ну как, скажите, писателю удержаться и не попробовать неиспытанное ещё зелье? (Круглые сутки нон-стоп // «Новый Мир», 1976) – ain92 Oct 5 '20 at 11:26
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    @PJTraill Wiki is really out of any guilt here, Wiktionary contains all the information you might need and Wikipedia is not really a dictionary: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Slavic/zel%D1%8Cje en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D0%B7%D0%B5%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%B5#Russian The word survives in the almost-original meaning in many other Slavic langages (either grass or a herb or cabbage). – Vladimir F Oct 5 '20 at 15:05
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The entry for зелье in S. I. Ozhegov's Dictionary of the Russian Language (Словарь Русского Языка) (a Russian dictionary; nothing to do with translation) lists among four meanings:

  1. The same as tobacco. (Old usage.) (То же, что табак (стар.).)

There are much more reliable dictionaries and encyclopaedias than "wiki" or other online ones!

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  • I am afraid I do not have that dictionary, but at least one can improve Wiktionary. What are the other meanings Ozhegov gives for зелье? – PJTraill Oct 8 '20 at 13:32
  • @PJTraill academic.ru/… – Elena Oct 9 '20 at 7:54
  • @Elena: Thanks, that was not quite it, but from there I reached dic.academic.ru/dic.nsf/ogegova/68314 which is, I take it, what the answerer meant. – PJTraill Oct 9 '20 at 12:04
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Personally, I think he used term 'зелье' for same reason JRRT himself used 'weed' instead of 'tobacco'. I think he wanted to obscure pipe smoking a bit, instead of saying that everyone smoking Navy Flake :) It's unusual though, I should agree.

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