The Game’s Afoot: Searching out Sherlock Holmes Books in Every Language
A 1992 Bulgarian paperback version of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” has an unusual and colorful cover.
When I heard about a Sherlock Holmes book collector who had amassed more than 11,000 foreign-language editions, I knew I had to learn more. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories about the famous fictional detective and his iconic assistant, Dr. Watson, from 1887 to 1927. Originally published in England, they were translated into dozens of languages and remain a popular collectible even today. But how would it be possible to find so many books in other languages?
Collector Don Hobbs is a friendly man who works for a software company and lives in the Dallas, Texas, area. His hobby intrigued me and, luckily, he was happy to answer my questions:
WorthPoint: Did you read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories as a boy?
Don Hobbs: Yes, I was a big reader when I was young. I read Sherlock Holmes, Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Tarzan, etc. As I got older I read Jules Verne, Ian Fleming, Harold Robbins, and others. I went through a long period of reading non-fiction. In the mid-seventies, I picked up a copy of “The Seven Per-Cent Solution” by Nicholas Meyer and then started re-reading Holmes.
WorthPoint: How did you first get started collecting?
Hobbs: I have always been a collector. I believe one either has the collector gene or not. I am the former. Early on, I collected comic books, rocks, stamps and coins, all at different times. In the late seventies, I started collecting Stephen King. This was my first serious collection. I had many rare and limited editions along with his earliest publications in girly magazines and college magazines. Around 1985, the prices were sky-rocketing so I sold everything for a nice profit. I started buying Sherlock Holmes books at this time and soon was buying everything I could find.
WorthPoint: You sound just like many of us who share the collector gene—we sell parts of one collection to buy for another. Why did you decide to focus on foreign language editions?
Hobbs: One day I received a phone call from John Bennett Shaw, the world’s greatest collector of Sherlock Holmes. He invited me to his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The week before my visit to John’s, I was in Austin at a book fair, where I found a 1920s Polish edition of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” I also picked up a copy of a Spanish Sherlock Holmes collection of stories. When I arrived at John’s, he had Sherlock Holmes in 60 different languages, but neither of the two foreign translations I had bought. Here were thousands upon thousands of books but two he did not own. I figured at the time, I only needed 58 more languages to have them all. Over the past 25 years, I have discovered Sherlock Holmes translations in 98 languages and I have managed to find 92 of them. Ironically, of the 60 languages John had, I am still looking for a couple of them.
WorthPoint: Where do you find the books?
A 1920 Valencian version of “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” is one of collector Don Hobbs’ personal favorites.
Hobbs: I have my network of people all over the world that find books for me. One in particular is a guy in Hungary who has been finding really nice, older items from around 1900. These are great, obscure books you would never find in America. I also have people in China, Estonia, Germany, and Argentina that regularly send me books. I have used eBay since it first opened. I have been registered with them since 1996. I attend book fairs and peruse used book stores. I still buy old and interesting Sherlockian books in English, especially if I find a bargain. I get so many books by mail that my postal delivery drivers know me well.
WorthPoint: How do you determine which titles were published in a particular language?
Hobbs: It is amazing how many of the 60 canonical stories have numerical citations. This comes in handy when dealing with non-Roman alphabets. If you know a particular story mentions 345 and you find the equivalent 345 in that language’s numbering system, then you can be fairly sure what story it is. Over the years, I have developed a network of people who help me as well. A friend in Japan translated all of the Japanese, Korean and Chinese titles that I bought. I have another person who assists me in all of the Cyrillic alphabetic languages. I also use Google Translate. Many of the Indian languages have related societies here in the U.S. In the past I have written to the Tamil Society of North America and the Bengali Society of Texas asking for help.
WorthPoint: That is fascinating. Do you try to get every title or just a representative from each language?
Hobbs: I try to find every title in a specific language. This keeps the fires burning for me. The French, Italians and Germans are constantly publishing new editions of the canon and these languages and newer publications take a back seat to other languages. I try to find pre-’60s editions of those languages but that being said, if a newer book has an interesting cover I buy it.
WorthPoint: You printed one translation yourself didn’t you?
Hobbs: A co-worker’s brother received his Master’s degree and his Doctoral degree in Theology translating the Bible into Choctaw. My co-worker mentioned that I collected foreign language editions of Sherlock Holmes in and his brother offered to translate one of the stories. He translated the “Adventure of the Speckled Band” into Choctaw and sent me the file. I produced a booklet of it.
WorthPoint: Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories were first released in British magazines before they were published as books. Is that also true in other countries?
Hobbs: Some of the earliest Catalan and Italian translations were published in weekly newspaper magazines but most were separately published in book or booklet form. Many were pirated editions and Doyle received no compensation for them. This is one of the reason collecting them is so rewarding. There are no records of these publications and finding them is sheer luck.
WorthPoint: Yes, the fun is always in the hunt! Do you have any favorites? Any that are especially hard to find?
Hobbs: There is a series of translations from Valencia from the early ’20s with Art Deco covers. These are my favorites. I have been looking for a known Kazakh translation since that first visit to John Bennett Shaw’s. It is one of the original 60 translations I still seek. There is a Telugu translation from a 1955 children’s magazine that may be nearly impossible to find, but stranger things have happened.
WorthPoint: How many books do you still need to complete your collection?
Don Hobbs’ massive collection of books and memorabilia covers all four walls in the game room of his home.
Hobbs: Ah, the collection will never be complete. There are always new translations being published and new discoveries of previously unknown translations to acquire. I am still missing Fijian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Sindhi, Tarter and Telugu. I am also looking for an original Yiddish translation. I have photo static copies only.
WorthPoint: Eleven thousand books are a lot! Do you display them all in your home?
Hobbs: My wife and I are empty-nesters and I have taken over the upstairs game room of our home with Sherlock Holmes. My Sherlockian library is floor-to-ceiling shelves on all four walls and at this point is overflowing. Next up is the adjoining bedroom.
WorthPoint: Do you mind telling us what your collection is worth?
Hobbs: At this point, my collection is invaluable because there are so many items that are truly one of a kind. I have some 1907 Estonian translations that the National Library of Estonia does not have. I have a 1937 Chinese edition published in Manchuria. This was after the Japanese invasion. It is a pirated edition of a pirated edition. No one I have spoken to has ever seen one before. I have a $250,000 rider on my insurance policy but that could not come close to replacing some of my books. Another issue with foreign translation is it’s such a niche market. There are few who collect them. The true value of my collection is its completeness and extensiveness.
WorthPoint: Your book collection truly is priceless. Do you collect any other Sherlock Holmes memorabilia?
Hobbs: I have many, many pieces of Sherlockian memorabilia, such as artwork, 3D items, ephemera and other items and mostly these have come as gifts. One thing I did buy was a Hansom Cab Clock sold by Sears in 1960. Holmes and Watson rode around Victorian England in Hansom cabs. I formed a Hansom Cab Clock Club. The requirements for joining is to own one of these clocks and sending its picture to me. I produce a business card with your clock’s image on it with your name and membership number. The only rule is if the clock is not running, the hands must be set at 2:21 (Holmes’ address on Baker Street). Membership is at 21 currently.
WorthPoint: You just returned from the annual meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars in New York City. It is an exclusive club of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. Tell us a little bit about that group.
“The Hound of the Baskervilles” is called “Baskervillekut kinmerssuat” in much of the world’s Arctic regions. This is a rare 1961 Inuit version is part of Hobb’s vast collection.
Hobbs: The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) was founded in 1934 by Christopher Morley. It started as a small informal gathering of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts and has become a premiere literary organization today. There are approximately 300 members of the BSI. The annual BSI dinner is by invitation only and limited to 175 members and guests. Each year several Sherlockians pass away and new members receive these investitures. The investitures carry a name significant to the canon. I received my investiture in 2012 with the name “Inspector Lestrade.” This is a very big honor, since “Lestrade” is the third-most mentioned name in the canon behind “Holmes” and “Watson,” and those two names are never given as investitures.
WorthPoint: With your unique collection, it is no wonder the BSI honored you with a character that has appeared in 13 of the Sherlock Holmes stories, including the very first one. This has been a captivating interview, Don. Thank you! In closing, do you have any parting advice for collectors who are just starting out?
Hobbs: Collect what you know and educate yourself on what you are collecting. Remember, quality is better than quantity. When I first started collecting, I bought everything I could get my hands on and now have many books worth only pennies but the old, rarer items increase in value 12- to 15-percent annually. But most importantly, have fun with what you collect. There are societies for practically anything you want to collect, so whatever it is, get involved.
WorthPoint: Excellent advice, Don. Thanks again so much for sharing information about your one-of-a-kind collection with us. Best of luck with your ongoing search for new titles.
If you have information that might be helpful to Mr. Hobbs or other collectors of Sherlock Holmes, please post a note here in the comments section below.
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.
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