The Magazine


Dr. Seuss's Christmas Classic in Latin

Dec 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 15 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Just as we were despairing that today's children, seduced by the Information Age, might never learn to read for pleasure, a new strategy to draw them back to the stacks has emerged: the translation of children's books into Latin.

A bold idea certainly, but not one, to put it mildly, that would have occurred to most of us. Yet there the shiny volumes beckon from the shelves of the tony book stores that are so attentive to the gourmet-coffee crowd and the style-conscious parents busy raising designer children.

E. B. White's classic Charlotte's Web becomes Tela Charlottae, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland steps through the looking glass as Alicia in Terra Mirabili, Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit emerges as Fabula de Petro Cuniculo, and -- most visibly these days -- A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh sweetens itself into Winnie Ille Pu, blurbed in the latest edition as a New York Times bestseller (which it was, back in 1961). Here's something for that precocious ten-year-old finally bored with TV and computer games.

Of course, this still leaves one question: What could possibly be the point of a Winnie-the-Pooh rendered into flawless Latin -- especially at a time when, despite some pockets of re-ignited ardor, Latin itself has been expelled from so many schools? Quite clearly, these books aren't for children; they're for adults. But exactly which adults? A child's book in Latin seems roughly as useful as a Pet Rock.

A little digging, though, reveals that this strange urge to chisel children's books into the granite of Latin has been around for some time. As far back as 1950, a Latin version of Pinocchio, translated by Enrico Maffacini, received a measure of critical acclaim. Winnie Ille Pu saw the light in the early 1960s, and its success prompted Latin renderings of Ferdinand the Bull, The Wizard of Oz, and Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince before the fad withered. Nor have Disney's characters been left untouched: Devotees can read volume after brightly colored volume of the comic-book adventures of Michael Musculus and Donaldus Anas.

In all of these, the translators' inventiveness is unmistakable. But it's a curious impulse to translate these children's classics into a language not notable for its popular reach. Latin? Even the most avid multiculturalists have their limits.

There is, of course, the challenge of it. To say you have rendered a modern book into Latin is saying something; brilliant folks have occupied themselves in worse ways. And the challenge arises, in all likelihood, from the time-honored school practice of "Latin Composition," in which students were forced to render familiar phrases and well-known passages from modern poetry and prose into tight, syntactically secure Latin. For centuries, students dreaded these composition courses, but there were benefits. The act of composition enhanced students' comfort with Latin, increased their confidence, and made the language their own. Forming sentences and paragraphs with the requisite precision turned them into natives -- or at least that was the idea.

Back when I was taking composition, I volunteered to translate President Kennedy's inaugural address into Latin: Itaque conceives mei Americani, ne rogetis quid patria vestra pro vobis facere possit . . . Although I underestimated the work involved by a factor of ten, it proved immensely satisfying and won me an A. I thought I had earned my toga virilis for sure. But in looking over my work recently, I found that it was a perfect cheat. I'd translated each sentence with a strict one-to-one correspondence. A real Latin translator would have realized that Kennedy's rhetoric called for long, high-flown Ciceronian periods, and not the short, Senecan sentences I produced. Usually, however, composing Latin certifies one's membership amongst an elect, however shrinking. There's nothing like assembling a Latin sentence to make you feel immortal.

But while the challenge of translation may explain why a Latinist would bother to attempt a translation, it doesn't explain why a publisher would publish the results. Obviously, people are buying these books. But who are they?

It's a safe bet that few of them are reading Virgil or Livy or any other genuine Roman author in their spare time. The typical buyer probably belongs to that legion of the Upwardly Mobile -- the type who display their college degrees prominently (the only other Latin in the house), drive a Volvo, recycle religiously, and pledge regularly to PBS. In short, they are the type to make sure their friends know they own such books. A Latin Winnie isn't so much to be read as to be seen.