The Magazine


Dr. Seuss's Christmas Classic in Latin

Dec 28, 1998, Vol. 4, No. 15 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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Then again, there actually may be some people buying these books to read out of love for a richly beautiful language. There can't be many of them, but surely they're out there.

So now, just in time for Christmas, we find the bouncy rhythms and kaleidoscopic wordplay of Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas, translated by a pair of zealous Latin mavens. The child who can recite from memory the story of the evil Grinch who tried in vain to destroy Christmas for every Who down in Who-ville might chafe at the alterations. But if he could read Latin, he would be pleased with what he'd find: a version of the story at least as playful and inventive as the original.

Still, it is Latin -- Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit -- and not particularly easy. The original Grinch, with its clever, thumping rhythm, is a book of poetry -- and poetry is typically what gets lost in translation. But not here. The translating team, Jennifer Morrish Tunberg and Terence O. Tunberg, have done a splendid job, practically creating an entirely new poem. The characters and plot they've borrowed, while the Grinchus is their own.

One at least initially jarring effect is the unexpected expansion. Latin usually compresses, reducing the number of words required for a thought or expression. But the Tunbergs take another tack, one that may derive from the problems they faced creating their new Latin rhythms.

Then again, the lengthening of Dr. Seuss's wonderful lines may just arise from the Tunbergs' sheer exuberance. Consider the following:



Whatever the reason,

His heart or his shoes,

He stood there on Christmas Eve, hating the Whos,

Staring down from his cave with a sour, Grinchy frown

At the warm lighted windows below in their town.

For he knew every Who down in Who-ville beneath

Was busy now, hanging a mistletoe wreath.


The Tunbergs see it thus:



Utut res ipsa sese habebat,

Sive corde aegro sive calceamentis invidiosulus magis afflictabatur,

domi Christi natalis pridie manebat inimicitia erga Laetulos incensus.

E spelunca tenebrosa in qua domicilium habebat exile,

Invidiosulus noster fronte malitiose contracta

Laetopolim infra sitam conspexit,

Ubi splendebant multae fenestrae lucernis lucentibus luminatae.

Sat bene intellexit Grinchus noster omnes illic Laetulos

In sertis visci suspendendis tunc diligenter ac sedulo versari.

Marvelous stuff -- if you can read it -- and the work of two people who know their craft, but clearly it's not for the beginner. If you've retained enough of your Latin grammar, the Tunbergs have provided an extensive vocabulary at the back of the book to help you through the thicket of uncommon words. For initiates, though, this is a delightful book. Sounding out each line reveals an astute artistry, even to the Latinless. The lines dance. And, should you need a running translation, the Latin story matches the English, down to the evocative drawings accompanying the poetry. Little will be ruined for the prospective reader, I hope, if I say that this rendition holds no surprises: "GRINCHUS carnem laetior Laetulis laete secat!"

Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit represents the best of the "Neo-Latin" genre, as well as another odd inversion in this age of the child: a child's book that even many adults cannot read. But for those who can, it is a frolic.

A writer living in Arlington, Virginia, Tracy Lee Simmons is completing a book in defense of classical education.