According to conventional wisdom, Latin is a dead language. But a simple Amazon search shows that it still has a surprisingly active life—not just in medical and law terminology, but also in children’s books.
After serving as the chief language of ancient Rome, and then as the language of scholars and holy men, Latin mostly faded out of modern usage. Even its study is becoming increasingly rare, but there are still some publishers and scholars who are taking modern works, mainly kids’ books, and translating them from modern English into what can best be described as a kind of modern Latin.
From picture books such as Walter the Farting Dog, to longer works such as Winnie the Pooh, and the first two books in the "Harry Potter" series, a wide variety of titles have made the jump to Latin over the years. Children’s books make good candidates for such translation work due to their simplified language and short length, and in turn can give the study of Latin a more contemporary feel. But this doesn’t mean that turning these books into Latin in the first place is any small feat.
“Green Eggs and Ham was very difficult,” says Terence Tunberg, who has been teaching Latin for over 30 years. Along with his wife, Jennifer, he has translated a number of children’s books into Latin.
In addition to Green Eggs and Ham (Latin title: Virent Ova! Viret Perna!!), the Tunbergs have also translated Dr. Seuss classics How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Quomodo Invidiosulus nomine Grinchus Christi natalem Abrogaverit) and The Cat in the Hat (Cattus Petasatus), as well as Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree (Arbor Alma).
“[They’re] a good teaching tool, there’s no doubt about that. We did not try to write simple Latin," says Tunberg. "We tried to translate it the best we could given the resources of the Latin language without dumbing it down.”
Tunberg, who specializes in neo-Latin, or the use of Latin after the Romans were dead and gone, never planned on translating kids’ books, but was contacted by prominent Classics textbook publisher Bolchazy-Carducci, who had purchased the rights to some of Dr. Seuss’s works. Given his background with the language, and his interest in how Latin evolved after Rome, the prospect of translating these modern works was right up his alley. Of course, the real reasons for the project didn’t escape him.
“As a textbook publisher, they’re out to make money. They caught on to the idea that if they have very young children's stories in Latin along with the regular books by Caesar and Cicero and all these other people, it would be a draw. And they were right. I still get royalties,” says Tunberg.
But the books, especially those of Seuss, presented a number of unique translation problems. As Tunberg explains, the real trick to a good translation isn’t always in the word-for-word conversion, but in maintaining the meaning and the voice of the original work. Given Seuss’s penchant for nonsense words and rare poetic meters (anapestic tetrameter, anyone?), converting his writing into a dead language, with its smaller vocabulary for describing certain modern concepts, wasn’t easy. Certain changes had to be made.
For The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, Tunberg relied on a poetic form from the Middle Ages that could work in Latin, yet sounded more modern than traditional Latin poetry. “The challenge there was obviously the Seussian wording, but also he had his own kind of rhythmical rhyme. We wrote How The Grinch Stole Christmas in a very alliterative prose,” says Tunberg. While the Latin might not have been able to recreate the book’s rhyme scheme, by relying on alliteration, Tunberg was able to maintain the playfully poetic feel of Seuss’s original.
Another issue, of course, is Seuss’s made-up language. How should one describe a concept like Whoville in How the Grinch Stole Christmas? In order to effectively translate the invented words from the original, they had to look at what the author intended. “The Whos are happy, contented people. The Grinch is jealous, lonely, and wants to strike out at those he feels are having a good time when he’s not having a good time," explains Tunberg. "So the Whoville people were ‘the happy ones,’ ‘the contented ones.’ We produced a little coinage in Latin, ‘Laetopoli,’ which sounds good. It sounds kind of Seussian, and it means ‘Happyville.’”
By facing the unique challenges of these modern translations, Tunberg was effectively reviving the language and using it to make brand new (and somewhat silly) words. These days, the Latin children’s book genre continues to sell well among new and seasoned students of the language, brings in new readers and translators every year, and makes the ancient language seem more approachable.
In recent years Tunberg stopped translating modern children’s works, choosing to shift his attentions to his research. There are still books he’d like to see translated into Latin, though, such as Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Lord of the Rings (a Latin translation of The Hobbit, Hobbitus Ille, was published in 2012). To him, these swashbuckling stories are a great match for the vocabulary of the Latin language.
“If you want to keep Latin alive, and you want to keep people interested in it, the availability of that stuff is always good," says Tunberg. "Ultimately the classics gain too, because the student who reads my imagined version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is more likely to end up reading Virgil and Cicero.”
It might seem strange to be reverse-engineering modern works into a dead language like Latin, but it’s the only way we’re going to keep it alive.
This story originally ran on December 28, 2016.