Thanks to some hard-working scholars, Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, and Bilbo Baggins are now getting kids hooked on the language of Virgil.
1. HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE // HARRIUS POTTER ET PHILOSOPHI LAPIS
Even in their original English, the Harry Potter novels are loaded with undercover Latin lessons. J.K. Rowling studied classics at the University of Exeter—much to her parents’ bewilderment. “Of all the subjects on this planet,” she once said, “I think they would have been hard put to name one less useful than Greek mythology when it came to securing the keys to an executive bathroom.”
In Harry’s universe, magic-wielders have been using and updating the Latin language for centuries. Most spells, therefore, are based on Latin terms: Nox, for example, means night, while accio comes from the command “to summon forth.”
So, naturally, the Harry Potter books were begging to be translated into this ancient tongue. Peter Needham, who had previously converted Paddington Bear into Latin under the title Ursus Nomine Paddington, provided the translation. “It’s an ideal job for an old bloke in retirement,” Needham, a former Latin professor, said in 2001.
Bloomsbury Publishing put out his version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 2003, followed by an ancient Greek edition. “We aren’t under any illusions that [these translations] will be best-sellers,” editor Emma Matthewson said at the time, “but we think that it will mean much more fun lessons for anyone studying Latin and Greek.”
Needham has since translated Chamber of Secrets. To him, the whole undertaking proved a pleasant experience. “At the school I taught at we didn’t have modern translations of this sort,” he told The Telegraph. “But I also think it’s going to be a fun thing for intelligent people to have—the sort of thing you give your father for Christmas.”
2. WINNIE THE POOH // WINNIE ILLE PU
When Winnie Ille Pu was released in December 1960, critics immediately sang its praises. “[It] does more to attract interest in Latin than Cicero, Caesar, and Virgil combined,” proclaimed The Chicago Tribune. Lewis Nichols at The New York Times hailed Winnie Ille Pu as “the greatest work that a dead language has ever known.”
Alexander Lenard, an eastern European doctor who’d relocated to Brazil, spent seven years translating Winnie the Pooh. Saying that his hard work paid off would be an understatement. Winnie Ille Pu was the first Latin book to crack The New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for an impressive 20 weeks. Royalties from the book enabled Lenard to purchase a second house.
3. HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS // QUOMODO INVIDIOSULUS NOMINE GRINCHUS CHRISTI NATALEM ABROGAVERIT
According to Terence Tunberg, “The study of Latin, traditionally, can be a dreary business.” He and his wife, Jennifer, would know. Both teach Latin at the University of Kentucky, where they work for the department of classics and literature. One day, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishing, Inc., approached them with an unusual challenge: translate Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas into Latin.
At first, the Tunbergs had some reservations. “We thought our colleagues might think we were spending a lot of time doing childish things,” Jennifer told UK's magazine, Odyssey. Still, the couple was game. Released in 1998, their take on Grinch wound up selling over 41,000 copies within three years.
Like all translators, the Tunbergs had to get creative at times. In English, their edition’s title literally means “How the little envious one by the name Grinch stole the birthday of Christ.”
4. THE HOBBIT // HOBBITUS ILLE
Writer Mark Walker is a self-described “Tolkien fan and ardent Latinist.” In 2012, Harper Collins published Hobbitus Ille, his translation of the Middle Earth novel. As Walker told the Huffington Post, converting creature names was an interesting task: The word elves, for example, has no Latin equivalent. Instead, Walker referred to the pointy-eared archers as dryades, a race of forest nymphs in Roman folklore.
5. THE CAT IN THE HAT // CATTUS PETASATUS
After reimagining How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Tunbergs tackled another Dr. Seuss bestseller. “We ran into all sorts of situations with … The Cat in the Hat, where our inventiveness was really put to the test,” Terence said. “I think we’re contributing a lot to original scholarship, because this work shows that Latin is not a dead language. A project like this shows how the Latin medium can be adapted to a contemporary work.”
6. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE // UBI FERA SUNT
In 2015, Time magazine dubbed Maurice Sendak’s beloved tale “the best children’s book of all time.” That same year, it became available in Latin for the first time ever, courtesy of Bolchazy-Carducci Publishing and translator Richard A. LaFleur (a retired University of Georgia classics professor).
7. ALICE IN WONDERLAND // ALICIA IN TERRA MIRABILI
For 41 years, classics professor Clive Carruthers enjoyed a distinguished career at McGill University. After his retirement in 1961, the scholar busied himself by translating the works of Lewis Carroll. Carruthers’s Latin spin on Alice in Wonderland hit bookstores three years later, allowing the reader to “read it as Julius Caesar might have if he had been lucky enough,” according to the original dust jacket. Carruthers went on to give Alice in Wonderland’s sequel, Through the Looking Glass [PDF], the same treatment.
8. DIARY OF A WIMPY KID // COMMENTARII DE INEPTO PUERO
Monsignor Daniel Gallagher is a Vatican cleric who, among other things, runs Pope Francis’s Latin Twitter account. Why does this feed exist? For starters, Latin is still the official language of Vatican City. “[It’s] universal, it doesn’t belong to any one country or culture," Gallagher told The Telegraph. "It doesn’t privilege or favour any one nation, it’s trans-national.”
The Michigan native is committed to popularizing the tongue. If all goes well, his translation of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid will help do so. Published last May, Commentarii de Inepto Puero takes pains to convert modern slang into something that, in Gallagher’s mind, “[captures] the spirit of the ancient Romans.”
“Exclamations like ‘Darn!’ were tricky,” he said. “You try to get as close as possible with the translation.” The priest sees his Latinized Wimpy Kid text as a valuable—and accessible—teaching tool for 21st-century kids. “It is important for children to see that… you can still express today’s thoughts in Latin,” he said.
9. THE GIVING TREE // ARBOR ALMA
Jennifer and Terrence Tunberg took a break from Dr. Seuss in 2002, applying their linguistic talents to Shel Silverstein’s poignant book The Giving Tree.
10. CHARLOTTE’S WEB // TELA CHARLOTTAE
In 1991, the story of Wilbur the pig and a very special arachnid got a Latin re-release.Harper Collins Publishing hired Bernice L. Fox, a longtime English, Greek, and Latin language professor who worked at Monmouth College in Illinois from 1947 to 1981, to handle the translation. Throughout her career, Fox avidly promoted grade-school classical studies. In 1985, Monmouth established the Bernice L. Fox Classics Writing Contest. Every year, high schoolers from across America are invited to tackle such essay topics as “What 12 labors would Hercules have today and how would he complete them?” The winning entry earns its author a $250 prize.