10 Popular Children's Books That Have Been Translated Into Latin

Thanks to some hard-working scholars, Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, and Bilbo Baggins are now getting kids hooked on the language of Virgil.


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.”  


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.


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.”


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.


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.”


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.

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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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The Internet Archive is Making 62 Obscure, Out-of-Print Books Available Online
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Dozens of of obscure, out-of-print books are about to become much more accessible thanks to the Internet Archive, the digital archive of public domain media. But to do it, they’ll have to exploit a loophole in a controversial copyright law, as Ars Technica reports.

The Internet Archive is releasing the Sonny Bono Memorial Collection, a group of books from the 1920s and 1930s that are out of print, but still technically under copyright—meaning they’re extremely difficult to get a hold of.

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was a copyright extension law passed in 1998 to extend copyright protections to works published after 1923 (which would otherwise have already entered the public domain) by 20 years. Unfortunately, while Disney may be happy that Mickey Mouse still falls under copyright protections, that also means that less-famous books that are now out of print can’t be made available to the public. But a provision of the law provides for public access for research, allowing nonprofit libraries to distribute the works if they cannot be found elsewhere for a reasonable price.

A screenshot of an online collection of books from the Internet Archive
Screenshot, Internet Archive

The Internet Archive explains:

We believe the works in this collection are eligible for free public access under 17 U.S.C. Section 108(h) which allows for non-profit libraries and archives to reproduce, distribute, display, and publicly perform a work if it meets the criteria of: a published work in the last 20 years of copyright, and after conducting a reasonable investigation, no commercial exploitation or copy at a reasonable price could be found.

Libraries don’t tend to take advantage of the law because it takes considerable resources to track down which works are eligible. However, the Internet Archive collaborated with Elizabeth Townsend Gard, a Tulane copyright expert, and a pair of interns to find books that could be scanned and uploaded online legally. Gard has released guidelines for libraries based on this work to help other archives do the same.

The Internet Archive is starting out with 62 books published between 1923 and 1941 (meaning they’re within 20 years of their copyright expiring) and plan to release up to 10,000 more in the near future to be downloaded and read by online users. And the collection will grow each January as more books enter that 20-year window.

[h/t Ars Technica]


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