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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]