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The Latin Dr. Seuss Is on the Loose

When Jennifer and Terence Tunberg, a husband-and-wife team who are Latin professors in UK's Department of Classical Languages and Literature, set out to translate a Dr. Seuss classic, they knew it wasn't going to be mere child's play.

Photo of Jennifer and Terry TunbergJennifer and Terry Tunberg enjoy the special challenges of translating Dr. Seuss into Latin.

"A lot of people don't realize that translation is not just word substitution, not a simple mechanical exercise," says Terence ("Terry," to friends and colleagues). "Translating poetry is a special challenge. It demands a lot from the translator—thorough knowledge of the target language, familiarity with classical form and meter, and a sense of the culture and history that infuse the language."

"Metaphors especially don't translate well," says Jennifer. "For example, the French have a term that translates literally 'my little cabbage,' which is an endearment in French but isn't particularly complimentary in English. We ran into all sorts of situations with Seuss's Cat in the Hat where our inventiveness was really put to the test."

The Tunbergs' challenge was to capture the flow and flavor of this children's book in rhyming Latin translation. To do this, they studied a wide range of Medieval Latin texts, including drinking songs, and found a meter to pattern their work after. "We went for patterned verse, as in the original," Terry says. "In the Middle Ages lots of poets started using end rhyme, and we found a Medieval meter that's used for some famous works. Medieval rhymes were framed in couplets, with rhyme in the last two syllables of each line. So we appropriated this pattern."

Another challenge, Jennifer adds, is that Seuss was so imaginative and idiosyncratic in inventing new English words. Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodore Geisel, used a peculiar kind of English. "The difficulty lay in translating peculiarities of one language into another, because each has its own words for humor, puns and other word play. But in the end, we felt that if Seuss had written it—Cattus Petasatus—in Latin, this is how it would have sounded," she says.

Clamat piscis et pavescit.
Circumspectat et tremescit.
"Ludum stultum iam remitte!
Nunc in mensam me demitte!
Ne mox cadam PERTIMESCO!
Tales ludos perhorresco!"

"Put me down!"said the fish.
"This is no fun at all!
Put me down!" said the fish.
"I do not wish to fall!"

This is the second Seuss translation the couple has done. In 1998 the Tunbergs released a Latin translation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which has now sold over 41,000 copies. Both of their books are from Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers Inc., a small company specializing in classical languages and based in Wauconda, Illinois. Grinch got more than 200 reviews, far more than the firm's other popular books, including the cheerily titled Rest Lightly: An Anthology of Latin and Greek Tombstone Inscriptions.

The Tunbergs' admitted purpose in undertaking these time-consuming projects is to expand the popularity of Latin by giving students a lighthearted alternative to some Latin classics.

"The study of Latin, traditionally, can be a dreary business," Terry admits, adding that as a boy in an English boarding school he studied Latin and "hated it." With all the conjugations (amo, amas, amat), declensions, moods tenses and genders, it's no wonder, he says, that so many Latin textbooks were inscribed by their owners with the quatrain:

"Latin is a dead language,
It's plain enough to see.
First it killed the Romans
And now it's killing me."

Bringing Latin to life with the aid of Dr. Seuss is only one way that the Tunbergs are promoting the language. Every summer, they direct a one-week seminar at which the attendees (UK students and others) must sign an oath to speak nothing but Latin.

"One of the great things about Latin is that unlike other 'dead' languages its biggest literary tradition was when it stopped being anyone's native language," Terry explains. "My main research interest is the period before 1700 when Latin had a thriving literature and was the international language. In the 1600s, scholars spoke Latin. Newton wrote in Latin because it was so widely understood."

When approached by the publisher to translate Seuss, the Tunbergs were initially skeptical and concerned about their reputations as scholars. "We thought our colleagues might think we were spending a lot of time doing childish things," Jennifer says. But as the couple became immersed in the project, it became clear to them how much serious scholarship and research it was going to take to do justice to Seuss.

"In setting this within the tradition of Latin and neo-Latin literature, you're thinking about everything you know, everything you've read about the Latin tradition," Jennifer says. "What allusions—literary connections—would be appropriate to magnify the text? What would the right idiom be? Doing these translations is a payoff from years and years of continuing research."

She points out a further research aspect of the project is the lexicograpy included in the back of the book, which the two added as a teaching tool. Over 18,000 copies, hardbound and paperback combined, of Cattus Petasatus had been sold by August of this year, according to Laurie Haight of Bolchazy-Carducci. She says that 127 college bookstores have placed orders for the books and that "many high school Latin teachers have told us they plan to use the books in the classroom."

"I think we're contributing a lot to original scholarship because this work shows that Latin is not a dead language," Terry says. "A project like this shows how the Latin medium can be adapted to a contemporary work, that in 2001 it is still eminently possible to make an original contribution to Latin writing."

Putting new works, or works already familiar in other languages, in Latin (such as those by Seuss), especially if they are done in a way that uses the resources of the tradition, makes learning the language more effective and fun for young readers, Terry says.

Jeff Worley