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Winnie Ille Pu: the next bestseller? Add to ...

wclements@globeandmail.com

The study of Latin is alive in Canadian universities, according to a recent article by The Globe's Ingrid Peritz. Students at the University of Montreal "said Latin not only helps their language skills" but "helps them understand the foundations of Western civilization. And it adds a certain cachet to a résumé."

Amen to that. But the real reason to study Latin is to keep up with all the amusing Latin books that have been pouring forth for the past 60 years. An industry exists of scholars who believe that if they translate Winnie the Pooh ( Winnie Ille Pu, 1961), a Mary Poppins offshoot ( Maria Poppina ab A-Z, 1968) and the Harry Potter books into Latin, readers will eat the stuff up. Their confidence is surprising, reassuring and touching.

Consider 1988's The Latin Riddle Book, by Louis Phillips and Stan Shechter, which claimed to be "ideal for those whose Latin may be a little rusty, for teachers who want to bring life to the classroom, or for scholars who want to brush up their Latin language skills." Question: " Cur gallina per viam transire maluit?" Answer: " Ut in altera parte viae ambularet." (Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.) The 1951 book Liberated Latin yoked real Latin phrases to farcical translations, such that "vice versa" became "bawdy jingles." One of them surfaced last week in The Globe's letters column. " Sic transit gloria mundi [So passes away the glory of the world] Gloria always gets carsick the first of the week."

Henry Beard, co-founder of the now-defunct magazine National Lampoon, appealed to the knowledgeable and the curious with his 1990 book Latin for All Occasions. "The next time you feel like using the immortal language of Caesar, Cicero, Virgil and Horace to turn an ordinary remark into a timeless utterance," he wrote, "don't let feles, felis, feli, felem, fele (the cat) get your tongue."

His tongue was firmly in his cheek, as evidenced by the sentences he placed directly at the start, perfect for a pretentious aside at a party. " Denuone Latine loquebar?" ("Was I speaking Latin again?") " Me ineptum. Interdum mode elabitur." ("Silly me. Sometimes it just sort of slips out.") He translated such clichés as "It's not the heat, it's the humidity," and provided helpful lines for parents: " Cur non isti mictum ex occasione?" ("Why didn't you go when you had the chance?")

With Thanksgiving on the way, it may be useful to memorize a line from his 1991 sequel, Latin for Even More Occasions: " Cum velim te iuvare, solum tamen scio aves secare ad augurandum." ("I'd like to help, but I only know how to cut up birds for purposes of augury.") Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is available in Latin as Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis, but even in the English version J.K. Rowling uses a few Latin words. Most of them are accurate, wrote Tore Janson in the 2004 book A Natural History of Latin. The motto " Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus," for instance, means, "A sleeping dragon should never be tickled." The names Albus (Dumbledore), Draco (Malfoy) and Severus (Snape) mean white, dragon and strict, respectively. But sometimes, Janson noted, Rowling cuts corners to ease understanding. Someone cries " Reducio!" to shrink a spider, a use "obviously connected with the English word 'reduce,' and ultimately with the Latin word reduco; but that means 'I lead back,' which does not fit the sense of the spell."

The swelling Latin library includes Alicia in Terra Mirabilis ( Alice in Wonderland), Tela Charlottae ( Charlotte's Web) and (deep breath) Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit ( How the Grinch Stole Christmas). In Winnie Ille Pu, Piglet is Porcellus and Eeyore is Ior. And if you can locate Michael Musculus et Lapis Sapientiae ( Mickey Mouse and the Stone of Wisdom), a 1984 comic book published by the European Language Institute, you'll find that Goofy is Philippus. Presumably Goofius would have been silly.

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