Harry Potter in Latin
- December 9, 2001
Veni, Vidi, Voldemort
By MAUREEN DOWD
<A HREF="http://www.nytimes.com/pages/opinion/columns/index.html">Op-Ed Columns Archive</A>
<A HREF="http://forums.nytimes.com/webin/WebX?50@@.f26123a">Join a Moderated Discussion on Maureen Dowd's Columns</A>
ASHINGTON—My most indelible memory from high school is getting a Coke and
peanut-butter cheese crackers from the vending machine at lunchtime and
working on my translation of Julius Caesar's "Commentaries."
It seemed endless, that eight-year battle for the three-part Gaul, especially
when you were fighting it one word at a time.
But the mighty Julius Caesar will meet his match when the mighty Harrius
Potter arrives in schools.
J. K. Rowling will publish her first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone," in Latin and ancient Greek, hoping to inspire children to study those
two languages, just as she inspired millions of kids to read.
Now we'll see how good a wizard Harry really is. Can he flick his wand,
murmur a Latinate spell — "Wingardium Leviosa!" — and raise two languages
from the dead?
The London Daily Telegraph reported that Ms. Rowling's British publisher,
Bloomsbury, has hired Peter Needham, who taught Latin and Greek at Eton for
30 years, to translate the Latin edition.
"For the time being I'm calling Harry `Harrius Potter,' " Mr. Needham told
the Telegraph. "Arrius is a Latin name — there's an Arrius in a Catullus poem
— and it declines perfectly well so that, for example, we have Harrium
Potterum. The literal translation of Potter would be Figulus, but I very much
hope that Potter will survive."
Ms. Rowling, who studied classics at the University of Exeter, chose names
with a Latin ring: Lord Voldemort, Draco and Narcissa Malfoy, Albus
Dumbledore, Nimbus 2000, Sibyll Trelawney. She came up with a Latin motto for
the Hogwarts School: Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus (Never Tickle a
Sleeping Dragon). And she alludes to Cerberus and Orpheus with Fluffy, the
three-headed, music-loving dog that guards the sorcerer's stone, and to
Proteus with her shape-shifting animagus.
Latin and Greek have been getting very fashionable lately.
In America, there's been a dramatic increase in the study of classics in high
schools and a surge at colleges as well, according to Adam Blistein, the
executive director of the American Philological Association.
"Metamorphoses," a play drawn from Ovid's myths, is a hot off-Broadway show
moving to Broadway.
Jane Alison, a writer who studied the classics at Princeton, wrote a
shimmering novel about Ovid called "The Love Artist."
Gwyneth Paltrow has just signed on to produce "The Secret History," Donna
Tartt's best-selling debut novel about snobbish classics majors at a Vermont
college who kill a chicken farmer in a Dionysian rite.
Charles L. Mee's play "Big Love" is a saucy updating of Aeschylus' "The
Suppliant Women," in which 50 sisters engaged to marry their 50 cousins make
a pact to murder their husbands on their wedding night.
Tom Stoppard's "Invention of Love," about A. E. Housman, the poet and
classics professor at Cambridge, was a hit on Broadway last spring and
spurred sales of the Latin love poets Catullus and Ovid.
The play was cerebral, even by Stoppard standards, and contained palavers
like this one:
Pollard: Yes, trochus comes into Ovid, or Horace somewhere, the Satires.
Housman: The Odes. Sorry. Odes Three, 24, "ludere doctior seu Graeco iubeas
trocho" — it's where he's saying everything's gone to the dogs. . . .
Actually, "trochos" is Greek, it's the Greek word for hoop, so when Horace
uses "Graecus trochus" it's rather like saying "French chapeau."
But audiences swarmed, and classicists swooned. "When you get into one of
these plots you are riding in a Cadillac," Dr. Blistein bubbled.
In pop culture, there was the wildly successful and parodied "Gladiator,"
which Dr. Blistein dubbed "a guilty pleasure for classicists."
Latin and Greek reached a nadir in the greedy 80's and 90's, when it seemed
irrelevant for kids who wanted to grow up to be investment bankers and
But Dr. Blistein said that after Sept. 11, the classics resonated anew, with
their illuminations on war, tragedy, death, love, philosophy, empire,
transformation and transfiguration.
"I coach 8-year-old girls in soccer," he said, "and at a game recently a
father came up to me and told me he was rereading Seneca on stoicism. I told
him for me it was Sophocles. When there are big questions and not many
answers, Sophocles seems to be the man."
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]