BMCR 2000.10.29

Cattus Petasatus (Latin translation of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat)

, , , Cattus petasatus : the cat in the hat in Latin. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci, 2000. 75 pages : color illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0865164711. $22.50.

“Conspicamur nunc intrantem, Limen nostrum nunc calcantem, Cattum quendam Petasatum, Numquam nobis expectatum!, ‘Cur sedetis?’ inquit ille,, ‘Ludos vobis dabo mille!, Cattus, etsi sol non lucet,, Ludos vobis huc adducet!'”

Thus arrives The Cat in the Hat in Jennifer and Terence Tunberg’s new Latin translation of Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s story. Readers of this work will have as much fun as the cat promises, for the Tunbergs have managed to retain the distinctive flavor of Dr. Seuss’s book and render it into Latin which reads smoothly and is generally fairly easy to comprehend.

While faithful to the spirit of the original, this translation is far from literal in its treatment of the words themselves. In English, the cat entered as follows:

“We looked!
Then we saw him step on the mat!
We looked!
And we saw him!
The Cat in the Hat!
And he said to us,
‘Why do you sit there like that?
I know it is wet
And the sun is not sunny.
But we can have
Lots of good fun that is funny!'”

Some Classicists may not recognize the Latin verse form used in the translation, which is based on stress rather than quantity and makes use of rhyme. The translators include a lengthy note (printed in both Latin and English) on this meter, pointing out that it was very popular for medieval Latin poetry on a wide variety of topics. While purists may object to the employment of such a strikingly non-Classical verse form, they will have to concede that it is a much better equivalent of Dr. Seuss’s own verse than any provided by the Classical models; indeed it is largely because of this felicitous choice of meter that the translation retains so much of the feel of the original.

Dr Seuss’s books were written as easy readers for children, using only short, common words. This translation follows the original in avoiding long words (i.e. those of more than four syllables), but not all of the vocabulary will be instantly familiar to Latinists of average background. “Cattus,” for example, is strictly post-Classical and does not appear in the Oxford Latin Dictionary; “sultis” (“please”) and “andron” (“hallway”) do appear in the dictionary but are not exactly entry-level vocabulary. On the whole, however, the Latin is as simple as the subject matter and meter allow: unlike the authors of a number of other Latin translations of children’s books, the Tunbergs never allow a need to display their erudition to assert itself at the expense of fidelity to the original’s simplicity. The meanings of unfamiliar words can usually be deduced from the illustrations, and a comprehensive glossary is also provided, so that any student with a grasp of basic grammar will be able to read this book without a dictionary.

To those familiar with the Tunbergs’ earlier translation of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas ( Quomodo Invidiosus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit), it will seem superfluous to note that the Latin of the translation is error-free, but nevertheless the fact is worthy of note: the only mistake I could find was one missing quotation mark (33). At the same time, some may feel that the use of post-classical vocabulary and meter (I did not find any post-classical grammar or syntax) makes this translation unsuitable for students, and it is also possible to question the legitimacy of using anteclassical forms like “sultis” and postclassical ones like “cattus” together. Most readers, however, will probably find that the richness of the Latin language is enhanced by using the resources of several different periods, and certainly Latin writers from the Classical age onwards have provided precedents for combining the language of different periods in literary works; in Greek, such mixing is at least as old as Homer.

I would therefore have no hesitation about recommending this book to students or giving it as a book prize. The Latin version is useful in the same way as the English original, by being so engaging and enjoyable that readers with limited prior knowledge will find reading it worth the effort. That is more than can be said for the exercises in most Latin textbooks, and the quality of the Latin in this book is higher than that in many textbooks as well.