A Rhyme in Any Other Language
With the holidays approaching, I wanted to catch a few special Carolina Christmas traditions before the end of the semester. Following the suggestion of the Order of the Bell Tower’s “True Blue” Carolina traditions handbook (#41: “Attend an Event at Memorial Hall”), I enjoyed the world premier of the Carolina Ballet’s The Nutcracker, complete with new magic tricks by renowned magician Rick Thomas.
In the Christmas spirit after the show, I looked for other holiday traditions around campus. So, on the last day of classes I built a gingerbread Bell Tower in the Great Hall with the Carolina Union Activities Board. Then, on Tuesday, December 6th I indulged in a children’s Christmas classic with the Bull’s Head Bookshop’s annual bilingual reading of How the Grinch Stole Christmas in both English and Latin.
My love for Dr. Seuss harkens back to countless rainy afternoons spent with my mother when quirky rhymes and even stranger drawings made up our reality. Later, as a third grader, I donned a red- and white-striped hat and hand-drawn whiskers to read The Cat in the Hat to younger elementary school students.
So when I discovered that Dr. Seuss had made his way to my college campus, I jumped at the chance to hear a Christmas favorite not once but twice, not in one language but two. As if “Whoville,” “Cindy Lou Who,” and “Roast beast” aren’t strange enough on their own, try “Laetopolis,” “Laetitia Laetula,” and “carnis assum.” And even if you’re not interested in how a language like Seuss can be translated into any other language (especially a dead one) and still retain meaning, then at least the free cookies and cocoa should send you scrambling to the kids’ section.
I was surprised by the diversity of the audience. I’d expected a lot of kids (Dr. Seuss wrote children’s books, after all). But I’d not expected all the college students (I guess they, like me, remembered the sheer delight of words that rhyme and make sense even when they inhabit no space in the dictionary). Nor had I expected all the middle-aged, childless couples (my only explanation here is that the Latin element turned the reading into a palatably cultural affair). Sitting on one side of me was a little girl, probably no more than four, with angel cheeks and long lashes, slumped in her mother’s lap. On my other side squirmed two little boys with their dad. If they weren’t eating cookies or gulping cocoa, they were begging to go outside. Even when Professor Emeritus, Tom Stumpf boomed the opening lines of the book in English, they could not be convinced that playing on the Quad wasn’t a more worthwhile endeavor.
We ushered in the annual reading with “Deck the Halls” sung in Latin, of which I only understood “Fa la la la la, la la la la!” At this point, the little boy sitting beside me turned to his father and asked loudly, “Is this SPANISH?”
And then came the reading. Bull’s Head flashed the pictures on an overhead as the readers flipped through the pages. Stumpf read a section in English, his sonorous voice adding something to the words even Dr. Seuss couldn’t dictate. I sat riveted in my seat, once again the little girl sitting in my mother’s lap, nose in the book.
Then George Morgan of Student Stores took over in Latin. He savored each delicious word, sucking its very marrow.
“I’m scared,” the little boy wailed.
His father was beside himself with frustration. “Why?”
“I don’t understand.” He sniveled into the cocoa cup his dad practically pushed over his nose to keep him quiet.
A few minutes later, even the refreshments couldn’t keep the little boy’s complaints at bay, and his father admitted defeat and gathered their crumby plates, leading his sons out by the shoulders.
Usually I’m frustrated by disruptions during public readings. But maybe because of the interactive nature of Dr. Seuss or maybe because his rhymes never fail to put me in a good humor, I was almost sorry to see the restless boys go. I no longer had anyone to empathize with my lack of Latin knowledge. The other people in the audience (over the age of, say, five) laughed at all the right places during the translated reading. My laugh came moments later, in a self-conscious, half-hearted way that really asked, “Am I surrounded by classics majors?”
Still, I enjoyed the sound of the words even when I didn’t understand them (and my understanding was limited to a short list of translated key terms handed to me upon my arrival). There’s something about Seussisms that transcend comprehension. His words really do bring a sense of fa la la la la, la la la la. Whatever that means.
Emily Palmer, a sophomore global studies and creative writing student from Durham, is an intern for the Carolina Alumni Review. She is blogging for the Review and wants to hear about your can’t-miss experiences while at Carolina.