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Rex Ipse

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 1995
From The Way We Talk Now

Winnie Ille Pu has to be the most unlikely literary successes of modern times. It was a 1960 version of the Pooh stories translated into Latin by a European Bach scholar living in Brazil, the first foreign-language book ever to hit the New York Times bestseller lists.
The book has always bothered me. Winnie the Pooh is precious enough in English, and translating it into Latin invests that language with entirely the wrong sort of nostalgia. If we're going to have a commercial success in Latin, I'd much prefer that it be something along the lines of the CD I just received in the mail from a Finnish friend. It's the work of a man named Jukka Ammondt, an amateur singer and  professor of literature at the University of Jyvaskala in Finland. As Ammondt tells the story, he was going through a period of intense depression when Elvis Presley came to him in a dream and told him to record his songs in Latin.ammondt (This seems to be a recurring Finnish theme — there's that scene in the Finnish-
American director Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train where the ghost of Elvis makes an appearance to an Italian woman in a Memphis hotel room.) In any event, Ammondt went to a colleague from the classics department and they collaborated on a CD called "The Legend Lives Forever."
Ammondt doesn't to try translate any of Elvis's early rockers, which is probably just as well. I could go to my grave very happily without knowing what "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog" sounds like in Latin. Instead he concentrates on ballads, particularly the Mediterranean sort of material that Elvis started to perform in the 60s, songs like "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You," "Impossible," and "It's Now or Never" — or as it goes in Latin, "Nunc Hic  Aut Numquam."

It's a kind of music that appeals to Finnish sensibilities (bear in mind that Finland is the tango capital of Europe), and actually it may have been the music that Elvis liked best too. When he was growing up, after all, the big vocalists were all those Italian-American singers like Tony Martin, Dean Martin, Jerry Vale, and Julius LaRosa.  Peter Guralnick reports in his recent biography that Elvis had a big collection of Mario Lanza records when he was in his teens. And "It's Now or Never" was just a version of "O Sole Mio" which Tony Martin had had a hit with in 1950 under the title "There's No Tomorrow," and "Surrender" was just an English version of the Italian song "Come Back to Sorrento."  I suppose you could argue that the whole rock 'n' roll interlude of the late 50s was only a digression for Elvis on the way to realizing his true ambition of becoming an Italian lounge singer.

It shouldn't be surprising that material first written in Italian should work fine in Latin, and yet it takes you aback a bit. We don't think of Latin as sounding so… well, so Latin. People always talk about Latin as this enormously logical and dignified language, the language of law and philosophy, the perfect instrument for inculcating mental discipline in generations of schoolboys before we all went soft and permissive. We think of it having lots of genders but no sex. When you look at the rows of Roman busts in the Louvre or the Villa Borghese, it doesn't occur to you that these people even had pelvises.

But of course that's a conception of Latin that has less to do with Catullus than with Brideshead Revisited — all those upper-class Englishmen sloshing around their country houses reciting Latin tags to their teddy bears. That's why Winnie Ille Pu was such a great success, I suppose: it turned Latin into a dialect of Edwardian English. But we should bear in mind that if the Latin poets were alive they'd be much bigger fans of Elvis than of A. A. Milne — and who knows, maybe vice versa as well. It's too bad the CD doesn't include a Latin version of Elvis's great tribute to Virgil, "Aeneid Your Love Tonight."

Copyright © 2008 by Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.