If you work in the Office of Latin Letters for the Vatican, you might expect to translate plenty of encyclicals, without ever having to think about the right phrase for “cheese touch” (spoiler alert: it’s “tactus casei”). However, Monsignor Daniel Gallagher has done both, and his Latin translation of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, rendered as Commentarii de Inepto Puero, a title inspired by Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars, comes out from Abrams this month. Gallagher considers Kinney’s illustrated book a classic not just because of its sales figures, but because of its themes. “Greg Heffley is naughty, he doesn’t do the right thing all the time, but he learns from his mistakes. For a tale that’s fairly simple and funny, there’s a lot of depth there, and in the end that’s why I decided to do it. It’s a popular book because of the illustrations and the humor, but in the end we have to believe that the kids are going to read something that connects with their lives, and I’m a true believer that we’re attracted to the things that make us look at ourselves. And all classics do that.”
The project got its start at Il Castoro, a publishing house in Milan. Editor Pico Floridi approached Gallagher’s predecessor in the Office of Latin Letters to translate it, but he was unable to commit to the project, and then the house got in touch with Gallagher. Gallagher told PW he was interested in doing the translation because his “passion is... breaking down the stigma that [Latin] has for being elite, or a skill for only the smart kids. It shouldn’t be that way. Anyone who wants to can acquire and learn the Latin language. By putting in a little effort you have a whole literature that’s open to you, a way of thinking and a discipline of mind that is just so pleasurable.”
Gallagher doesn’t aim to employ a strict rendering of Latin with single definitions for words. He observes in the commentary of the book – back matter available in both English and Latin in Abrams’s edition – that Latin is a living, organic language, and he tries to keep it that way, with some fresh updates in his own translation. In an anecdote he shared, he recently attended a conference for global Latin aficionados, and discovered that Germans used a different Latin translation for Facebook than he did, but both were nonetheless discernable. Eventually, Facebook settled on an official definition itself, no doubt because Mark Zuckerberg himself was almost a Classics major before settling on computer science.
Gallagher explains in detail in his book how he came to translate certain modern concepts, and even create neologisms to make Wimpy Kid work in Latin. One particular challenge he faced, however, is that no translator of any of the 45 languages that the Wimpy Kid books have been released in has been able to change the position of the illustrations, or shape of the speech bubbles within the books. “That took more time than the straight translation,” he said, “modifying it so it would fit the paragraph. Latin is such a concise language that in many cases, if not most, you’re actually trying to expand paragraphs, so it’s not what to cut but what to beef up. In the end, within about four or five characters it had to match up, and the bubbles in the illustrations also had to fit the same way. That was a challenge.
Gallagher’s did the translation on his own time, separate from his work for the Pope’s Office of Latin Letters, but when it was completed, he took the opportunity to share the book with the Pope, during a Wednesday general assembly for the public in St. Peter’s Square. Though he works for the Vatican, Gallagher does not often get to interface directly with the Pope, and called the experience “quite surreal,” but he felt that the Holy Father would appreciate the book. “I just gave him a quick summary, and he got very interested, and I gave him both the Latin version and the Spanish version.” Ironically, however, all works in Latin that the Pope receives are then routed to the Office of Latin Letters for storage, so the book was returned to Gallagher’s office after his presentation. But Gallagher does believe the Pope took the Spanish translation with him on a trip to Latin America.
What’s next for the Monsignor? While he’d be happy for another fun translation project – “I did say that I would be interested in doing any of the sequels, but that depends on the market” – he’s currently wrapping up his doctoral dissertation in philosophy, specifically medieval metaphysics. “Not quite the appeal of this book,” he jokes, but he’s happy to have the time to complete the project, which he’s writing in Latin, now that his Wimpy Kid translation is completed.