Review: The Latin Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. and trans. Martin Moynihan

May I tell you a cute story? It’s very cute, and I can’t proceed with this review until I tell you the cute story, so if you are not in the mood for a sweet story, you should depart precipitously. Once upon a time there was an Italian priest called Don Giovanni Calabria who read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and loved it. He wanted to write to C. S. Lewis to express his admiration for the book, but he didn’t speak English, and he suspected (rightly) that C. S. Lewis didn’t speak Italian. Knowing that Lewis was a scholar of the classics and knew Latin, he wrote to him in that language, and they carried on a correspondence! In Latin!

Lewis and Calabria corresponded periodically over the course of seven years, from Calabria’s first letter to Lewis until Calabria’s death in 1954, after which Lewis continued writing now and then to another member of Calabria’s congregation. Their relationship is touching. They always write to ask each other for prayers, and they ask each other for guidance on theological questions. It is sweet.

As sweet as this is, I don’t know that I’d have been interested in these letters if they had just been published in English. Most of the letters are from Lewis to Calabria, rather than the other way around, so you don’t have a good sense of the correspondence as a whole. The letters discuss the wars, schisms in the church, and the moral tone of the present century, but they are short and cannot explore the issues deeply.

However, I read the Latin half of the letters, and that was fun. The editor helpfully put the Latin and English text on facing pages, so when I got confused about syntax or vocabulary, I could refer to the translation to set me straight. I most pleasingly referred to the translation more rarely as I carried on reading, which made me feel great about myself and totally ready to translate Ovid’s Metamorphoses which I am absolutely going to do one of these days because I love Ovid and Fagles didn’t translate him.

  • What a sweet story and what a novel idea! I do wish the correspondence had been more complete, though.

    • Yeah, I was very curious about the priest’s side of things. C.S. Lewis wrote to him to say that he (the priest) was too hasty to list his own sins, and he should be kinder to himself–made me wonder what all the priest was saying about himself.

  • Mumsy

    Dang, girl. Look at you, all with the Latin translating! With First and Third Daughters out of school for the summer, you may have just earned the Smart Daughter Prize. 🙂

    • anna

      But I’m still the normal one!

    • I like it that Anna just concedes the Smart Daughter Prize, although she is doing something much cleverer with her life than me. But she’s definitely not the normal one.

      • Mumsy

        There IS no normal one.

      • anna

        there is so, and it’s ME!

  • I actually just finished The Screwtape Letters, and have to say that I found the book to be brilliant. I am now really interested in reading more both from and about Lewis. He has an incredible mind, and his ability to thing abstractly really impresses me. I am glad you loved this book, and it’s very cool that you read it in Latin!

    • I need to reread The Screwtape Letters. I read it when I was a kid, and I think a lot of it flew over my head. I do like C.S. Lewis a lot, though, particularly in his later years; he can be a very clear and expressive thinker, when he wants to be.

  • trapunto

    That *is* sweet.

    I read a prose translation of the Metamorphoses years ago, lost it in the Great Moldy House deabcle, and have been hankering to read it again for the past couple of years. I finally found an old paperback at a library book sale, got it home, opened it up, and was shocked to find pages full of dense, creaky verse! I knew Ovid was a poet, I knew I had read a *prose* translation, but somehow never plugged that knowledge into my expectations. I had remembered him as sly and fun, with pages filled with words clear to the edges like a novel.

    So. I’m sure there is call for a new translation.

    • I can never decide if I prefer a verse or a prose translation of Ovid. I have the same reaction to Ovid as you, that he’s so clever and sly (sly is a good word!) he should be writing in prose. But most of the poetry translations I’ve seen have been so dry and dull. I am as yet undecided about what I’m going to do about that.

  • Great story! My daughter is starting Latin in the fall and I’ll have to share it with her.

    • Is she? How fun! I hope she likes it–I have probably made it obvious by now that I loved taking Latin. A lot probably depends on the teacher, of course, and my Latin teacher was incredible.

  • That is SO COOL! My face actually lit up with a huge smile when I read this. Want to shout it from the rooftops, though only English (Latin?) — language — nerds like us can truly appreciate it. Somehow I think my IT students would yawn. Goobers!

    I love CS Lewis, and would love to try these. Didn’t even know they existed!

    • I’m glad it made you smile. It pleases me so much because, I guess, I find it moving when people of completely different origins and of different faiths can love and respect each other so much. IN LATIN.

      • Amen to that! I love the coming together of people from different backgrounds. And like you said, IN LATIN!

  • I am jealous that you know latin. I never took it, but can generally figure out the meaning of words and phrases, but could never read a whole letter, let alone a book of them, in Latin!

    • It’s pretty easy to study, honestly. I had a great teacher in high school, but I got along pretty well in middle school too just using the textbooks (I had Latin teachers but they weren’t very good). And it’s wonderfully useful as well as fun.

  • Bea

    I wanted to say something smart in Latin and then realised I don’t remember a single thing of the class I took five years ago (who would have thought that!). Will be in a corner feeling old and rusty, if you don’t mind.

    • I am pretty rusty myself–I wish I’d kept up with it better! I always intend to keep up with Latin, because I truly absolutely love it, and I just never make the time to really do it.

  • How lovely to be able to read the originals of books in Latin. So much is lost in translation of any text. That’s one skill I would be loathe to lose, if I had it. 🙂

    • It is lovely. I wish I were fluent in a language that I could actually, you know, speak to people; but I’ve never ever regretted doing Latin in school.

  • Very cute indeed! Great story.

    • Isn’t it? I love C.S. Lewis!

  • Doctor

    I just read the little 50-some page introduction to Lewis’s Latin letters that Moynihan did in 1987. I’ve had it for a very long time, but it is such a slender and short volume that it got lost between all my other big and massive books. Anyway, it was such a delight to read the bits of Latin in it (all of which Moynihan put in the endnotes) that I thought I would look to see if the complete edition of the letters was ever published. Hence, I came across your nifty story. If you don’t mind, I will share it with my Latin class. Yes, I am one of that breed, and, I hope, one of the incredible ones!

    • I hope your Latin students enjoy it! I miss being a Latin student. *sigh*