Latin is creeping back into school curricula, and in Italy a Latin book is working its way up the best-seller list. At least that is the opinion of the publisher of ''Donaldus Anas Atque Nox Saraceni,'' which translates as ''Donald Duck and the Night of the Saracens.''
This is the second volume of a series of comic books in Latin to come out of a small publishing house in Recanati, in northeast Italy, run by the Rev. Lamberto Pigini. Fr. Pigini is a classics-loving priest who publishes multilingual comic books as a supplement to the drudgery of struggling with irregular verbs and tiresome grammar constructions in French, German, Spanish, English, and now Latin.
But this is not just a gimmick.
It is the result of two years of studied translations and the promotion of Latin as a living rather than a dead language. Fr. Pigini is convinced that Latin can become once again a common language in Europe, spoken and written in modern form, from the Hebrides to the Aegean.
''It's the only language which would permit European countries to keep their individual national cultures and character while offering a universal common ground for communication,'' he says.
''It couldn't be English - the French would never accept that and Europe would risk becoming even more of an American colony, and Esperanto has never caught on in the last hundred years and never will. It's too contrived and artificial.''
Latin, on the other hand, is a language many Europeans and Americans have studied, and it has more than a passing acquaintance with all European languages.
Turning Walt Disney's characters into Latin was suggested to Fr. Pigini some two years ago at the Frankfurt International Book Fair, where his multilingual comic books were on show.
''Why not in Latin?'' said some German schoolteach-ers on the lookout for a way to reintroduce Latin into their classrooms. The initial result was a series of Latin comics entitled ''Iuvenis'' (Youth) with occasional strips of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck as well as other comic book characters with names like Pomponius and Antonillus.
Then came a hardback edition of Donaldus Anas, now in its second edition, followed by ''Michaelus Musculus et Lapis Sapientiae'' (Mickey Mouse and the Stone of Wisdom).
The exotic adventures of these two Disney characters have posed fearful problems to their translators. Michaelus Musculus's translator, Msgr. Carlo Egger, heads the Vatican's ''Latinitas'' institute and translates papal encyclicals into Latin. The task of turning Mickey Mouse into Latin is almost as difficult with Mickey and Goofy traveling by plane (aeronavis) and car (autocinetum) across the Chinese desert.
Fr. Joseph Mir, who has spent most of his 72 years as a Claretian monk and as a professor in Spanish and Italian universities, was all but stumped when confronted with his first comic-book translation of Donald Duck, whom he had never met before in his unworldly life.
''There was a problem from the start,'' he remembers. ''We had long international discussions on the use of the word 'anas' for duck.'' In Latin this is a feminine noun, but Donald is decidedly masculine. Finally a German priest and fellow Latin scholar discovered ''anas'' used in the masculine in an ancient Roman text, thus legitimizing the use of Donaldus Anas.
Fr. Mir faces an even greater task now in the translation of Snoopy (Insuperabilis Snupius is his Latin title). ''It is extremely difficult because he is philosophical,'' he says. Fr. Mir has trouble transforming into Latin Snoopy's thoughts as the beagle broods vulture-like on top of his doghouse or in his Red Baron pose about to step into his Sopwith Camel. (''Sopwith Camel?'' queries a bemused a Fr. Mir.)
''They have asked me to make the Latin shorter and simpler,'' he bemoans, ''but I can't - Snoopy is not simple.'' And so ''Quare non habeam amicitias in supremis locatas?'' (Why don't I have friends in high places?) yells Snupius after being told by his master, Carolus Niger (Charlie Brown), and friends Linus and Lucy that adveniunt chamulci automatarii (the bulldozers are coming) to push down his house to make way for a new road.
Pigini's team of professors is at work on another modern Latin venture - a new lexicon of some 30,000 words that were probably not in use in the time of Cicero, Virgil, and Horace. Much thought and discussion are going into the compilation of such words as instrumentum computatorium (a computer), machina lavatoria (a washing machine), and balneum pluvion (a bathroom shower).
Next year will also see the first Latin study vacation courses. Two or three Roman palazzi will be taken over by Pigini's European Language Institute, which, apart from publishing comics, also runs a language school in Rome. Week-long seminars will be held totally in Latin. They will include visits to museums, ruins, and art galleries as well as a look at some of the Vatican's medieval Latin archives, on view for the first time, and an all-inclusive price that is yet to be decided but will be within the reach of any discipulus (student).
In the meantime, the Latinized adventures of the characters of Walt Disney and Charles Schulz will be on sale at about $5 a copy throughout Europe. Distribution in the United States is to begin in October, and a few hundred copies of Donald Duck's Saracens adventures have been requested in China.
The 40,000 copies of these already sold in Europe could hardly be better timed. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney's web-footed busybody , to whom Fr. Pigini wishes a happy 50th birthday, or rather ''Feliciter, Donalde Anas, in quinquagesimo aetatis tuae anno.''