The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue
Books In Conversation

Stephanie McCarter with Tony Leuzzi

Ovid, translated by Stephanie McCarter
(Penguin, 2022)

Two thousand and fifteen years after its initial publication, Ovid’s Metamorphoses remains as relevant and problematic as ever. While many believe its stories reflect our current age with uncanny accuracy, others challenge the author’s angles of presentation and question various claims for the poem’s universality. Ironically, such interrogations have kept its presence front and center in discussions about teaching classics in undergraduate curriculums. Even following the notorious 2015 uproar at Columbia University, where several students argued that trigger warnings should preface those passages which aestheticize violence, the poem simply refuses to die. Poets, artists, musicians, and filmmakers continue to draw inspiration from its contents. New translations routinely emerge. Readers keep turning the pages…

In a recent New Yorker article called “Should Ovid’s Metamorphoses Have a Trigger Warning?”, author Daniel Mendelsohn correctly observes that Ovid’s renditions of many of the myths stitched in the fabric of the poem are considered canonical. This is due, in large part, to the poet’s nimble, fleet-footed handling of Latin metrics, but also to what Mendelsohn acknowledges as “[Ovid’s] acute insights into human psychology” which have “given these tales a parable-like power.” Even to a casual reader, his capacity for empathy is abundantly clear. It is equally clear that several stories told in Metamorphoses involve troubling acts of violence, primarily by males (divine and mortal alike) upon women. Occasionally, the author appears to revel in details that amplify such scenes, suggesting to some a subversive relish for the sufferings of others.

Ovid’s epic, however, is not a neutral anthology of myths. It is a cohesive poem held together both by its continuous theme of transformation and the author’s unique point of view. As a socially and politically conscious citizen of the Roman Empire, Ovid had clear ideas about various ways in which persons who possess unchecked power can compromise the choices and agency of ordinary citizens. In this sense, Metamorphoses provides astute, sly, and sometimes searing satirical commentary upon Augustus Caesar’s approach to rule. Still, like much great literature, it is not always clear how intent and execution align. Does the poet glorify, condemn, or manage to do both? Can one do both? Indeed, as classics professor and accomplished translator Stephanie McCarter admits, “To read Metamorphoses, is to be confronted at every turn by the marvelous and the unexpected. Part of this marvelousness is that Ovid refuses to validate easy assumptions.”

In our discussion below, McCarter provides numerous insights into Ovid and articulates several key decisions that informed her translation of his poem. “I wanted to prove, mainly to myself, that it was possible to write a poetic translation, an accurate translation, and a feminist translation all in one,” McCarter says. The resultant version, published by Penguin in fall 2022, renders the poet’s inimitable voice in a firm yet supple blank verse that, among other things, restores much of Ovid’s frankness and foregrounds his deeply humane perspective. During our five-day email exchange, I was awed by McCarter’s breadth of knowledge and grateful for her extensive consideration.

Tony Leuzzi (Rail:) Hi, Stephanie. Cheers to your fresh translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Penguin is marketing as “the first female translat[ion] of the epic in more than sixty years.” Beyond that publishing milestone, your translation has much to recommend due to your crystal-clear, accessible style, and deft handling of unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse). Before we discuss those matters, I’d like to know about your initial exposure to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As a professor of classics at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, your introduction to some classical texts may have been in their original Latin. Was your first encounter with Ovid’s epic in its original Latin or through an English translation? Whichever the case, how has that formative exposure influenced your understanding of the poet?

Stephanie McCarter: My first encounter with Ovid’s Metamorphoses was in English translation—Mary Innes’s 1955 prose translation for Penguin Classics, which I picked up in a second-hand bookstore in college. The mid-fifties were an interesting time for Ovidian translation. Innes’s edition came out the same year as Rolfe Humphries’s celebrated version, and around this same time translations by A.E. Watts (1954) and Horace Gregory (1958) were also published. Innes’s translation was in prose, whereas the others were in iambic pentameter. Out of curiosity (and because I think Innes hasn’t received enough credit for her work), I looked back at some reviews, which were quite dismissive of her translation, essentially damning it with faint praise, mostly because it was in prose—which was simply standard during E.V. Rieu’s time at the helm of Penguin Classics. Philip Wheelwright, in a fourteen-page review in The Sewanee Review, devotes page after page to weighing the poetic merits of Watts and Humphries, devoting only about a sentence to assessing Innes: “For those who prefer to read Ovid in prose Miss Innes’ Penguin paper-backed version can be recommended as more idiomatic although less literal than the older prose version of Frank Justus Miller.” David Armstrong in Arion is much harsher, calling her translation a “failure,” “disastrously dull,” and “mere decent prose,” before declaring that he was “unable to finish reading” it.

I suppose that Innes was doomed by having to be compared to celebrated male poets whose goals were totally different from hers. Yet imagine how many readers have encountered Ovid through her translation—I dare say she has greatly influenced how Ovid has been received over the past seven decades. Reading her version gave me a deep appreciation for the sheer scope of the epic, the intricate and at times tenuous connections between the stories, and the speed with which Ovid moves the narrative along. Unlike most poetic versions, including my own, she does not divide the text up into “episodes,” so you get a real sense of the epic’s continuity—what Ovid calls his carmen perpetuum, “continuous song.”

For me, as a future translator of the text, it was fortunate that I first encountered Ovid in Innes’s prose translation. That was the only version I read before diving into Ovid’s Latin as a graduate student, when I studied the text with the wonderful Ovidian scholars K. Sara Myers and John Miller at UVA. Ovid’s Latin gave me my first encounter with the poetry of the Metamorphoses, and there was no English poetic version kicking around in my head to compete with it. I have labored, for years now, to impart Ovid’s style and poetic devices to my students. As I worked on the translation, I constantly asked myself what features of the Latin I would be pointing out to my students, and I tried to build those into my English.

Rail: Innes was my first experience with Ovid, too. The easy availability of those Penguin paperbacks was the reason, though I remember appreciating that the translation was in prose. At that time (my late teens), I had not read much poetry and felt more comfortable approaching something that resembled fiction. Because hers was my first Ovid, I vividly recall some of the emotions I felt while moving through the Daphne-Apollo story, where a combined sadness, horror, and awe made me confront emotions I had not thought literature could activate. When I finally got to Humphries (my second encounter), it was an entirely different experience—and new textures of the text seemed more prominent than others. I guess this leads to my next question: With so many English-language translations of the Metamorphoses available, including some relatively-recent translations, why is it worthwhile, even necessary, to add another? In what ways is it beneficial for those who have already read the epic in another translation to commit to yours?

McCarter: I don’t think we should ever commit ourselves to a translation. In some ways, I expect that many of those reading my version will have some familiarity with previous translations, and will recognize that I am partly responding to them both in my stylistic choices and in the themes I emphasize. For instance, I choose to center the theme of rape and its intersection with power because previous translators have, to my mind, overlooked this. And I opt for plain, unadorned diction because several other translators have let distortions creep in through their use of flowery language—“ravish” for “rape,” “bosom” for “chest,” “tresses” for “hair,” and so on. I use iambic pentameter not only because it is the best vehicle for epic poetry in English but also (if I’m being honest) because no other woman had translated the poem into metrical English verse. I wanted to prove, mainly to myself, that it was possible to write a poetic translation, an accurate translation, and a feminist translation all in one.

It is very tempting to commit ourselves to a translation, but part of the fun of reading Ovid in English is looking at various translations and seeing the metamorphoses that this text (appropriately) has undergone. A two-thousand-year-old text needs constant transformation to keep it in conversation with changing times. Golding’s sixteenth century translation, for instance, must be read within its early modern context. The 1950s translations, likewise, have to be read within the larger discussion of poetics and formalism happening in the midcentury. And my own translation is indebted to feminism in a way I would not expect of Mary Innes’s. Translation gives us two moments in dialogue with each other, and retranslation keeps that dialogue going across time.

I actually find it a shame that newly published works regularly receive only one “official” translation into any given language. I understand why this is, but I would love to see, for instance, how Elena Ferrante’s distinctive style would change in hands other than Ann Goldstein’s. As an academic, I can’t help but compare this to scholarship: we would never expect a single work of scholarship to illuminate all sides of a text, and I don’t think we should expect a translation to do so either.

Rail: Your excellent introduction to Metamorphoses outlines a number of reasons why reading Ovid’s text today is especially relevant not only to readers of classical literature but to those committed to interrogating assumptions about power, gender, sexuality, politics, and art. In a sentence, you say, “[Ovid] gives us stories through which we can better ourselves and our world.” More specifically, “Because Ovid constantly positions himself both inside and outside established literary and social hierarchies, many contemporary thinkers, writers, and artists continue to find the Metamorphoses to be fruitful soil for exploring their own identities.” For those who have not yet had the benefit of reading your introduction, would you be willing to provide a bit of amplification here?

McCarter: To read the Metamorphoses is to be confronted at every turn by the marvelous and the unexpected. Part of this marvelousness is that Ovid refuses to validate easy assumptions. This starts in the poem’s very first lines, where he declares his intention to write of “shapes transformed / into new bodies,” undermining our expectation of “bodies transformed into new shapes.” In Latin, the first (impossible to translate) words are in nova, “into the new,” or even “into strangeness,” sweeping us into a world that is unfamiliar and destabilizing. Entering this world makes it easy to let go of our established notions of what, for instance, a “body” is or of what an epic poem should be. Ovid’s is a world that compels us too to transform.

It is impossible to read the epic without re-thinking our ideas about power, gender, sexuality, the body, and identity. These are questions we have been pondering for millennia and will continue to ponder for millennia, but I cannot think of another work that takes them on quite as poignantly as the Metamorphoses. Part of this is due to Ovid’s own slipperiness as a storyteller. Do his stories demonstrate the might of the powerful, or the defiance of the vulnerable? Are they stories of rape, or resistance? Trauma, or resilience? Silencing, or expression? Ovid’s slipperiness is what makes him so abidingly good to think with. It is easy, as a reader, to enter this text ourselves, to pick up where he leaves off, and to take one side over another. This is why Ovid has fueled more art than any other work apart from the Bible, and why he continues to inspire a plethora of retellings, from novels to films to sculpture.

I love that a novelist like Ali Smith or an artist like Elizabeth Colomba can still wrestle with Ovid—can still transform him, just as he transformed the epic tradition that went before him. How boring would it have been if, in the wake of Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid told us another martial epic about the founding of Rome? For him, it was necessary not only to be part of a tradition but to challenge it and change it. Ovid is both deferential and defiant toward his literary forebears, and he in turn opens up space for artists to be likewise toward him and the tradition he has come to represent. One of my favorite examples of this is Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Pygmalion’s Bride.” Like Ovid, she tells the tale of Pygmalion’s statue. But whereas Ovid makes us see through Pygmalion’s eyes as he gazes at this perfect—and artificial—woman, Duffy takes us into the statue’s head, exploring her thoughts and feelings as the narcissistic artist pokes and prods her. 

This changed focalization is something Ovid himself is a master of as he tells us familiar stories from new perspectives, always leaving the impression that there are other versions left to be told. Each new reading and retelling opens up these versions, keeping the poem dynamic and alive. And as we change, so does the poem. Translation does something similar. We can never read, or translate, the same poem twice. Retelling, rewriting, and retranslating help us articulate who we are now in conversation with the past.

Rail: Earlier, you said: “My own translation is indebted to feminism in a way I would not expect of Mary Innes’.” Could you explain this indebtedness and how it manifests in your translation? Also, is it—as I suspect it is—related to your later admission: “I opt for plain, unadorned diction because several other translators have let distortions creep in through their use of flowery language—“ravish” for “rape,” “bosom” for “chest,” “tresses” for “hair,” and so on”?

McCarter: Indeed, these statements are related! Those particular distortions produce effects I wanted to avoid. First, they euphemize sexual violence. To “ravish” somebody might long ago have meant to “rape” them, but that isn’t how we use that word now. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as to “fill [someone] with ecstasy, intense delight, or sensuous pleasure.” The word “ravish” prettifies the rape, making it seem like a consensual encounter, or at least like something that does ultimately pleases both parties. As a feminist, it was important to me to treat rape as frankly as Ovid himself does. His main word for describing rape is vis, “force,” which was a legal charge for rape in Rome, as are other words he uses, such as stuprum, “sex crime,” and iniuria, “assault.” He also uses the non-legal language of “stealing” or “snatching,” rapere, from which we get the word “rape.” His words are blunt and unambiguous, unlike “ravish.”

Such flowery language distorts the way the body is presented, and this is no small matter in an epic that is largely about the body. Being true to Ovid’s descriptions of bodies, especially gendered bodies, was another of my key feminist goals. I did not want to assume a heterosexual male gaze as a default because Ovid is more complex than that. Why should Callisto have feminizing “loose-flowing tresses” (à la David Raeburn) when Ovid simply gives her “neglecti capilli,” in my rendering “messy hair?” Callisto is pointedly not feminine!

We can see this especially when Apollo’s eyes move over Daphne’s body, breaking her down into an assemblage of parts. My translation reads:

Seeing the loose hair down her neck, he says,
“Suppose that it were styled!” He sees her eyes,
gleaming like stars, her lips—but those it’s not
enough to see. He marvels at her fingers,
her hands, her arms, her shoulders (nearly bare).
The parts he cannot see he thinks are better.

What interests me here is that, even as Daphne’s body is objectified, Ovid is restrained in how he describes it. He doesn’t use a lot of adjectives that would sexualize or feminize her, compelling Apollo to have recourse to his mind’s eye to make a “proper” woman of her — he has to imagine her hair styled, for example (and I cannot help but think of the carefully coiffed women in the imperial family—which is why I didn’t simply say “combed,” as in some English versions).

Translators, however, “correct” Ovid’s restraint, giving Daphne pointedly feminine and sexual attributes. Melville’s narrator gives her not “parts” but “charms” and—unlike Ovid—exclaims, “how exquisite!” In Charles Martin, she has a “darling little mouth” rather than lips. David Raeburn gives her “delicate” fingers, “shapely” arms, and “teasingly tempting” lips. David Slavitt gives her “marvelous” fingers, “tiny and lovable” wrists, and a “ponytail” that “whips the innocent air” and makes Apollo “cry out in pain.” All of this turns the volume up on Daphne’s sexuality, transforming her into a coquette or even worse—it makes her body seem impossible for Apollo to resist.

Another body part I was careful with was pectus, “chest,” a part translators seem determined that women do not have. But in Ovid this is an important seat of emotion and identity—it’s where we feel grief and love and fear and so on. To deny a woman a “chest” is to deny her personhood. Instead, women are given sexualized breasts—objectified parts. The best example of this is in the tale of Pygmalion, where the sculptor brings his statue to life by touching her chest. In my translation: 

He lays her on the bed to give her kisses—
and she seems warm. He kisses her again
and with his hands he also feels her chest.
The ivory grows soft, its hardness gone,
and sinks beneath his fingers’ touch…

Most other translators here have Pygmalion bring the statue to life by massaging her breasts. In Mandelbaum, for instance, Pygmalion “reaches with his hands / to touch her breasts,” after which his “fingers probe.” In David Raeburn, he “started to stroke her breasts,” which then yield “beneath his sensitive fingers.” In Horace Gregory, he “touched her breasts and cupped them in his hands.” And in Charles Martin, he is “exciting her breasts with both hands,” whereupon the ivory becomes “aroused.” I actually find this a highly disturbing scene—can the newborn statue offer consent to him in this moment? I do not believe so, and I did not want to tip the scales too far toward titillation.

I also wanted to avoid understanding characters through the lens of later gendered stereotypes. I tried, for instance, not to understand Juno as a jealous wife. Instead, I tried to bring out how she is motivated by power—which motivates many people regardless of gender. In my version, for instance, she speaks of Callisto only as her “rival” and an “adulteress,” whereas others have her describe Callisto as a “strumpet,” a “home wrecker,” a “whore,” a “hussy,” and a “bitch.” Emily Wilson has written about similar instances in the Odyssey of translators piling on misogynistic language that is simply not there in the original. In both instances, feminist reading strategies produce a more accurate translation.

Rail: I appreciate your comment: “I use iambic pentameter not only because it is the best vehicle for epic poetry in English but also (if I’m being honest) because no other woman had translated the poem into metrical English verse. I wanted to prove, mainly to myself, that it was possible to write a poetic translation, an accurate translation, and a feminist translation all in one.” This opens the door for me to talk to you about your use of blank verse. While several translators have used this form when rendering Ovid in English, I have never encountered a version that employs it with such sustained rigor. So accomplished is your handling of the form that I never forget I am in the world of a poem. It moves with grace but—and this is getting to the crux of my question—because your conception of the line and the shapes of your phrasing are so measured, I often find myself compelled to reverse, to return to the site of what has dazzled me, while never losing the urge to be propelled forward. This is a new experience for me. When reading previous translations, I was swept up in the velocity of the narrative. Here, that velocity persists, though not without a simultaneous tension to slow down and savor the rhythms and jeweled phrasing. This push-pull experience is quite potent, and sometimes it feels overwhelming. I’m assuming this was an intended effect. Since I do not know the original text in Latin, I’m also wondering if such energy is evident in the original.

McCarter: It is so nice for me to hear that you were having this kind of interaction with the meter! I confess that, as a classicist, most of my metrical effects were informed by the sorts of things that Roman poets do. They use meter not just to propel you forward but to slow you down, to get you to really hear and linger over what is being described (and in ancient Rome poetry would have been read aloud). Ovid’s dactylic hexameter uses two kinds of poetic feet: dactyls ( ー ◡ ◡) and spondees (ー ー). Spondees move slowly, dactyls quickly. Ovid uses this to great effect, and I tried to use the variations allowed in iambic pentameter to mimic some of the more interesting features. This is one reason why my meter tends to be quite regular—I want you to notice when it shifts.

Whereas Ovid uses dactyls to speed up, I substitute with trochees (◡ ー) to create choriambs (ー ◡ ◡ー). For instance, in Book 4 Ovid describes how Sisyphus is tortured in the underworld by pushing a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down again. Ovid’s line (aut petis aut urgues rediturum, Sisyphe, saxum) alternates dactyls and spondees throughout, imitating the constant pushing and rolling of the rock. I tried to do something similar:

You, Sisyphus, retrieve or push
the rock doomed to roll backward.

My “doomed to roll backward” has a swift choriamb that comes to an abrupt spondaic stop. A similar effect comes in Book 3 when Bacchus transforms a ship’s crew into dolphins. The ship stops mid-sea:

The ship 
stopped on the sea as if it were dry-docked.
Stunned, they persist, striking the oars, unfurling
the sails, trying to go with twice the effort.

I brought the ship to an abrupt spondaic stop with “dry-docked,” then broke into choriambs (“stunned, they persist,” “striking the oars,” “furling the sails,” “trying to go”) to suggest the crew’s swift and desperate rowing. I really did try to control the speed of the poem a lot in this way, and in this I was definitely using meter like a Roman. After twenty years of teaching this poem in Latin, that’s the only way I know how to use it!

In terms of the “shapes of my phrasing,” I was also very influenced by Ovid himself. One thing Latin does beautifully that is simply impossible in English is pattern nouns and adjectives in a chiastic (ABBA) or interlocking (ABAB) arrangement around a central verb. Dryden liked these patterns so much he termed these “golden lines.” Because I could not achieve this with word order, I tried to mimic it with alliteration. In Book 10, for instance, Ovid has the interlocking line “mollia purpureis frenabas ora capistris,” and I imitate this with “sit on his back and use a scarlet bridle.”

Rather than try to do this with every golden line, I just started peppering these through the translation: “the stars he’d soared to on his whirring wings,” “was last of gods to leave the gore-soaked lands,” “bustle to the sea in sloping banks,” and so on. I confess I was also influenced in this by one of my favorite poems, Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” which uses alliteration similarly: “flashes afresh to hold and horrify”; “death is no different whined at than withstood.”

I tried to mirror chiasm and interlocking word order in other ways too. In the tale of Baucis and Philemon, for instance, Ovid uses chiasm to show the couple’s mutual embrace: “frondere Philemona Baucis,/ Baucida conspexit senior frondere Philemon.” I kept this ABBA arrangement of their names but switched their order: “when Baucis saw leaves sprouting on Philemon. Philemon saw leaves sprout on Baucis too.” In the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone, Ovid similarly uses interlocking word order to suggest their togetherness: ”pariterque feremus, / quicquid erit, pariter super aequora lata feremur.” I translated this chiastically and kept the polyptoton of feremus/feremur: “Together we will bear whatever happens / while borne together through the open sea.

Trying to imitate these aspects of Ovid’s text was one of the chief delights of translating him, and I hope it helps preserve the feel of the epic as poetry. Since I am not a trained poet, I had to steal Ovid’s own tricks!

Rail: I remember Innes and Humphries jamming all the stories from each respective book into one continuous flow, the carmen perpetuum you mentioned above. Several other translators have provided either margin annotations or sub-headings to introduce a new story, however extensive or brief it may be. I was surprised when I saw that each story in your rendering begins on a new page. While this does certainly interrupt the continuous flow, it allows some crucial space for those briefer sections that too easily get forgotten. Yours is the first version where I can remember paying close attention to Pelops mourning Niobe. This little section sits alone on the page the way a contemporary poem would in a collection. Not only was I moved by his mourning, I was compelled by his backstory: he was dismembered by his father, then reconstructed by gods. I began to think about the ways trauma, and particularly familial trauma, dismantles us; and yet, for those fortunate or strong enough, that trauma furnishes the opportunity to be made whole again—or almost whole, and not without the mark or reminder of how once we were undone. Thank you for this! What were your reasons for placing each narrative on its own page instead of creating the “continuous song”? 

McCarter: It’s so wonderful to hear how you reacted to Pelops’s mourning. I agree that it is such a poignant moment that can get easily lost if we speed through the text. Pelops’s compassion for Niobe offers quite a commentary on the utter lack of compassion the gods display toward Niobe and Marsyas in the preceding tales. And it shows how utterly fickle the gods are! Why did they remake Pelops when they allow Niobe’s innocent children to be slaughtered? I really like your observation that the headings make you take notice in a way you might not otherwise have.

Most translators give the tales subheadings, though these usually are not set apart quite as much as mine are. The design decision for this was made not by me but by Penguin, and I suspect it was based on the design of Fagles’s translations, which give each book a similar heading in the same font. It’s important to note that these episode headings aren’t in the Latin text. This is an organizing principle imposed on the poem from without, but I find it’s one that both my students and I desperately need in this disorienting textual maze. Perhaps I am allowed to think of myself as Ariadne helping the reader through the labyrinth?

One way I did want to use the headings was as a challenge to previous translators who almost never use the word “rape” in them. The headings offered me a way to frame the tales around sexual violence, and to make perpetrators and victims clear. I knew some readers would roll their eyes at how many times I use that word: Apollo Attempts to Rape Daphne, Jove Rapes and Transforms Io, Jove Rapes Callisto, Tereus Rapes Philomela. Frankly, I wanted readers to find this jarring. And what is worse—overusing the word or not using it at all?

Rail: Before I ever approached Ovid’s epic, I had read critics and heard professors refer to it as a kind of repository of Greco-Roman myths. The assumption was that one could use it as a reference work, independent of the transformation through-line. Certainly, the work can be read this way; one could dip in, read a story or two, then close the book. But Ovid’s presentations of myth are anything but neutral. He isn’t trying to provide an objective tool of reference. What I notice more and more with each reading is how motivated he seems in his telling. There seems to be as much political allegory as there is satire, neither of which would pretend to objectivity. Furthermore, this sense is cumulative: as one goes through each book his subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) perspectives on power, the Roman Empire, gender relations, and social inequality stacks up. I guess what I’m getting at is the notion of Metamorphoses as an integrated whole with discernable narrative arcs, rather than merely a collection of stories linked solely through the theme of transformation. What, if any, steps did you take to create a linguistic thread through the books that would echo or allude to the epic’s overall unity?

McCarter: I think you are absolutely right that this is no mythological compendium. As a narrator, Ovid (like all narrators) is too biased to offer us anything like that; he’s always picking and choosing and tailoring his tales. He pointedly undermines the idea of an objective version of any story—too many competing versions wrangle to be told, and how they are told is often a poetic and political statement. Ovid and his narrators usually opt for less familiar tales, rejecting more “official” epic versions, versions that are themselves products of narrative bias.

Sometimes Ovid simply recenters a new character, as in the story of Aeneas and the Sibyl, a tale picked up directly from Vergil’s Aeneid. Vergil had focused on the male character and the parade of future Roman men in the Underworld, whereas Ovid pointedly omits this parade and gives the Sibyl the starring role. Ovid also loves to offer substitutes. For instance, his focus on Thebes’s founding in Book 3 operates as a substitute for the founding of Rome, which he largely omits. Even as Ovid’s text reaches the temporal moment for Rome’s foundation, he tells instead a different foundation myth, this time of Croton. These choices decenter Rome, suggesting that, despite Rome’s vast imperial might, those in its sway may yet retain narrative power over it. But, to see such re-centering at work in the epic, you have to read it all—you can’t excerpt.

And, as you say, one of the great delights of reading Ovid is seeing how he constantly builds on what has gone before. Echo and Narcissus, for example, can stand as its own, but it also echoes and reflects what has gone before, and, as in a mirror, what we see is a flipped image. Previously, virgin hunters were girls like Daphne and Callisto, but now we have a virginal boy, Narcissus, and his virginity and rejection of sexual norms puts him in as much danger as that the female hunters had faced. Similarly, Echo reverses the trope of virginal nymphs. Echo does not hunt but desires and stalks the hunter (a bit like Apollo earlier!). Knowing that those earlier tales end in rape invites us to consider how this tale too might end if Echo had more power—probably like that of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus later, in which the nymph actually does rape the virginal boy. But this would all be missing if we did not read these tales in conversation with each other.

In most instances, I didn’t have to take a lot of steps to help produce these narrative threads—Ovid’s repeating themes, images, and motifs do a lot of that work on their own. But there were some keywords I tried to translate consistently to help make these threads clear. For instance, in Book 3, imago is a verbal thread woven through several tales, especially that of Echo and Narcissus, where it poignantly means both “echo” and “reflection.” I used the word “likeness” to try to keep these connections. To return to the word vis, I consistently gave this the idea of “force” in order to connect acts of rape to other kinds of force. So, in Book 1 we see how such “force” is a product of the iron age; in Book 2, Jupiter’s hurling of the thunderbolt against Phaethon becomes an act of “force” against Earth; in Book 4, Salmacis’s emasculating “force” against those who swim in her streams is a direct result of her “force” against Hermaphroditus; again in Book 4, Medea’s petrifying gaze is her “force;” in Book 6 Boreas connects his rape of Orithyia to his other acts of violent “force;” in Book 7 Medea describes love as a strange, new “force” acting upon her; in Book 14 Circe uses the “force” of herbs against Scylla. There are many types of force at work in this epic, and what they all have in common is the power to transform.

I pointedly did not translate some other words consistently, such as pietas. We get the English word “piety” from this, but it also suggests a sense of duty or loyalty towards our family. Vergil’s Aeneas is a famously “pious” hero, and Ovid is keen to explore what such a trait becomes when centered instead on women. For them, “piety” is more about familial devotion and obedience. I translated this word as fit best in each situation since pietas takes on a more fluid definition in the Metamorphoses. But perhaps I was also challenging the centrality of this masculine virtue within Ovid’s often feminine world—should “piety” be so central when the gods themselves are so impious toward us?

I think translators should, like Ovid, recognize their narrative subjectivity. We too make all kinds of choices, but translations are usually praised for “objectivity” and “fidelity,” as if the translator’s job is not to make choices. But translators’ choices are always subjective, the result of their own readings and interpretations—we are not human versions of Google Translate.

Rail: One section I have never easily been able to place within the epic’s sequence of stories is “Pythagoras” from Book 15. Ironically, it is also one of my favorite moments in the entire work. Here, in the presumed voice of the philosopher, Pythagoras’s more salient teachings and beliefs are presented as a monologue. Of this section, you note that “Ovid introduces into his grand mythological poem a historical person.” (While Julius Caesar is deified in the final moments, he is transformed—satirically?, earnestly?—to a mythological plane.) You also note that “[m]uch attention has been paid to how this speech may or may not undercut the poem’s movement from disorder to order.” The philosopher’s “doctrine of flux” may be aligned with the epic’s theme of ongoing transformation, but I still wonder why Ovid decided to include this section in the book. How does it square with the poet's overall design?

McCarter: It is also one of my favorites—and was probably the most fun to translate.

I think it’s the most subversive episode of the whole epic. Pythagoras suggests that states and political powers are also subject to metamorphosis. His speech makes Roman might seem less inevitable, or at least more temporary—it too will wax, transform, and wane. Of course, from the perspective of us now, Pythagoras was correct. Ancient Rome has become a pile of ruins, and its power has passed on to other hands. This long speech also comes at the very moment we expect Rome finally to come into focus. We’ve just had the foundation of Rome by Romulus, and rather than tell of Rome’s history under the Republic (which many later Romans considered the pinnacle of their moral and martial accomplishments) Ovid instead gives us hundreds of lines spoken by a Greek philosopher! He simply refuses to include the celebration of Rome that we expect, and this really cuts into his later praise of Julius Caesar and Augustus. They are put on par with a string of amusing marvels—rivers that can cause or cure drunkenness, mountains formed by the wind, frogs produced from mud, lynx urine changing to stone. It all gets a bit silly.

A lot of readers really like Pythagoras’s championing of vegetarianism, based on his belief in reincarnation—human souls might end up in the body of, say, a cow. But I think that, according to the logic of the poem, this is also a bit silly, particularly since in Ovid’s world you are as much in danger of consuming a human soul if you were to eat a plant as you would be if you ate meat. A lot of epics have similar scenes in which a character speculates on the fate of human souls after death. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus speaks to the ghost of his mother in the Underworld, and she tells him (in Emily Wilson’s translation): “This is the rule / for mortals when we die. Our muscles cease / to hold the flesh and skeleton together; / as soon as life departs from our white bones, the force of blazing fire destroys the corpse. / The spirit flies away and soon is gone, / just like a dream.” Vergil’s Aeneid takes this up when Aeneas himself visits the Underworld and his father espouses to him the doctrine of “metempsychosis,” the transmigration of souls from one body to another—in this case the souls of future great Romans waiting to be born into living bodies. Ovid takes this the other direction by suggesting that a soul is as likely to become a beast of burden as it is to become a great statesman. And it’s also amusing to me that as soon as Numa hears this long diatribe against animal sacrifice, he promptly spreads the practice of sacrifice among the Romans!

Beyond its subversiveness and silliness, Pythagoras’s speech also poignantly universalizes the idea of transformation—and this is why I love it. Metamorphosis is not confined to the past or, as you say, some mythological plane. Transformations happen to all of us who happen to have human bodies, changed as they are by time. Are we the same people after these transformations? Or do our identities change along with our bodies? This weaves us as readers into the epic, and the epic is better for that.

The big question is whether or not Pythagoras speaks for Ovid! This is always really hard to determine with his internal narrators. I think the best answer to this is that Ovid and Pythagoras overlap… but not entirely.

Rail: Now that we have touched on Metamorphoses as a unified work of literature, I’ll ask you to go in the opposite direction! Could you single out a specific story from any of the fifteen books that has a special meaning for you? I feel a particular sympathy for the Arachne-Minerva weaving contest from Book 6. Arachne may be haughty and boastful, but the wisdom and empathy of her tapestry depicting the ruthless trickery and treachery of the gods undermine Minerva’s comparatively shallow, self-serving praise of gods who punish disrespecting humans. And the fact that the nymphs of Pactolus “liked to see not just the finished cloth / but its creation too” makes clear that Arachne’s process is as impressive as her finished work. As a poet and visual artist, this story resonates with me—and Minerva’s punishment of Arachne is especially disturbing. I am wondering how much Ovid saw himself in her. He was a skillful weaver of tales; his subject matter got him into trouble with the powers-that-be. I’m riffing. There is also the evocative and dissonant “Tereus Rapes Philomela” (also from Book 6). The awful, premeditated rape may be the central scene of the story, but Philomela’s creative solution to communicate with her sister Procne through a tapestry blows my mind—that, and Procne’s decision to kill her child to avenge her sister. Intense! I’d pick those two stories. Do you have a favorite one (or two) that resonates a little more than the others?

McCarter: I agree that the stories about art and artists are especially powerful. I might put alongside these the very brief tale of the satyr Marsyas, whom Apollo flays alive after the two compete in a flute contest. No details of the contest are given—do they really need to be after the tale of Arachne? What is so beautiful is that, in spite of Apollo’s brutal strength, everybody still weeps for Marsyas: “The woodland gods were weeping—rustic fauns, / his brother satyrs, his beloved Olympus, / the nymphs—and with them anyone who grazed / their sheep and cattle on those mountainsides.” Apollo’s power only extends so far. It cannot stop feelings or silence expression, no matter how much force it exerts against the body.

In terms of which tale is my favorite, that is rather like choosing a favorite child! I love them all differently—some frustrate me, some anger me, some move me, some make me weep, some make me laugh, some disgust me, some terrify me. Some stir my emotions, some my mind.

But I will choose one that surprised me—and pleasantly so. I just adore the story of Ceyx and Alcyone because it is the loveliest foil to all the wretched tales of rape that precede it. Theirs is not a hierarchical, objectifying, one-sided tale of violent passion but one based on equality, mutuality, and shared desire. Whereas Apollo gazes at Daphne and breaks her down into parts, Ceyx and Alcyone look at each other. The most moving gaze in the whole epic is their shared gaze as Ceyx sails away to his death:

Alcyone lifts up her sobbing eyes
and sees her husband standing on the stern
signaling with a wave. She signals back.
As land recedes and her eye cannot spot
his face, her vision trails his fleeing ship
as long as possible. When this too fades
from view, she gazes at the sails that flutter
atop the mast. When she can’t see the sails,
she goes, uneasy, to their empty room
and falls upon the bed. The room and bed
evoke her missing half and rouse more tears.

No other couple shares such a gaze (apart from Narcissus and his reflection, but I don’t think that counts!). After Ceyx dies, Alcyone again gazes at him as his body washes ashore. They are then both transformed into halcyons, and their marriage continues to this day. Alcyone accomplishes what Orpheus, with his famous one-sided gaze, cannot: she brings her spouse back to life!

In general, I find Ovid an unexpectedly beautiful writer of mutual love, given how many rape stories are in the epic. Other mutual lovers are Pyramus and Thisbe, Baucis and Philemon, Iphis and Ianthe, and more. The tale of Apollo and Daphne is often treated as the first love story of the epic, but in fact this is the tale of Deucalion and Pyrrha, which comes just before. Ovid really does tip the balance toward mutual love and never lets his tales of rape get the upper-hand. Love, like so much in the epic, has two sides, and each throws the other into relief.

Rail: Book 10 begins with the famous story of Orpheus and Eurydice, followed by a sequence of songs sung by Orpheus. As with the Pythagoras section, this sequence requires Ovid to assume the voice of another speaker. What are some ways Ovid ensures his audience will be able to distinguish his narrative voice from that of the bard’s? What steps, if any, did you take to differentiate the presentation style here from elsewhere in the epic?

McCarter: Like Ovid, Orpheus is a poet, so it’s tempting to draw a direct line between them. But there are key thematic differences. His two big themes are “boys loved by the gods” and “girls afflicted / by taboo lust and punished rightfully.” His narrative has a stronger homoerotic element in the tales of Jove and Ganymede as well as Apollo and Hyacinthus. Orpheus is also more misogynistic than the main narrator (and I wonder if this means he blames Eurydice for the fact that he turned around). His most famous story is that of Pygmalion, and it is, to my mind, one of the most misogynistic stories in ancient literature. Its basic premise is that women are inherently faulty, and so Pygmalion can only get a faultless wife by sculpting one. Pygmalion’s ideal woman has been emptied of identity entirely, whereas the main narrator is really interested in women’s inner lives and voices. By bringing his statue to life, Pygmalion pulls off what Orpheus failed to do with Eurydice, but Orpheus himself does not seem very interested in the living woman, since he cuts his tale off at the moment she awakens—we don’t even get to hear her speak! I suspect that Ovid’s Orpheus, like Pygmalion, is a bit of a narcissistic artist. There are some interesting retellings of this myth by modern women where this comes through well—I’m thinking especially of A.E. Stalling’s poem “Eurydice’s Footnote” and Nina MacLaughlin’s retelling in Wake, Siren.

In terms of style, I actually kept it quite consistent because Ovid himself does. There are other translators who do change the style dramatically; Charles Martin, for instance, loosens his five-beat verse significantly with Pythagoras, Orpheus, and the Muses (and translates the Pierides’s song as a rap song!). But there is no major stylistic shift in the Latin, and no major metrical change—Ovid’s meter is in fact the most consistently regular of the major Latin poets.

I would prefer to let the reader decide if we should closely identify Ovid and his internal narrators rather than to create that divide too forcefully myself. And there are so many internal narrators! I felt like if I made that distinction with Orpheus, I’d need to do likewise with the Muses, or Pythagoras, or even the unnamed narrator who tells how Latona turned Lycian rustics into frogs. I’ve never calculated how much of the epic is told by internal narrators, but it is a lot!

Rail: I’d like to wrap up this discussion considering how contemporary audiences regard Ovid’s Metamorphoses, particularly with regards to young persons. As I mentioned earlier, I came to the epic at the age of seventeen. That might seem young to some people but wasn’t in my day. In fact, I distinctly recall feeling almost apologetic to the text by waiting so long: teachers and fellow enthusiasts of mythology encouraged me years earlier to read it. Today, many would consider a thirteen-year-old reading many of the poem’s stories to be inappropriate, even dangerous. Where do you stand on this? And when do you think is an ideal time for young readers to be exposed to the epic?

McCarter: Well, there are stories in the Metamorphoses that are fine for all ages—I cannot imagine anyone finding the story of Midas, for instance, inappropriate for kids. I’ve read quite a few of these to my own children, who are eight and ten. My son especially loves how Deucalion and Pyrrha transform rocks into new humans by throwing them behind their back. As for the violent stories, it depends so much on the individual reader, I suppose. We are ready for difficult reading at different ages. And some may never want to read some of these tales, especially if they have been sexually victimized. That is entirely understandable.

I’m not one to generalize about when young people should or should not read Ovid (though I would definitely not yet expose my own children to his really brutal tales). What matters to me is how parents and teachers and professors are framing the stories for them when they do read them. Are they being frank about the sexual violence? Are they using the myths as an opportunity to discuss agency, objectification, and power? I think the worst impression we could give a young person is that the sexual violence is something we should not discuss, that it is something to keep quiet about, or that these rapes aren’t really rapes by modern definitions and that we cannot judge them by our own standards. I actually think reading and, even more importantly, discussing difficult texts gives young people good practice talking about hard subjects, and it gives them the vocabulary with which to do so. I get very frustrated with teachers and professors who will not read the violent stories because they themselves feel uncomfortable talking about rape. Passing along that discomfort to students is exactly what we should not do.

I think we need to be aware that young people will be encountering these tales with or without reading the Metamorphoses. Ovid is everywhere! My own second grade daughter recently did a unit on Greek mythology in her school, and they read the stories of Arachne and even Proserpina—not Ovid’s versions, but sanitized ones. And you can bet that I spoke with her about the violence of these tales! I did this in a way she could understand while also making it clear that this violence is not okay and was never okay. How many children are reading D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths?! Those sanitized versions have some real problems—Daphne, for instance, doesn’t want to “marry” Apollo because she has “a cold heart,” whereas any other nymph would be “happy to marry” him. Sometimes sanitizing these stories leads us to shift blame, and that is an especially dubious, and probably dangerous, lesson. Young people are going to be interested in mythology, and in Ovidian mythology especially—we need to make sure they are getting the whole story.

Rail: Stephanie, you have been a delight to work with! These past few days I have felt as if I were taking an exciting course with you. I’ve learned so much. As we sign off, I was wondering if you had any parting thoughts about Ovid, his Metamorphoses, or of translation in general that you wanted to share.

McCarter: I have found this really delightful as well! I’m very grateful for the interest in Ovid and the translation.

My parting thought is that Ovid would no doubt be filled with glee that his work continues to be read and discussed and translated. I am certain that he would think of translation as another kind of metamorphosis. He knew that his own Latin would be confined temporally and geographically to Rome itself. As he says in the epilogue, “Where Roman power spreads through conquered lands, / I will be read on people’s lips.” The speech of Pythagoras recognizes that Rome’s power will in all likelihood be temporary. For Ovid to outlive Rome and continue to be read on people’s lips, he simply must be translated for new times and places, and each iteration gives him replenished life. I hope my translation will help Ovid realize the epic’s powerful last word: vivam, “I will live.”


Tony Leuzzi

Tony Leuzzi is an author. His books include the poetry collections Radiant Losses, The Burning Door, and Meditation Archipelago, as well as Passwords Primeval, a collection of his interviews with 20 American poets.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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