Ovid’s Metamorphoses: A New Translation by C. Luke Soucy – review

Ovid’s vast mythological anthology is one of the outstanding achievements of literary history. It’s both a perennial inspiration to later artists and a delight to multitudes who only come across a handful of its stories. As Soucy puts it in his introduction, ‘Ovid’s irreverent Roman epic has done more even than the works of Hesiod and Homer to codify what has become known as “Greek” mythology.’ Reworkings of individual tales still keep coming out, showing how deeply they’re embedded in popular culture, how widely they’re known, how immediately they’re recognisable as reference points, both resonant with many-layered associations and shaped around vividly expressive images and situations that new artists can bend to their own purposes. At the same time, I suspect that only dedicated classicists know the Metamorphoses at all well as a whole. Soucy’s translation seems to address itself both to academic specialists – those who do know the Metamorphoses as a whole and can read it in Latin – and to the wider public who don’t and can’t. As well as the translation itself, his book contains a Commentary of about 150 pages offering contextual information, broad interpretative and critical remarks and cross-references from tale to tale; a fifty page Appendix of Text and Translation Notes; and a helpful seventy page index of names and places. The Appendix is essentially for scholars. Not being one myself, I’ll focus on what the Translation and Commentary have to offer the general reader and lover of poetry.

First, the translation. Though I can’t judge its truth to the Latin, I found it highly effective as a medium of poetic narrative in English. There were rough points that jarred in a small and local way, like the use of ‘tumble’ as an adjective in the passage below. Overall, though, I felt that the peculiarities of its idiom and its leanings into a Latinate or Miltonic style worked very well, combining forcefulness with a vivifying strangeness that suited the subject matter. The opening will give a taste of the style at its most ringing and declamatory:

                        [ P R OL O G U E ] †

OF NEW† embodied shapes transformed, my mind
Is moved to speak! O gods (for you have shaped
These matters, too) † inspire what I’ve begun
And draw the first creation of the world
Down to our times † in one unbroken song.†                                   5

[ T H E F I R ST C R E AT ION ] †

BEFORE THERE were seas, lands, and arching skies,
Throughout the whole world nature bore one face,†
Which was called Chaos, an unordered, rough
And tumble mass of lifeless weight, wherein
Lay packed the jangling elemental seeds.                                           10
No Titan then brought sunlight to the earth,
No Phoebe yet wrought full her lunar curve;
Nor hung the Earth self-poised in swaddling air,
As Amphitrite’s waves embraced her banks.†

This translation uses unrhymed iambic pentameter as the closest cultural equivalent to Ovid’s hexameters. Soucy’s approach generally emphasises the vigorous, muscular potential of the form, maximising the contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables and introducing a number of spondaic substitutions (ie replacing iambs with pairs of unstressed syllables). Reinforced by alliteration and assonance, this almost compels reading aloud. Latinate inversions give an air of Miltonic grandeur and solemnity, and by putting the verb before the noun (as in ‘lay packed the jangling elemental seeds’) or before its accompanying adverb (as in ‘wrought full’) they add an explosive force that’s in dynamic tension with the slowing effects of the accumulation of stresses and the extensive use of adjectives. This grandeur is in keeping with the scale of the concepts. At the same time, it teeters on the edge of parody. The reader can have it both ways, standing on the threshold of awe, as it were, while retaining a sense of sophisticated distance from the primordial chaos Ovid describes (we have it both ways in another way too, in lines 11 – 14, where the negatives evoke their opposite, so that in trying to imagine a cosmos without them we feel the godliness of the gift of sunlight to earth, the beauty of the moon’s course, the wonder of Earth’s balance, the protectiveness of the swaddling air and the lovingness with which the sea embraces earth).

I’ll stay with the opening of Book 1 to illustrate the flexibility of Soucy’s style, its ability to adapt to the expression of different moods. These lines from the description of the Golden Age show how him in a caressing, meltingly soft vein:

Spring saw no end. With gentle warming breath,
The Zephyrs brushed through flowers that bloomed unsown,
And soon, the untilled land brought forth its fruit,
While never-fallow fields grew white with grain.                              110
And streams of milk by streams of nectar rolled,
While groves of verdant oaks dripped honeyed gold.

In contrast, amid the violent anarchy of the Iron Age,

At last, with virtue killed, the final god,
The maid Astraea,†fled the blood-soaked earth.                                150

It’s worth contrasting the compact force of that final line with the translations by A. D. Melville for Oxford World’s Classics:

………………………………………………from earth
With slaughter soaked, Justice, virgin divine,
The last of the immortals, fled away

and with that by Allen Mandelbaum in Everyman’s Classics:

……………………………………………Now piety
lies vanquished; and the maid Astraea, last
of the immortals, leaves the blood-soaked earth.

The impression of heightened density and force given by Soucy’s translation doesn’t arise out of the adoption of an archaic and Latinate style in itself, of course. That style seems to be a by-product of something he talks about in the Introduction, his effort to bring his translation as close as possible to Ovid’s wordplay, phonetic patterning and sequencing of ideas. The concern to reproduce the forcefulness of the original also appears in the way he removes the veils of euphemism and indirectness in which Ovid’s presentation of rape is too often swathed by translators.

I’ll finish my comments on the translation by juxtaposing Soucy’s and Mandelbaum’s versions of the death of Orpheus. Soucy has

For you, O Orpheus, sad birds and beasts,
For you the solid stones, for you the woods
Wept tears, while trees who’d thronged to hear your songs
Shed leaves like grief-shorn locks. The rivers, too,
Swelled up with tears, they say, while, robed in black,
The Naiads and the Dryads loosed their hair.

Mandelbaum has

The birds, in mourning, wept,
o Orpheus – the throngs of savage beasts,
and rigid stones, and forests, too – all these
had often followed as you sang; the trees
now shed their leafy crowns – as sign of grief,
their trunks were bare. They say that even streams
were swollen; yes, the rivers, too, shed tears;
Naiads and Dryads fringed their veils with black
and left their hair dishevelled.

Mandelbaum’s expression strikes me as clear but colourless. Soucy’s is more compact and far more dynamic. Deferring the verb in his first sentence, making us wait to hear what first the birds and beasts, then the stones and then the woods do for Orpheus, further delaying the verb by the line break, and then making it start the iambic line with a stressed instead of an unstressed syllable, he makes ‘wept tears’ explode out of the sentence. In Mandelbaum’s version, ‘wept’ barely makes a ripple. Soucy’s ‘thronged’ is far more emphatic than Mandelbaum’s ‘followed’. ‘Thronged to hear’ imbues our picture of these thronging trees with a sense of their eager purpose – an impression of their mental activity accompanying the description of their physical movement. The active ‘Swelled up with tears’ is more forceful than the passive ‘were swollen’ and again brings out the feeling behind the tears. In terms of syntax, ‘The rivers, too, / swelled up with tears, they say’ emphasizes the rivers’ swelling by putting it first and subordinates ‘they say’ as a dry afterthought. ‘They say that even streams / were swollen’ puts the emphasis the other way around. Soucy’s ‘Shed leaves like grief-shorn locks’ vividly conflates the visual image of falling leaves with that of ancient Greek mourners cutting off their hair. Mandelbaum’s ‘As sign of grief’ presents the idea in tamely conceptual terms.

Mandelbaum and Soucy are doing different things, of course. Mandelbaum’s translation incorporates explanation into the text. Soucy doesn’t have to do that because he has his copious notes to make things clear (each of the daggers in my quotations from his text points to a substantial note in the Commentary or the Appendix). One of many benefits of this is the way he’s able to give the reader the full richness of the constantly varying naming of his gods and heroes, often referring to them by their paternity or grandpaternity or, in the case of the gods, by cascades of varying titles referring to different attributes.

I must admit I found it hard work reading this translation straight through. I’ve had the same difficulty with other versions. It’s a difficulty in the substance of the work rather than the style of the translator. Though I admire the craftsmanship and cheeky wit with which Ovid links tales, in the end I find their sheer mass too repetitious and lacking in sustained narrative impetus. The great joy is in dipping. Reading like that, even the shortest tales open on riches – witness the immense afterlife of Midas’ misadventures in many versions, or the haunting power Titian found in the little anecdote of Marsyas’ flaying. Soucy’s Commentary gives lavishly helpful guidance to the piecemeal reader, noticing links and making comparisons between different tales.

For the general reader, in fact, this copious Commentary is a real treasure chest, something that can be enjoyed as a lucky dip box of information about the Greek and Roman worlds, regardless of a particular note’s specific reference to the Metamorphoses. Written in a chattily digressive style, it’s fun to browse through on the hunt for interesting titbits, like the fact that the ancient Greeks kept weasels domestically, as pets and mouse-catchers. However, such things are just amuse-bouches to the main fare. They’re interwoven with extensive examinations of aspects of Greek and Roman culture and attitudes, with reflections on Ovid’s handling of particular themes in different stories, with comments on particular points of narrative technique, and with direct expressions of Soucy’s subjective reaction to characters and events. All these are offered in a clear, engagingly personal style.

In both translation and commentary two major strands are the desire to bring out the subversive, antiheroic nature of the Metamorphoses and to give full weight to their erotic elements, particularly their erotic violence. As Soucy’s website informs us, he himself is gay and biracial. He’s refreshingly sensitive to the way contemporary concerns with sexual and identity politics can feel urgently addressed by the Metamorphoses. Equally refreshing, from the other side, is the fact that as a scholar he feels the value and importance of seeing past attitudes clearly, neither discreetly veiling elements in them that might affront a contemporary sensibility – as many translators have done with divine rapes – nor reading them as if Ovid were our contemporary and saw life as we do. For example, he has an extensive note reflecting on differences between modern and ancient Greek or ancient Roman framings of homosexuality and pederasty.

 

Ovid’s Metamorphoses: A New Translation by Ovid, translated by C. Luke Soucy. £14.99. University of California Press. ISBN: 9780520394858

This review appeared in The High Window and I would like to thank the editor David Cooke for permission to reprint it here.

 

 

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