Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.21

Susanne Gippert, Joseph Addison's Ovid: An Adaptation of the Metamorphoses in the Augustan Age of English Literature. Die Antike und ihr Weiterleben, Band 5.   Remscheid:  Gardez! Verlag, 2003.  Pp. 304.  ISBN 3-89796-120-2.  €33.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Garrett Jacobsen, Denison University (
Word count: 1131 words

With the almost epic flood of scholarship on Ovid in recent years, there is little surprise at the number of new translations of the Metamorphoses (e.g. Martin, Raeburn, Simpson) swimming among the scholarly treatises. Yet this flourishing of Ovidian inspiration is hardly a new phenomenon, and while Ovid's self conscious irony and serious delight in a reality defined by language may make him the poster child of postmodern sensibilities, his poetry has been captivating western culture on and off since at least the Renaissance (see Sarah Annes Brown, The Metamorphosis of Ovid. Duckworth, 2003). Therein lies the rub. For the popularity of Ovid depends on translation, and readers of Ovid in English will be familiar with the translator's apology for choices made and liberties taken. Like Pygmalion, each translator creates an ideal Ovid, shaped by the translator's own literary perspective and contemporary cultural context. Thus, the question vexing translators as far back as Aulus Gellius: to be literal or to be sensible?

Susanne Gippert's book on Joseph Addison's adaptations of stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses provides an instructive and detailed commentary on the specific methodological approach to translation chosen by this early eighteenth century English author, adducing both Addison's own critical analysis of Ovid and the literary sensibilities of the Augustan age in English literature. While focusing on Ovid's reception in the Augustan age, so named for both the political parallelism of Charles II's expansion of imperial power at home and abroad and the literary parallelism of an age of writers self-judged as achieving the status of their Latin forebears if only for their prescriptive classicism, Gippert nevertheless implicitly treats matters of style and interpretation common to any translator's work. The apparent guiding principle of "belle-infidele" (a sixteenth and seventeenth century French emphasis on adaptation over verbal accuracy in translation) in Addison's work illustrates perfectly what may be gained and what may be lost in the translation of an ancient text into 'modern' parlance, and Gippert's perceptive reading of both Addison and Ovid has much of value for both scholar and laity.

Gippert begins her book with a short Introduction (pp. 9-42) in which she succinctly examines the reception of Ovid in the context of the Augustan age in English literature, especially eighteenth century England, elaborating then on Addison's own general precepts of literary criticism, and in particular his studied evaluation of Ovid. Here Gippert sets out the rationale for her Commentary on Addison, the central portion of the book, intending to rehabilitate his reputation as a translator in terms of both the depth of his classical scholarship and the success of his adaptation of Ovid, as well as to elucidate the cultural and literary context of early eighteenth century England. She contrasts the Elizabethan predilection for verbal accuracy (as exemplified in Goldys and Sanding) with the Augustan preference for the French concept of 'belle-infidele', this latter mode enabling Addison to respond to traditional criticisms of Ovidian style and wit, as well as his own concerns about Ovid's "wanton imaginations," by either gloss or omission. In sum, Gippert establishes Addison's literary criticism as the framework for understanding his translation of selected "fables" from the Metamorphoses and as the guiding principle for the Commentary to follow.

The primary substance of the book is Gippert's detailed thematic Commentary (pp. 43-246) on four of Addison's translations from Ovid's Metamorphoses: 'The Story of Phaeton', 'Europa's Rape', 'The Transformation of Echo', and 'The Story of Narcissus'. Chosen for their illustration of fundamental tenets of Addison's literary ideals and criticism, these episodes epitomize perceived elements of Ovidian style: sublimity, antithesis, and wit. Gippert provides an introductory overview to each episode's commentary, indicating the dominant thematic motif within the context of Addison's stated critical interpretation of the particular story. She then analyses Addison's English text in direct comparison with Ovid's Latin text, breaking down a story into sections from two to fifteen lines, averaging about five lines at a time. Her commentary is meticulous. Gippert's points are always grounded in the evidence of close textual analysis of both the Latin and the English, in standard commentaries on Ovid and Addison (as well as Addison's own words on reading Ovid), in ancient and modern criticism, and in comparative readings of classical and English literature. It is not unusual for Gippert to cite the OED, the OLD, comparative texts from Vergil to Dryden, and commentaries on Ovid and Addison, in the analysis of a single section of text. The result is a fascinating exegesis of both Ovid and Addison, instructive both in the general methodology of translation and in the reception of a specific author.

A very brief Conclusion ends the book (pp. 247-252) and offers a helpful summation of Gippert's categorical points on Addison's translations and literary criticism discussed in the Commentary. Here Gippert underscores Addison's literary sensibilities as rooted in Augustan England, including the use of the heroic couplet, ornamental simplicity, personalization, and the suppression of erotic elements, complementing his own individual aspirations for an "Ovid Improv'd." In the final analysis for Gippert, the theoretical and critical underpinnings of Addison's translations elevate him to favorable attention with the far more celebrated Dryden and Pope, and his adaptive manner of translation in the belle-infidele tradition of French literature invites fair comparison to the late twentieth century efforts of Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.

Susanne Gippert has produced a book of great value for readers and scholars of Classical and English literature; however, a thorough knowledge of Latin and a more than passing acquaintance with Ovid's Metamorphoses are necessary conditions for a nuanced understanding of her Commentary. An Appendix of Addison's complete text of the selected translations, each followed by the original texts in Latin, is helpfully included, although one may wish for the English and Latin to be rather on facing pages (as in Loeb editions) for easier comparative analysis in reference to the Commentary. The Bibliography is sound, if a bit dated, on both Ovid and Addison; there is very little reference to secondary literature published less than ten years ago, although her reliance on the commentaries of Bomer and Anderson for reading Ovid cannot be faulted.

This intriguing study of Addison's adaptation of Ovid under the literary and cultural influence of Augustan England deserves a place in the library of any academic institution, if not on the bookshelf of any scholar or would-be translator of Ovid. Such a cogent and detailed examination of this reception of Ovid illuminates not only the particulars of Addison's neo-classical critique of Ovidian wit and style but also the universal relationship between translator and text. Susanne Gippert may not intend to answer the question of how Ovid is best translated, but she makes a valuable contribution to understanding how Ovid undergoes a metamorphosis whenever translator meets text and chooses between sense and sensibility.

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