Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.26

Z. Philip Ambrose, Ovid. The Metamorphoses. Focus Classical Library.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus, 2004.  Pp. xxi, 438.  ISBN 1-58510-103-6.  $14.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Betty Rose Nagle, Indiana University (
Word count: 1906 words

This Focus Classical Library Metamorphoses could not be more different from its Aeneid,1 which is a vigorous, idiomatic, prose version of the Roman national epic. This version of Ovid's masterpiece is, by contrast, a very uneven verse translation; every page is a mix of nicely idiomatic turns and suitably Ovidian touches along with words oddly chosen and awkwardly arranged. Sadly, the nice touches are subtle while the misses are blatant, so Latinless readers will be most struck by the latter, while the former will be most appreciated by those who read it in close conjunction with the original.

Philip Ambrose (hereafter "A.") translates line for line, with lines of variable length conveniently numbered the same as the original. His verses not only correspond to Ovid's own in content, but also adhere as closely as English allows to the original Latin order. The resulting English word order is sometimes unintentionally comical, as when Phoebus, sounding like Yoda, tells Phaethon "But warn against this action I can" (2.53); more often it is so awkward, unnatural, and convoluted that one must read some lines several times or even consult the original to make sense of them. And yet A.'s preface does not even mention this highly unusual feature. This omission is inexplicable, especially since he does signal his retention of Ovid's shifting tenses (i.e., between past and historical present). Without adequate warning, the college students for whom the FCL is specifically intended will quickly find themselves confused and frustrated. Properly prepared readers might benefit from an episode or two translated this way, which would give them a better appreciation of some of the effects available to Ovid (and other Latin poets), such as order dislocated to achieve meaningful juxtaposition, hyperbaton for suspense or surprise, and so on. Because A.'s translation is so difficult to read, however, it creates an overall impression far from the well-known fluency of the original.

Problematic too are several features of A.'s diction. Occasionally he chooses words classified by the OED as poetic, archaic, or obsolete: for example, "raiment"; "the main" (i.e., ocean); "wend unto"; "oft"; "wont"; "anon"; "the wild" (i.e. wild animals); "boon"; "glooming"; "barks" (i.e., ships); "of a sudden". Sometimes such diction even appears in A.'s own prose, e.g., Jason's father is "youthened" (i.e., rejuvenated; xiii); Sinis "tore asunder" (i.e., ripped apart) strangers' bodies (p.160 n.62), and Sciron "cast" (i.e., "threw") travelers over cliffs (p.161 n.65). At the other end of the linguistic register are colloquial expressions such as "sick and tired" (piget, 2.386) and "sly critter" (callida, 7.782). Furthermore, all too often A. translates a Latin word with an English cognate significantly different in connotation or denotation, e.g., "cremate the celestial (i.e., incinerate the gods') homes" (2.136); "its wonted gravity" (i.e., its usual weight, 2.162); "ambiguous wolf" (i.e., werewolf); "involved (i.e., wrapped) in hot smoke (2.232); and "tuba" (i.e., trumpet or bugle, 10.652). Saying that Myrrha's "eyes are suffused with tepid dew" (10.360) sounds silly (and reminiscent of Oliver Wendell Holmes' hilarious poem "Aestivation"2) but the meaning is clear; however, having Myrrha assert that "more power were mine as an alien" (10.340) obscures her paradoxical wish not to be related to Cinyras. Admittedly, Ovid himself uses words in a variety of registers, from the prosaic to the epic, and the effect of his frequent neologisms may have been as striking (even jarring) to his original audience as some of A.'s cognates will be for his readership, e.g., Neptune's "tricuspid spear" (1.330; tricuspis is a hapax), and Venus' chariot drawn by "olorine wings" (10.718; olorinus is rare in Latin). Nevertheless, A. should have explained these lexical oddities in his preface, if in fact his intentions are as I have inferred. And yet, some of his choices simply are deaf to nuance, e.g., saying that Apollo "fondles (fovet) the fallen girl" (2.617) does not convey what Apollo is in fact doing to the fatally wounded Coronis. Similar is the "molesting mouth" (tangentiaque ora, 1.538) of a hound chasing a hare. A reference to "rocky mountains" (lapidosos ... montes, 1.44) can't help but conjure up Colorado; an allusion to the Golden Age earth as "duty free" (immunis1.101) summons a vision of Chivas Regal-toting airline passengers.

Aside from unidiomatic renderings of words and phrases (oscula dat routinely becomes "puts kisses to," e.g., 1.556), there are several categories of unidiomatic syntax. A. retains Latin's precision with tenses in future conditions (e.g., "If fortune will have given me the strength", 10.603). Pronouns are sometimes mishandled, as in this version of a dative of possession "of whom / the (i.e., whose) grandfather is" (illi / est ... avus, 10.605-06), or this literal version of a connecting relative "To which the god replied" (cui deus,1.557). A. retains the Latinate use of an adjective, instead of the genitive case, to express possession "the Augustan doors" (postibus Augustis, 1.562). From time to time A. even misuses English definite articles, e.g., "tracks of the heavy foot" (i.e., "of a heavy foot," or better yet, "of heavy feet" (vestigia duri / ... pedis, 2.852). At times A. retains poetic plurals, as in the "celestial suns" (1.435) which warm up the recently flooded earth, or the "unbelted gowns" (7.182) worn by Medea while gathering ingredients for a magic potion.

Not only does A. reflect Ovid's own word order, he also quite faithfully preserves most of Ovid's intentional repetitions, such as anaphora -- the baby Adonis "is soon a youth, soon a man, soon more handsome than before, / soon pleasing even Venus ..." (10.522-24) -- and verbal echoes -- Ovid ends 7.515 and 522 with forms of the same verb, and A. preserves both the repetition and the position: "there are many I miss, / whom ... ," and "those you have missed, / and what ..." Remarkably, he is even sometimes able to preserve polyptoton, despite the difficulty of this feat in an uninflected language, and so is able to convey an impression of this important element of Ovid's style. Phaethon falls as a star "although not truly fallen (cecidit), might have seemed to fall (cecidisse)" (2.322), and his mother searches for her son's body "after saying (dixit) what there was to say (dicenda)" (2.333). More often, of course, he can only repeat the word, without showing the changed inflection. The significance of these repetitions is not mentioned in the preface, so readers are likely to perceive them as boring or unimaginative, two things which Ovid never is.

A. is often quite good with the sound effects of alliteration and assonance and sometimes closely approximates Ovid's own, as when Lycaon's "finery disappears into fur" (in villos abeunt vestes, 1.236), or when, as a result of Phaethon's disastrous ride, "aboil is Alpheos, the Spercheian banks are ablaze" (aestuat ... ardent, 2.250). Again, when the narrator comments on Daphne's request for permanent virginity, "your beauty denies what you / desire" (1.488-89), the verbal play corresponds to Ovid's juxtaposition of vetat, votoque (489). The antithetical effects of Cupid's two arrows (fugat hoc, facit illud amorem, 1.469) is neatly captured "this one chases off, that one causes love." Despite much attention to sound effects, A.'s ear frequently fails him: Lycaon "plans to destroy me (sc. Jupiter) at night, heavy with sleep, / with sudden death" (1.224-25); Juno "looks about for the whereabouts of" Jupiter (2.605); and the white heifer guides Cadmus "looking back at her companion following at her back" (3.23).

Distorted word order, combined with frequently odd diction and occasionally unidiomatic syntax, make for an unreadable text, so unlike the famously fluent original. This, despite the reader-friendly apparatus of the introduction, footnotes, and index/glossary, makes it unsuitable for college courses in translation. Students reading the poem in Latin, however, might find it useful, and A. may have them in mind when he refers to "those who wish to work with this translation while reading" the work in Latin (vi). Such readers will appreciate his footnotes on the Latin text. His translation is based on "an eclectic mix of modern editions" (vi); when there is a significant discrepancy he usually footnotes his choice, gives the alternative, and offers a translation of that as well.3

Nonetheless, the translation is sometimes problematic. For example, Phoebus tells Phaethon to look, not "within your heart" (2.94), but within his own. Clymene did not hold Phaethon's tombstone "to her naked breast" (2.339), she warmed it with her bared breast (aperto pectore fovit). Cycnus' feathers do not "imitate" his hair (2.373-74), they "disguise" (dissimulant) it. Cerberus is not "Medusa's monstrous child" (10.23), rather he is "Medusan" because he too can petrify with a look. Sometimes A.'s English gets the sense backwards. Saying that Aegeus is "in this deed (sc. receiving Medea) alone to be condemned" (7.402) in English could mean that "this deed" is the single exception, but the Latin actually means it alone was sufficient to condemn him.

A.'s "Introduction" offers a book-by-book summary of the work, its structure, and its principal themes to help readers orient themselves to the complexities of this carmen perpetuum. (Very helpful too is the feature which appears in the Table of Contents and at the beginning of each Book: the principal episodes are listed, with line numbers, and their sections and subsections are indented, especially helpful in keeping track of Ovid's embedded narrators). Included in this summary, however, are a number of idiosyncratic interpretations, such as the bizarre notion that the story of Orpheus' head washing up on Lesbos is "the aetiological myth for ... Greek lyric poetry" (xv). Nor does A. reflect current scholarly opinion in calling the poem a didactic epic whose purpose is to call for the "change of heart" necessary to create a "transfigured world" (viii-ix), and which narrates "all the transformations of the world down to the return of the Golden Age in his own day" (xx). The Ovid I know was surely sceptical about any such return under Augustus. To claim that the relationship between Augustus and Caesar (that is, the former's rise as the latter's heir) "is a repudiation of myth itself and a call for new myths" (ix) is overstatement, at the very least.

To aid the reader A. provides numerous footnotes, the bulk of which gloss proper names, an unnecessary duplication of material in the Index/Glossary. A. does not always have a good feel for the allusions his readers will need explained, e.g., the connection between "Temesean bronze" with lunar eclipses (7.207-08), and the ancient association of Thessaly with witchcraft (7.222-23). As an unexpected bonus, the text is copiously illustrated with woodcuts and engravings from editions of the Metamorphoses in the University of Vermont's rare book collection.4

"Of making many books there is no end." The Preacher's dictum certainly holds for translations of the Metamorphoses; as A. himself remarks, "many excellent ones are available" (v). This century has already seen a version in prose (with an extensive running commentary) by Michael Simpson, as well as Charles Martin's translation into poetry so delightfully true to both spirit and letter, and the new Penguin Classic in highly readable verse by David Raeburn.5 The latter two I recommend without reservations, while the first might be the best choice for students in a classical myth course. I would neither recommend nor assign the FCL edition, although I might use it in a translation workshop, both for its mixture of hits and misses, and to demonstrate how important it is for translators to spell out their principles and methods in a translator's preface.


1.   Richard S. Caldwell, Vergil, The Aeneid. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2004.
2.   Published in Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table (1858). Ostensibly "An Unpublished Poem by my late Latin tutor," it begins "In candent ire the solar splendor flames," and can be found online.
3.   It would have been better to pick a single edition as the default, and then note deviations, but in any case, A. does not consistently note variants, e.g., he tacitly translates frigora (not fulgura) in 1.156, rutilo (not nitido) in 2.112, and cacumina (not papavera) in 2.172.
4.   The images and more information can be found online.
5.   Michael Simpson, The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001; Charles Martin, Ovid, The Metamorphoses. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004; David Raeburn, Metamorphoses. London: Penguin Books, 2004.

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