BMCR 2004.09.46

The Metamorphoses of Ovid

, , The metamorphoses of Ovid. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2001. xi, 497 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 1558493093. $24.95.

Simpson’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses includes a table of contents listing the stories in each book (vii-ix), a brief introduction to Ovid and the poem (1-6), a prose translation (9-272), endnotes in the form of a running commentary (273-469), a bibliography (471-478), and an index of names (479-97). The translation is accurate, concise and readable. Simpson states his aim in the introduction, to make “a prose translation in the rapid and direct American idiom while avoiding colloquialism on the one hand and academic translationese on the other” (6). I think he has succeeded admirably. First time readers, whether undergraduates studying the poem in a class, or general readers with little or no Latin, will get a good sense of Ovid’s poem from the translation. A teacher teaching the poem in English will be able to discuss Ovid from pretty much any angle. (I discovered years ago when using Humphreys that I couldn’t make most of the points I wanted to make about Ovid as a story teller because Humphreys had left out almost everything I wanted to talk about.) Simpson omits nothing, reshapes nothing. And he doesn’t play games with Ovid’s text. There is no Hermes who, surprisingly, abandons the blank verse of his surroundings and addresses Odysseus in elaborately rhymed iambic tetrameter octets, as happens in Robert Fitzgerald’s Odyssey 12. Nor are there any rapping P-Airides (Pierides), who contend in their own inimitable style with the Muses in Book 5 of Charles Martin’s translation of the Metamorphoses. There are no purple patches in Simpson’s text.

The notes are excellent, a tour de force. They aren’t really notes; they are actually a commentary, full of useful information on individual stories and on the poem as a whole. They might be daunting to an undergraduate who is overwhelmed by the complexity of Ovid’s poem and only wants to find out who, say, Hermaphroditus is. Some of the notes are two or more pages long. They do tell you who Hermaphroditus is, but they tell you a whole lot more. They summarize stories, they connect far-flung parts of the poem (very useful to the beginner); they also refer to Greek texts, quote extensively from modern scholarship on Ovid, and provide Simpson’s own angle of perspective on Ovidian narrative. Many of them are really mini-essays, the basis of the monograph that he plans to write. I found them very useful when I was teaching a graduate course on the Metamorphoses last spring. I also recommended them to the graduate students. Reading them is a good way to get into the poem, whether or not one is reading it in English.

I have taught Latin poetry, mostly in Latin, but frequently in translation, throughout my career, and I have never chosen a prose translation for a class. I have had colleagues (notably, my good friend Nan Michels) who refused to teach the Aeneid in anything but a prose translation on the grounds that Vergil is untranslatable, as indeed he is. So is Ovid. But I continued to hope, despite a fair amount of evidence to the contrary, that students would see, if only dimly, that they were reading a poem and not a novel, when we read the Metamorphoses or the Aeneid in English. What would I do now with this edition of the Metamorphoses available to me? One reason I decided to write this review was to immerse myself in a prose translation and decide whether to break the habits of a lifetime. I’m inclined to think I would. I mentioned earlier the problem I had with Humphreys. Just when I was planning a class in which I would show Ovid’s brilliance in having Argus fall asleep listening to Mercury’s story while the narrator carries on in detail telling us what the god was about to say: talia dicturus, I looked down at my text and discovered it wasn’t there. When you read Simpson you find that his translation makes very clear exactly what Ovid is up to with Argus and Mercury, as with every other episode, and that his commentary has some very useful remarks on ways of interpreting a story. Simpson hasn’t gained readability as Humphreys does (and I do think Humphreys is readable) by thinning out the text. It is all there.

Translations of Latin narrative poems tend to be much longer than the originals. (Mandelbaum’s translation of the Metamorphoses is an egregious example of that tendency.) Frequently a translation is so much longer than the original that it is difficult for readers to find their place in the Latin text. I am always annoyed when I am teaching from a translation that does not give the Latin as well as the English line numbers. Simpson has only one set of line numbers, and that is all he needs since his text matches the Latin text. It may not be line for line, but it is pretty close, so you always know where you are in Ovid’s poem.

Simpson does not try to be poetic; he does try to be direct and rapid. Does he succeed in this endeavor? I chose at random two passages to consider from that point of view: the whole of the story of Salmacis in Book 4 and the first segment of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Book 10 (lines 1-85). In both cases I read the selections aloud in Latin and in English to see how readable the English was and how well it moved. I also timed my readings to see whether the translation moved more slowly than the Latin. I was pleased with the results at every point. Simpson’s English is fast moving. In fact, I was surprised to discover that the equivalent passage in his translation took me a couple of minutes less to declaim than did Ovid’s Latin in each case. I did not expect that, in part because prose looks longer than poetry, and, indeed, Simpson often uses more words than Ovid does, but his English moves along at a good clip. Ovid’s hexameters tend to move fluidly and fast and are very easy to read aloud (in contrast to, say, Lucretius’s verses), in part because Ovid uses so many dactyls and easy elision (in contrast to, say, Vergil). Simpson’s English is also easy to read aloud. He uses many long sentences but they are well articulated. Parentheses and dashes keep readers on track when they might otherwise have tripped up. Listen to how the seduction builds as Salmacis tries to win over Hermaphroditus (with Odysseus and Nausicaa in the background) (4.320-8):

… puer o dignissime credi
esse deus, seu tu deus es, potes esse Cupido,
sive es mortalis, qui te genuere, beati
et frater felix et fortunata profecto,
siqua tibi soror est, et quae dedit ubera nutrix;
sed longe cunctis longeque beatior illa,
siqua tibi sponsa est, siquam dignabere taeda.
haec tibi sive aliqua est, mea sit furtiva voluptas;
seu nulla est, ego sim, thalamumque ineamus eundem.

Dear boy — oh, you could so easily be taken for a god! If you are a god, perhaps you’re Cupid; or if you’re mortal, how lucky the parents who gave birth to you, how happy your brother, too, and how truly fortunate your sister is, if you have a sister, and the nurse who gave you her breast! But the happiest of them all by far is the girl engaged to you, if there is one, if you’ve found the right girl to marry. If there really is someone else, then let my pleasure with you be our secret, but if there is no one, let me be yours — and let’s lie down together, right now.

“Right now” brings us down with a thud. It is not actually in the Latin, but it expresses vividly what the whole passage conveys, and the last half verse slams home: Salmacis’ determination to get Hermaphroditus into bed with her immediately, no matter what the terms.

Simpson can be poetic when it suits Ovid’s text. I find his death of Meleager (139) very moving: “The fire, far away, and his pain flared up together, together they died down, together they went out; and his spirit gently entered the soft, still air, as white ash slowly covered the fading ember.” Here is Ovid’s version. “… crescunt ignisque dolorque / languescunt iterum; simul est exstinctus uterque, / inque leves abiit paulatim spiritus auras / paulatim cana prunam velante favilla” (8.522-5). It takes Simpson many more words than it takes Ovid, but I don’t see how English could do it better.

As I have indicated, I think I would use Simpson’s translation in an undergraduate class, but I would wait for the second edition. The first edition is seriously flawed by a very large number of typographical errors. Some are minor: missing commas, commas where semicolons should be, missing quotation marks, stray periods. These are unfortunate and disturbing to those readers who have a good proofreader’s eye, but they don’t detract seriously from the text. Others are more serious, since they can cause momentary confusion: ‘warm’ for ‘warn,’ ‘exalting’ for ‘exulting,’ ‘nothing’ for ‘noting.’ I did not find many inaccuracies in the translation. When I checked the Latin text because of something that struck me as strange in the translation I usually found that Simpson’s version was accurate or at least plausible: sometimes because he was using Miller-Goold rather than Anderson’s Teubner, sometimes because he had interpreted something in a way that I had never thought of. I don’t like reading Latin poetry in translation, but it does have its uses. Every now and then you are forced really to think about a passage you had not noticed particularly. This happened to me when I read that Minerva puts the Hill of Mars on the Acropolis in her tapestry in Book 6. I had read that passage many many times and accepted the commentaries’ explanation that Ovid was confusing the Areopagus with the Acropolis. Only when I read Simpson and looked more closely at the Latin, did I see that Ovid isn’t so much confusing the one hill with the other as setting the one on top of the other.

With luck the revised edition, which is now in the works, will be out during this academic year. If so, next year’s teachers of the Metamorphoses in translation will have a real choice.