BMCR 2012.04.36

Ovid: Times and Reasons. A New Translation of Fasti

, , Ovid: Times and Reasons. A New Translation of Fasti. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xxxvii, 185. ISBN 9780198149743. $99.00.

Twenty-five years ago, G.P. Goold lamented the unmerited neglect of the Fasti in modern Ovidian scholarship.1 Such a statement would scarcely be plausible today. One glance at a bibliography of recent work on the Fasti confirms that this unfinished and occasionally maligned sister of the Metamorphoses has, in the past twenty years or so, come utterly and completely into fashion.2 Translation of the poem into English has naturally flourished apace. Sir James G. Frazer’s Loeb edition of the Fasti (1931) had already been recently supplemented by the poetic efforts of B.R. Nagle (1995) and A.J. Boyle and R.D. Woodard (2000); to these we may now add a new translation of the Fasti into English prose by Anne and Peter Wiseman. It is a thorough and meticulous work, distinguished by accuracy and fidelity to the Latin, and it will surely suit the serious Latinless reader who desires a reliable guide to this challenging and remarkable poem.

The Introduction (the work of T.P. Wiseman alone, as are the notes) opens with a clever exploration of the poet’s intersecting didactic and bardic personae. A subsection on “Subject and metre” follows, which treats Hellenistic models for the Fasti and previous appearances of the didactic mode in Roman elegy; next comes a subsection on “Poetry and history”, which contemplates the poem’s historiographical dimension, then one entitled “Poet and princeps“, on the Fasti as Augustan poetry, and one called “The time of two lives”, which traces points of contact between the parallel biographies of Ovid and Augustus. The introduction concludes with a technical coda of sorts: “Dealing with a new age” examines precisely how “Augustan” Ovid’s calendar is and “Times in order” reorders the poem’s allusions to Roman history according to their historical chronology. The relation of the Fasti to history and the historiographical tradition is especially well discussed, as one would expect from a scholar of T.P. Wiseman’s stature and interests. The stylistic register is learned but not pedantic; there is no reference in the footnotes to the extensive scholarly literature listed in the “Select Bibliography” (xxxiv-xxxvii), but at the same time, Wiseman assumes a basic knowledge of the calendar and religious practices of the Romans (there is no subsection devoted to Roman religion, as in Nagle and Boyle/Woodard, nor any general introduction to the peculiarities of the calendar).

A Note on the Text lays out some philological choices and some key principles of translation. The translators depart seventeen times from the Teubner text of Alton, Wormell and Courney, but when they do, they tend to follow Frazer or Goold’s revision of Frazer, with two exceptions ( dextrae for Tectae at 6.192, Claudius for Plautius at 6.685). Frazer’s discussion of editions and manuscripts of the Fasti – dropped by Goold in his revision of the Loeb – is here replaced by a brief but lively history of English translation of the poem. The authors expressly eschew any attempt to approximate the poetic qualities of Ovid’s verse in English, thus skirting direct competition with the recent poetic translations of Nagle and Boyle/Woodard. They characterize their guiding principle as “faithfulness to Ovid’s language and manner”, a “resigned rigour”, as Borges called it (xxxiii); some readers, however, may think of the “humble fidelity” of Nabokov’s famous English translation of Eugene Onegin.3 Like Nabokov, the Wisemans express a certain humility and abhorrence of ornament in their approach to the Fasti : “a prose translation allows us to focus on what Ovid says and how he says it” (xxxiii). The reader is also here advised that untranslated words and untranslatable puns and allusions will be defined or explained in one of the three appendices, an approach which is diametrically opposed to Nagle’s preference for “internal glosses” in lieu of “cumbersome” footnotes.4

The translation itself is the work of two experienced Latinists and it shows. Fastidious attention to detail is evident throughout, and the reviewer searches in vain for any mistake of substance. Scattered here and there are gems for the sophisticated reader to admire. “In this sector too” (for hac quoque parte at 3.175) gives Mars’ speech an appropriately military flavor, in keeping with the Caesarian parte; “rough it” for durat (3.527) and “quite worked out” for exactum (3.637) nicely match English with Latin idiom. The tone is colloquial – contracted verb forms are frequent – but care is invariably taken to preserve the original tenses of the Latin and to retain the abrupt asyndeton and paratactic style of certain narrative passages. Consider the following couplet from Flora’s speech at 5.201-202 and the Wisemans’ translation: ver erat, errabam; Zephyrus conspexit, abibam;
insequitur, fugio: fortior ille fuit.

It was spring, I was wandering, Zephyrus caught sight of me. I began to leave. He pursues, I flee, he was stronger.

Not only do the translators preserve the historical present of insequitur and fugio and resist conjoining or subordinating any of the verbs, they also capture the inceptive sense of the imperfect abibam. Frazer, conversely, misses this last nuance, adds three conjunctions, and translates the historical presents as past tenses:

‘Twas spring, and I was roaming; Zephyr caught sight of me; I retired; he pursued and I fled; but he was stronger…

Nagle keeps the asyndeton and the inceptive imperfect, but not the historical present; she also glosses the proper name Zephyrus: It was spring, I was strolling; the West Wind saw me, I started to leave,
he followed, I fled; he was stronger

Boyle and Woodard keep the asyndeton and the historical present, but treat the imperfect and perfect tenses as equivalent: It was spring, I wandered; Zephyrus saw me; I left.
He pursues, I run; he was the stronger.

Although the differences are slight, the Wisemans’ version is clearly closest to the Latin, preserving admirably the nuances and abrupt transitions of the original. The reader is rewarded by the translators’ rigor with a better sense of how rough Ovid’s compressed narrative is around the edges, and how packed with temporal variety.5 This is indeed, to borrow Nabokov’s phrase, a salutary jolt of literality. Further and perhaps more daring steps are taken in the direction of fidelity. Ovid’s learned epithets (e.g. Eoan 1.140, Chalybean 4.405), often smoothed over by other translators, are mostly retained unaltered; in addition, some thirty-one Latin words are left untranslated, ranging from the familiar ( forum, princeps) to the technical ( hastati, trabea).

Such a faithful and rigorous approach certainly affords the reader with no access to the Latin a taste of the sophistication of the original poem. It does, however, come at a cost. The reader must have the patience to follow any asterisks to the Explanatory Notes (127-48), pursue any unfamiliar Latin word in the Glossary (149-50) and find any unfamiliar proper name in the Index of names (151-85): the extra information is bought at the price of constant page flipping. The student with some Latin and some background in Roman literature and culture will not, of course, need to refer as frequently to these appendices, but it may be doubted whether an edition without a facing Latin text will really suit this more expert audience. The reader’s patience and concentration will therefore very likely be put to the test. On the other hand, diligent effort is repaid with a wealth of excellent and unfailingly accurate contextual information.

The book is superbly produced and edited. The introduction, translation and notes are blissfully free from outright error, typographical or otherwise. One can of course sometimes quibble about word choice.6 Similarly, there are a few nuances of dialect that may confuse the American reader, and the notes could be supplemented in a few places. 7 Yet I freely admit that such grievances are petty and subjective: they do not markedly diminish the uniformly high quality of the work.

The translators aim expressly to supplant Frazer’s Loeb translation; do they accomplish this goal? Certainly Frazer’s edition – especially his unique Appendix – retains a certain romantic allure, even for those readers with no preexisting interest in, for instance, the kingship of the Jukun people of northern Nigeria (404), or the expulsion of demons in Japan (425). And although Frazer’s translation is rarely literal, it does not follow that it is consistently faulty; indeed, on a few occasions the Wisemans arrive at the same rendering of the Latin as their predecessor.8 Nonetheless, the stiff archaic formality of Frazer’s prose, never a good fit for Ovid’s breezy modernity, has aged badly. What modern undergraduate could read Frazer’s rendering of, for instance, 3.483-84 (“Hast thou dared to trouble our so harmonious loves by bringing a leman before mine eyes?”) and refrain from horror or laughter? In this regard, a new prose translation is a breath of fresh air, and the Wisemans can justly claim to have rendered “what Ovid says” into English more precisely and faithfully than Frazer or any of their recent peers. The reader who prizes such qualities in a translation can scarcely go wrong with this welcome new edition of Ovid’s resurrected masterpiece.


1. Writing in the preface to his revision of Frazer’s Loeb in 1987, ix: “While the works of Ovid (even the poems he composed in exile) have in recent decades evoked a most enthusiastic revival of interest, it is to be regretted that the Fasti, by comparison, have somehow failed to secure their merited share of attention.”

2. The “Select Bibliography” of the work under review (xxxiv-xxxvii) lists six monographs, five commentaries, and two collections of essays published since 1991, not including works on the Ovidian corpus in general.

3. Cf. Nabokov, V. (1990) Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse: Text, 2nd ed., Princeton University Press: Princeton, xiii: “In an era of inept and ignorant imitations, whose piped-in background music has hypnotized innocent readers into fearing literality’s salutary jolts, some reviewers were upset by the humble fidelity of my version…”

4. Although it is similar to Boyle/Woodard; cf. Nagle 1995: 31-35.

5. Retaining the Latin tense is also occasionally misleading, however; monet curvas … puppes / …timuisse at 4.131-32 is rendered “she tells the curved ships … to have feared”, even though Fantham, E. (1998) Ovid: Fasti: Book IV, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 114-15 points out that perfect infinitive here “has no time value and is an extension of the common usage with posse, velle…”

6. E.g. at 2.302 antiquas … opes is translated “resources of ancient times”, but two lines later antiqui … ioci becomes “old-fashioned fun”; invito … pectore at 2.178 is “her breast was unwilling”, but pectore at 2.798 is “her heart”; pectora at 2.803 becomes “her breasts” but sua pectora at 2.831, also referring to Lucretia, is rendered “her breast”.

7.Translations potentially unfamiliar to Americans include nocuit at 1.361 as “did for”, timidus at 5.431 as “nervous of”, volgus ait at 5.490 as “folk say” (as opposed to “folks say”) and tempora … requirebam at 6.221-22 as “I began to look out the times.” A note on Ovid’s derivation of Orion from Greek οὖρον at 5.535, for instance, would have been welcome, as at 6.403 on the story of the Lacus Curtius. Frazer offers notes in both places.

8. E.g. “In the Arician vale ..” (3.263), “her brother was more cruel than any sea” (3.580), “out of her mind” (4.316), “the men of old … the halls of Tiber” (4.329-30), “a snow-white steer” (4.826), “full right of rape” (5.204).