BMCR 2023.08.39

Ovid: Metamorphoses

, Ovid: Metamorphoses. New York: Penguin, 2022. Pp. 608. ISBN 9780525505990.



In 2020 Stephanie McCarter published a well-received translation of Horace’s Odes and Epodes.[1] Just two years later she achieved an even more ambitious goal, a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The new volume deserves as warm a welcome as its predecessor.

McCarter’s translation is accompanied by a rich array of secondary material: a substantial Introduction, an admirably specific “Note on the Translation”, “Suggestions for Further Reading”, a “Glossary and Index of Principal Names and Places” and a section of Notes. But the heart of the volume is of course the translation, so I will begin with it.

McCarter defines her aim as “to create a clear, poetic rendering … in a modern idiom accessible to students, general readers, and specialists alike” (p. xxxi), and in this she has fully succeeded. Her chosen medium is a flexible blank verse, and while she has not tried to match the Latin line for line, she has expanded remarkably little: at 12,971 lines her translation averages roughly 13.5 lines for every 12.5 of Ovid’s Latin (p. xxxii). She compares the more diffuse translations of Charles Martin (16,539 lines) and Allen Mandelbaum (17,928), but even the translation of Stanley Lombardo, which does not to me feel padded, comes in at just under 13,650 lines.

McCarter’s strong sense of rhythm produces numerous renderings notable for their vigor. (All line numbers refer to the translation.) Some examples: “and trust took flight, replaced by fraud and tricks / and schemes and force and wicked love of gain” (1.135–6), “she pours out orders, promises and prayers” (4.513), “I see and praise what’s right, yet want what’s wrong” (7.23), “and hostile customs ban what nature grants” (10.359), “a wolf with jaws that flash with flecks of drool / and clotted blood” (11.396–7), “the stone that long had lived / in her hard heart now slowly seized her limbs” (14.812–13). Her concision lends a pleasing snap to phrases such as “you’d know they came from blood” (1.170), “take my advice and not my chariot” (2.155), “she can’t unwish, he can’t unswear” (3.317), “she marks, erases, edits, faults, approves” (9.567), “what was is gone. What is, is not what was” (15.198). She displays ingenuity in devising renderings that reflect Ovidian word play, e.g. “I would draw in nets that drew in fish” (13.994) for ducebam ducentia retia pisces, “whose looks aped humans yet did not ape humans” (14.100, for dissimiles homini possent similesque uideri, punning on the word for “ape,” simia), “fire will / desert that desert” (15.375–6 desertaque deseret ignis).

Another priority for McCarter was “to clearly and responsibly translate Ovid’s scenes of sexual violence and rape” (p. xxxiv), and here too she has been largely successful, avoiding euphemism and refraining from sexualized or aesthetically loaded descriptions of female bodies when they are not in the Latin (p. xxxv cites telling examples from other translations). Her description of the role of such stories is among the best I have seen: “the inclusion of so many stories of rape in the epic suggests, in fact, that Ovid felt such violence was worthy of critical interrogation, just as he shines a light on the negative repercussions of masculine heroics or divine power precisely in order to question, not celebrate them” (p. xxix). On one point I would differ from McCarter’s approach. Although well aware that rapere and raptor can refer either to abduction or to rape, in practice McCarter renders rapere as “rape” even in places where “snatch” is arguably more accurate. For example, it seems unchivalrous of Cephalus to describe his late wife as “worthier of rape” than her sister (7.743), and to describe Paris as Helen’s “rapist” (12.662) is at best tendentious. (At 15.250 McCarter renders rapta (of Helen) as “snatched” but insinuates rape in the accompanying note.) Similarly, at 5.429 Pluto is described as Proserpina’s “rapist” while he is still in the process of carrying her off.

One significant aspect of McCarter’s presentation strikes me as unfortunate. She has broken the text up into discrete episodes that are strongly marked: the opening of each new episode appears on a fresh recto or verso, preceded by a title in an almost alarmingly large type size. In many cases what are single episodes appear as several, as for example the story of Ceyx and Alcyone, divided into three separate units (“Ceyx and Alcyone,” “The Storm at Sea,” and “The House of Sleep”). This layout also obscures the cases in which a story is told by an internal narrator, such as the story of Lycaon, told by Jupiter as part of the Council of the Gods but here presented as a separate episode. At the broadest level, McCarter’s layout could encourage the reading of the Metamorphoses as an anthology of myths rather than as a unified epic. A few of the interpolated titles could also be criticized for imposing a particular reading of an episode, perhaps most conspicuously “Apollo Attempts to Rape Daphne.” An alert reader will be able to discern the structures and connections that unify the poem, but will need to work against McCarter’s presentation to do so.

McCarter maintains a high level of accuracy, but in a work as vast as the Metamorphoses, it is inevitable that some renderings don’t quite hit their mark. A few examples:

“men threaten wives with death” (1.153) seems too overt; imminet exitio suggests something more underhanded (“husbands / can’t wait for their wives to die” Lombardo);

“and with your marriage bed / you’ll make your husband happy” (1.635–6) misses the scorn in nescioquem;

“’Don’t fear,’” he said, ‘that this girl in the future / will cause you further grief’” (1.795–6) loses the studied ambiguity of haec;

“How am I mightier than Jove?” (2.65) seems to miss the point of et quid Ioue maius habemus?

“Each claim was valid” (3.270) is more categorical than pars inuenit utraque causas (“each side found arguments to support its view”);

The exchange between Narcissus and Echo is a challenge for any translator. McCarter comes out of it well (“you can possess my body” (3.420) is brilliant for sit tibi copia nostri), but “come be with me” (3.414) is strained as Narcissus’ meaning for huc coeamus;

“gender-fluid” (4.301) is perhaps too redolent of contemporary jargon for ambiguus;

“Her countenance, which even Dis / could see was anguished” (5.608–9) rather “her countenance, which could have seemed gloomy even to Dis”;

“I have no reason / to lose by backing down!” (6.25–6) rather “there is nothing I would refuse [to suffer] if defeated”;

“it is a crime to be devoted / to Tereus” (6.675≠6) rather “devotion is a crime in the wife of Tereus”;

It is hard to think of an English rendering for aura that would be plausible as a woman’s name, but choosing “breeze” produces a moment of unintended humor when the dying Procris implores Cephalus “Don’t marry Breeze” (7.916);

“final prayers / have their own divinities” (10.534–5) introduces a false generalization (“her last words certainly found favorable gods”);

“mindset” (11.309) is another instance of jarringly contemporary diction;

“Venus … tried to hide / Aeneas’ descendant in a mist, / as she’d saved Paris once” (15.855–7) omits the deflating detail that the mist or cloud (nubes) is the same one with which Venus had saved Paris and Aeneas.

In some cases McCarter’s striving for brevity (or for translations meant to reflect some verbal effect of the Latin) produces results that don’t sound idiomatic in English: “Maenalus’ beastly lairs” (1.230), “they hurl / the ordered rocks” (1.430–1), “each young man who won with hands or feet or wheels” (1.483–4), “he’d rather see, not feel, his dogs’ fierce feats” (3.263, to render fera facta), “their minds feel dreadful strikes” (4.540 ictus), “gripped by a grappling eagle” (6.114), “the youthful sport / of oily wrestling” (6.258–9), “the satyr whom Latona’s son / defeated on Minerva’s flute” (6.406–7), “Cycnus … a sudden swan” (7.395), “trouble / seeks out the glad” (7.482–3), “awed by their sum” [i.e., their number] (7.670), “your win is bad—yet, brothers, win” (8.549), “eat up my carnage, Juno!” (9.191), “the moo-filled swamp” (11.404), “his bilimbed brothers” (12.261), “Demoleon can no longer bear the wins / of Theseus” (12.384–5), “his eyes and mind both trailed it” (12.574), “now you’re the worst lot of the spoils” (13.525), “Venus’ hero son bears holy cargo” (13.679), the use of “hush” instead of “fall silent” (13.967 and elsewhere), “anxious weapons seek a hard-won win” (14.483), “then Nature laid artistic hands on us” (15.234), “let brimming goats be milked by squeezing hands” (15.500), “the lobes lobbed off among the entrails” (15.847, rendering caesum caput).

McCarter describes her translation as “based with rare exceptions” (p. xxxi) on my OCT text, but she departs from that text in one significant respect, namely, her reluctance to bracket lines I had marked as interpolations. She brackets lines that have questionable manuscript support, such as 8.597 ff. and 603 ff. (= 648–53 and 656–61 in the translation), but the only unanimously transmitted lines that are bracketed are 13.437–40 (deleted by Bentley) and 14.699–700 (deleted not by “some editors,” as stated in the note, but only by me).  The issue will not trouble most readers, although even a moderately attentive one will notice the contradiction in the reasons given for Cephalus’ silence at 7.732–4 and the lame repetition in 14.410–11.

The notes go well beyond explaining allusive references (e.g., Diana named as “the Ortygian goddess”) and include elements of a commentary, such as references to sources and predecessors (e.g., Hesiod, tragedy, Callimachus, Lucretius, and Virgil), recurring themes and significant items of vocabulary (e.g., pietas, uirtus, and uis), and interpretative remarks. A few quibbles: p. 508 illa is a manuscript variant, not just a conjecture; p. 529 the idea that Tereus was able to watch Philomela weaving her tapestry but failed to grasp its meaning seems unlikely; p. 530 Ovid’s account of Medea’s murder of her children is probably a condensation  of his own lost tragedy as much as it is of Euripides’ play; p. 543 infelix almost certainly refers to Orpheus; p. 550 I am not convinced by the suggestion of a sexual pun in Peneiaque arua pererrat (the verb hardly suggests penetration).

The volume has been well produced; there are only a few slips to be noted, all relatively harmless. P. xxiv “Hecuba” should be “Alcmena” (mother of Hercules); p. 359 “Laetreus” should be “Latreus”; p. 510 the Council of the Gods is set in Aeneid Book 10, not 1; p. 527 the rape of Europa is recounted in Book 2, not Book 1; p. 544 Galatea should be Pygmalion (play by G. B. Shaw); p. 556 “Cellaeno” should be “Celaeno.”

Stephanie McCarter’s translation offers an attractive alternative to the finest versions to appear in recent decades, while the abundance of her introductory and explanatory material gives her work a clear advantage over those predecessors. As a vehicle for serious engagement with Ovid’s poem in English, McCarter has no rival.



[1] Reviewed by Jeanne Marie Neumann in Exemplaria Classica 26 (2022) 347–54.