Expansive Poetry & Music Online Review

one by A.D. Melville
Oxford Paperbacks
and the other translated by David R. Slavitt
  Johns Hopkins University Press
review by Arthur Mortensen

Richard Wilbur once said that it wasn't until he started translating Baudelaire that he became a good poet.  This is not surprising.  Translation requires several layers of skill.  For some, as Wilbur, they include the original language, a facility for seeing the connection between idioms of the original and the target languages, and the highly trained ear of a fine poet.  For some, as again Wilbur, the highly trained ear is for both languages.  But it is fair to say that such a combination is rare and rarely necessary.  A good ear for the target language will suffice for translation.  It is also not necessary to have great (or in some cases any) skill in the original so long as one has a good literal.  One cannot help but think, however, that the translator who has a grip on the original will get closer to the difficulties of tone, trope and idiom than one who doesn't.  For a critic looking at translations, to have the original language would be nice, but is not a prerequisite.  The issues for a critic -- is it readable?  Does it come close to the translator's expressed intentions?  Does it read well for a contemporary audience?  Does it appear to be the same work translated by someone else claiming the same source?  Does the translator aim at a contemporary ear or create a faux museum piece?

The latter was a particular problem for Victorian translators, who tended to bowdlerize in going from Greek or Latin to English.  Catullus, who had a gift for lacerating wit, in a range of scatalogical and sexual epithets, must have been hard for a Victorian trying to reach the same audience who held their ears during Mrs. Warren's Profession.  However, the reviewer has seen contemporary translations that go too far in the other direction. the results suggesting poets who had no concerns but for insult and vulgarity.  In such hands, Catullus comes out sounding like a grafitti artist instead of the gifted prosodist he was.

Metamorphoses has a long history in translation in English, going back to Caxton's in 1480.  Arthur Golding's of 1567 was Shakespeare's Ovid unless the playwright's "small Latin" included enough to read the original.  George Sandys in 1626 was another and most likely not a major source for Milton, who was a Latin scholar.  In 1717, a translation assembled from parts done by Dryden, Pope, and Addison and others appeared under the name of Sir Samuel Garth   The Loeb edition of 1916 by Miller was another.  A prose translation by Innes appeared in 1955.  Another, in the same year, came from Watts.  Fragments and derivations, including John Gray's "Cyclop's Song," borrowed by Slavitt, came from many others. There have been several since, including those of Slavitt and Melville.

The list of authors who drew from it is very lengthy, at least into the mid-18th century, and then again in the 20th.  Not a small amount of the current revival of Greek and Roman myth on television series was torn from the pages of Ovid as well.   Both introductions for these two translations aver that Ovid's interpretation of myths, though often widely skewed from Ovid's sources, became the standard way of looking at them, at least until psychologists, particularly C.G. Jung, began to re-examine these stories from the late 19th century on.  It is a rich source.  In almost any play by Shakespeare, not only reference but stories sprang straight out of Ovid.    Kenney's introduction to the Melville version notes that Milton, while dictating Paradise Lost, had his daughter recite the creation section (Book I) so many times that she herself had memorized it.  One thinks she must have read a great deal more of it to him, as there are resonances with Ovid throughout Milton's epic.  And as a sourcebook for Jung or for us, Ovid's revelation of the myths as forms of psychological truth are still worth consideration.

The expressed intentions of the translators under consideration vary a bit.  Slavitt is clearly more concerned with presenting the poem to a contemporary audience and is not embarrassed to acknowledge that he took "considerable liberties" in doing this.   His use of very loose hexameters is no small part of this, as it allows a strong taste of the Latin prosody but is open enough for contemporary phrasing.  His diction is one aware of an audience outside of the university; despite expressed intentions to do the same, Melville's blank verse sounds a lot closer than he would like to the Victorian academics both of them seem to want to escape.  This need not be so.  As Melville himself says in his introduction, "It [blank verse] remains an admirable medium for narrative poetry; its versatility matches the variety of Ovid's verse; and when we recall and savour lines of exquisite beauty, are they not very often lines of blank verse?  What is needed is not some new-fangled system, more or less metrical, turning its back on past achievements that it is frightening to face.  The bolder and better course today is to return to the tried and tested measure of English tradition, and adapt and revive it in a modern mould, with language that speaks directly to a modern reader. to match Ovid's style, the verse must be taut, swift, elegant and sonorous...."  One knows this is more than possible from such as A.E. Robinson, Robert Frost, Maxwell Anderson, David Mason or Richard Moore, all narrative poets of the past century who wrote and are still writing supple, modern verse in the old unrhymed line of iambic pentameter.  But, as might be suggested from the following, the section just after Jupiter's rape of Io in Book I, it is a credo that Melville just misses in his translation:

        from Book I, subtitled Io in the Melville

                    Juno meanwhile observed the land of Argos
                    And wondered that the floating clouds had wrought
                    In the bright day the darkness of the night.
                    There were no river mists!  No clouds like these
                    The humid earth exhaled!  She looked around
                    To find her husband; well she knew his tricks,
                    So often had caught him in his escapades;
                    And searched the sky in vain.  'If I'm not wrong',
                    She thought, 'I'm being wronged'; and gliding down
                    >From heaven's height she lighted on the earth
                    And bade the clouds disperse.  Jove had fore-sensed
                    His spouse's visit and transformed poor Io
                    Into a sleek white heifer (lovely still
                    Although a cow). Juno, against her will,
                    Admired the creature and asked whose she was....

It works pretty well, but the odd inversion here and there  ("no clouds like these//the humid earth exhaled") and the sometimes antique diction seem to betray Melville's expressed intentions and make the poem seem more artifact than contemporary presentation.   Compare this, however, with Slavitt's version:

                    Juno, looking down, noticed those clouds in their sudden
                    agglomeration in an otherwise perfectly clear sky,
                    like a patch of night that has wandered into a bright afternoon.
                    A billow of river mist?  Some swamp's dank exhalation?
                    Most unlikely!  She looked to see where her husband was,
                    for she knew his tricks and had caught him often enough before.
                    Gone!  Nowhere to be seen . "Unless I'm wrong," she said,
                    "I am being wronged."  Forthwith, from the sky's summit she plunged
                    earthward to disperse that improbable lump of cloud.
                    Jupiter, ever-ready, heard her approach and changed
                    Io into a milk-white heifer -- poof! like that.
                    But still lovely. Juno, puzzled, noticed the beast,
                    and could not help but admire.  Still suspicious,
                    She asked what it was....

Melville's Juno seems a little too unprepared, a little too gullible, though of course she does have some idea of what's going on.  Slavitt's Juno seems more like a Roman matron, all too aware of what's going on, but as well too willing to trade her suspicions for the ownership of something new and beautiful.  The narrator's voice in Melville is drawn back, almost objective.  In Slavitt's the narrator is standing beside Juno, and has pretty strong opinions on both her thoughts and on what's going on.  One suspects this is a lot closer to Ovid, whose wry remarks and opinions got him into increasingly serious trouble in his life, concluding with his lifetime exile from Rome.

A very useful variation in Melville is subtitling stories.  There are so many of them in Metamorphoses that "bookmarks" are helpful.   Slavitt breaks the piece into the 15 books division of Ovid but adds no further segmenting to make the poem easier to read.   

Both introductions speak at length about Ovid's sense of comedy, and how it undercut (and not by accident) the outward intents of epic in the poem.   But I rarely hear that in Melville.  Although his blank verse is in some ways more satisfying that Slavitt's effort to recapture the prosody of the original, it is rare that the irony and humor most translators aver for Ovid emerges.  Too often the urge to get the feet to fall "correctly," as opposed to smoothly, yields results that sound antiquarian at best or clumsy at worst.  In Slavitt, though there have been complaints from some quarters that he goes too far, irony and humor emerge unscathed.

In another area, while the introduction to the Melville discusses the perpetual movement of the poem in Latin as being essential to its perception in English, the sense of being a classical "page turner" is more in evidence in Slavitt's sometimes lurching hexameters than it is in Melville's often stiff blank verse.  This is due to more than prosody; Slavitt's stronger expression of Ovid's humor and irony, combined with much more contemporary idiom, carries the reader along with a swift delight that it not available in the Melville.  Given Slavitt's other work, as both a translator and poet, this is not surprising.

Slavitt goes pretty far in trying to convince the reader that this poem is nearly contemporary.  Every now and then the reader will be startled by the appearance of words such as "drugstore." Of course there were no drugstores in old Rome, but there were merchants selling curative lotions and herbs.   And the argument over the presentation of historical artifacts is an old one.  In the theater, one sees it in "modernized" Shakespeare, as Joseph Papp's Two Gentleman of Verona (directed by Gerald Friedman) several decades back, or in various productions by Peter Brooke.  The same producers and directors have often come back with traditional productions, as in Friedman's beautiful Henry IV with Stacy Keach as Falstaff and Sam Waterston as Hal.   Producers  are only successful in either when they manage a paradox, that a "modernized" version is only good if it conveys the original, and a "traditional" version is only good if it conveys a modern sensibility.   In Verona..., Friedman used the guise of modern dress and somewhat modernized diction to bring across the word play and internal game of the original in a way that might have been ignored if the emphasis had been on re-creation of an artifact.  But his Henry IV was done with such an energy, with such vivid characterizations by such as Keach and Waterston, and with such wonderous costume and stage movement, that it seemed to have been just written, though the original text was used without variation.   In a like comparison, I would say Slavitt succeeds in conveying Ovid in modern dress in a way that Melville does not quite bring contemporaneity to an English version of a 2000-year-old poem.

Having said that, both translations are worth having, Melville because he seems to have exercised great care in conveying what of the historical poem can be brought into English, Slavitt because he's made his version so delightful for a modern ear.  Given the wealth of reference and borrowing from this poem that exists throughout English literature, you should get both of them.  They are highly recommended.

                                Arthur Mortensen

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