Ovid In English

Ovid In English

Readers of my Sanskrit sections will know the difficulties with quantitative measures, and now may be the time to see how translators have dealt with a familiar Latin author. I can’t quote much without infringing copyright, but would urge anyone with an interest in Latin verse to consider Christopher Martin’s attractive paperback Ovid in English: 400 pages with 123 excerpts from 77 translators. I’ll be referring to this volume in later posts.

Ovid is an entertaining poet, whose stories were enormously influential in Shakespearean England, and whose style has become relevant to our troubled and irreverent times. We start with one of the more popular translator, Rolfe Humphreys (1894-1969), who used an irregular blank verse. The Rolfe Humphreys piece is taken from Metamorphoses 7, and describes the plague at Aegina. It starts:

A dreadful plague came upon our people. Juno
Hated our land, named for a rival of hers,
But this we did not know; we thought the cause
Was mortal, and we fought with every resource
Of medicine against it, but the evil
Had too much strength for us. In the beginning
Was darkness, and a murk that kept the summer
Shut in the sullen clouds, four months of summer,
Four months of hot, south wind, and deadly airs. {1}

The first thing to notice is the measured tone. Ovid can be very detached, but here he’s describing in serious language a serious calamity, and Humphreys is similarly somber. The measure is broken, with an hiatus after ‘plague’: two beats and then three, the structure being emphasized with alliteration on ‘p’.

A dréadful plágue | cáme upón our péople ||||

That’s a solemn drumbeat, difficult to follow, and Humphreys in fact doesn’t attempt to.

Juno hated our land || named for a rival of hers, |||
Though he does pick up an echo in line 3:
but thís we díd not knów |||

and again in:

we thóught the cáuse was mórtal |

and, after a lapse of:

and we fought with every resource
of medicine against it || but the evil |


had tóo much stréngth for ús |||

We should also note the assonance in ‘thought‘, ‘cause‘ and ‘mortal‘, which is echoed, if only faintly, in ‘fought‘ and ‘resource‘. Something similar operates in the lines preceding: ‘plague’ and ‘came, followed by ‘hated’ and ‘named’.
Summarizing, the strategy is to:

1. introduce a rhythm with a strongly structured line, and then echo some aspect of it over the lines that follow.
2. lengthen lines with marked assonance.
That strategy can be more deftly employed, of course, as in the lines that follow, with their play on ‘s’ and ‘m‘:

In the beginning
was darkness and a murk that kept the summer |
shút in the súllen clóuds || four months of summer ||

and a tapering off to just two beats, in:

our mónths of hót, south wínd | and déadly áirs |||

The result is a relaxed blank verse that can accommodate stretches of uninspired rendering (every resource of medicine against it ), and modulate pleasantly between a conversational and formal tone.

So that we have something to compare it with, here is the charming George Sandys (1632) rendering, which is quietly-paced:

By Iuno’s wrath, a dreadfull pestilence
Deuour’d our liues: who tooke vnjust offence,
In that this Ile her Riualls name profest.
While it seem’d humane, and the cause vnguest;
So long we death-repelling Physick try’d:
But those diseases vanquisht art deride.
Heauen first, the earth with thickned vapors shrouds;
And lazie heat inuolues in sullen clouds.
Foure pallid moones their growing hornes vnite,
And had as oft with-drawne their feeble light;
Yet still the death-producing Auster blew. {2}

Also on the Internet is the Garth/Dryden version, more monotonous, though each line is stoutly constructed, and one is indeed excellent:

A dreadful plague from angry Juno came,
To scourge the land, that bore her rival’s name;
Before her fatal anger was reveal’d,
And teeming malice lay as yet conceal’d,
All remedies we try, all med’cines use,
Which Nature cou’d supply, or art produce;
Th’ unconquer’d foe derides the vain design,
And art, and Nature foil’d, declare the cause divine.
At first we only felt th’ oppressive weight
Of gloomy clouds, then teeming with our fate,
And lab’ring to discharge unactive heat:
But ere four moons alternate changes knew,
With deadly blasts the fatal South-wind blew,
Infected all the air, and poison’d as it flew. {3}

That said, the Garth/Dryden’s version is still better than Humprey’s in rendering the gloomy and compact nature of the original Latin:

dira lues ira populis Iunonis iniquae
incidit exosae dictas a paelice terras.
dum visum mortale malum tantaeque latebat
causa nocens cladis, pugnatum est arte medendi:
exitium superabat opem, quae victa iacebat.
principio caelum spissa caligine terras
pressit et ignavos inclusit nubibus aestus;
dumque quater iunctis explevit cornibus orbem
Luna, quater plenum tenuata retexuit orbem,
letiferis calidi spirarunt aestibus austri. {4}

1. Martin, Christopher, (ed.) Ovid in English (Penguin, 1998) 340.
2. Ovid’s Metamorphoses by George Sandys (1632).
3. Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by Sir Samuel Garth and John Dryden.
4. P. Ovidius Naso. Bibliotheca Augustana. 7.523-533
5. P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses (ed. Brookes More) Sometimes slow, but with excellent online help.

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