Metamorphoses, by Publius Ovidius Naso, translated by Stephanie McCarter; and Tales from Ovid, translated by Ted Hughes

Content warning: discussion of sexual assault

My normal practice is to give you the second paragraph of the third chapter of the books I read. Here there is a problem because the second paragraph of Liber III of the Metamorphoses is a bit meaningless out of context, and also not translated by Hughes; whereas the second paragraph of the third of Hughes’ extracts from Ovid is an interpolation by him with no original Latin text to compare it to. So instead, here is the third paragraph of Liber I, starting with the original and the McCarter translation, part of the passage on the Creation:

Sic ubi dispositam quisquis fuit ille deorum
congeriem secuit sectamque in membra coegit,
principio terram, ne non aequalis ab omni
parte foret, magni speciem glomeravit in orbis.
tum freta diffundi rapidisque tumescere ventis
iussit et ambitae circumdare litora terrae;
addidit et fontes et stagna inmensa lacusque
fluminaque obliquis cinxit declivia ripis,
quae, diversa locis, partim sorbentur ab ipsa,
in mare perveniunt partim campoque recepta
liberioris aquae pro ripis litora pulsant.
iussit et extendi campos, subsidere valles,
fronde tegi silvas, lapidosos surgere montes,
utque duae dextra caelum totidemque sinistra
parte secant zonae, quinta est ardentior illis,
sic onus inclusum numero distinxit eodem
cura dei, totidemque plagae tellure premuntur.
quarum quae media est, non est habitabilis aestu;
nix tegit alta duas; totidem inter utramque locavit
temperiemque dedit mixta cum frigore flamma.
When he (whichever god it was) had carved
that now neat heap and shaped it into parts,
he next, to make it equal all around,
sculpted the earth till it became a sphere.
He poured out seas, then ordered them to swell
with gales and wrap the shores of circled land.
He added springs, great lakes, and ponds. He shut
the sloping rivers in meandering banks—
some of these are absorbed by earth, while others
flow to the deep and, welcomed in its vast
expanse of water, pound not banks but shores.
He ordered fields to spread, valleys to sink,
leaves to enshroud the woods, and peaks to rise.
And as two zones divide the sky’s right side
and two the left, the middle fifth one warmer,
just so the god partitioned earth within,
imprinting it with tracts of this same number.
The middle zone is far too hot for life,
the outer two too deep with snow. He placed
two more between, a blend of heat and cold.


48 tracts of this same number: The earth

is divided into five zones: the middle
equatorial zone (too hot for life), the two
outer polar zones (too cold for life), and,
between these, the two temperate zones
(conducive to life).

Ted Hughes’ translation of the same passage:

When the ingenious one
Had gained control of the mass
And decided the cosmic divisions
He rolled earth into a ball.
Then he commanded the water to spread out flat,
To lift itself into waves
According to the whim of the wind,
And to hurl itself at the land’s edges.
He conjured springs to rise and be manifest,
Deep and gloomy ponds,
Flashing delicious lakes.
He educated
Headstrong electrifying rivers
To observe their banks – and to pour
Part of their delight into earth’s dark
And to donate the remainder to ocean
Swelling the uproar on shores.
Then he instructed the plains
How to roll sweetly to the horizon.
He directed the valleys
To go deep.
And the mountains to rear up
Humping their backs.
Everywhere he taught
The tree its leaf.
Having made a pattern in heaven –
Two zones to the left, two to the right
And a fifth zone, fierier, between –
So did the Wisdom
Divide the earth’s orb with the same:
A middle zone uninhabitable
Under the fire,
The outermost two zones beneath deep snow,
And between them, two temperate zones
Alternating cold and heat.

Way way back 40 years ago, I studied Latin for what were then called O-levels, and one of the set texts was a Belfast-teenager-friendly translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I loved it. If you don’t know, it’s a narrative poem in fifteen books re-telling classical legends, concentrating in particular on those where there is a change of shape – usually humans turned into animals, vegetables or minerals, though with other variations too. It’s breezy, vivid and sometimes funny, and it’s been a store of easily accessible ancient lore for centuries.

I’d always meant to get back to it properly, and it finally popped up on my list of books that I owned but had not yet blogged here. However, my 40-year-old copy is safely in Northern Ireland, so I acquired both the latest Penguin translation, by Stephanie McCarter, and Ted Hughes’ selection of twenty-four choice chapters, and read them – I took the McCarter translation in sequence, and then jumped across to read the relevant sections if Hughes had translated them, though he put them in a different order.

I do find Ovid fascinating. In some ways he speaks to the present day reader very directly – a lot of the emotions in the Ars Amatoria could be expressed by lovers two thousand years later. But here he’s taking material that was already very well known, the Greek and Roman classical legendarium, and repackaging it for a sophisticated audience in the greatest city in the world. The book ends (McCarter’s translation):

Where Roman power spreads through conquered lands,
I will be read on people’s lips. My fame
will last across the centuries. If poets’
prophecies can hold any truth, I’ll live.

And he did. I have been particularly struck by Ovid’s popularity among the patrons of my favourite 17th-century stuccador, Jan Christiaan Hansche. A number of his most interesting ceilings feature stories from Ovid, some of them well known, some less so. Sixteen centuries after Ovid laid down his pen, his work was still part of the standard canon of literature known to all educated Western Europeans.

So. The two translations are different and serve different purposes. McCarter’s mandate was to translate the whole of the Metamorphoses into iambic pentameter in English. She is necessarily constrained to giving us an interpretation of Ovid’s text, with all of its limitations, and confining her own original thoughts to footnotes and other supporting material.

In a very interesting introduction, she is clear about the many scenes of rape in the story. But she also makes it clear that Ovid has a lot more active female characters than are in his sources, and they get more to do. She gives some telling examples of previous translators projecting later concepts of femininity onto Ovid’s fairly unambiguous original words.

Given the contemporary debate, it’s also interesting that Ovid has several examples of gender fluidity – not really presented as a standard part of everyday life, but nonetheless as a phenomenon that happens. For Ovid, we must simply accept that someone’s current gender may not be the one that they were born with.

Ted Hughes, on the other hand, was translating favourite bits of Ovid because he had reached the stage of his career where he could do what he wanted. He could leave out all the bits he found boring (I haven’t counted, but I think he translates about only 40% of Ovid’s text), and he could add his own flourishes at will. Inevitably this makes for a more satisfactory reading experience, though it is incomplete.

Both translations bring to life Ovid’s vivid imagery, which really throws you into the narrative. For a compare and contrast passage, here is the beginning of their treatment of the story of Phaethon, the son of the Sun who crashed to disaster trying to drive his father’s chariot (a favourite topic for Hansche). I think that the differences speak for themselves:

McCarterHughes
The Sun’s child Phaethon equaled him in age
and mind. But Epaphus could not endure
his boasts, his smugness, and his arrogance
that Phoebus was his father and declared,
“You crazily trust all your mother says!
Your head is swollen by a phony father!”
Phaethon blushed as shame repressed his wrath.
He took these taunts to Clymene, his mother,
and told her, “Mother, to upset you more,
although I am free-spoken and quick-tempered,
I could not speak, ashamed these insults could
be uttered and that I could not refute them.
If I am truly born of holy stock,
give me a sign and claim me for the heavens!”
Wrapping his arms around his mother’s neck,
he begged—by his life, Merops’ life, his sisters’
weddings—that she give proof of his true father.
When Phaethon bragged about his father, Phoebus
The sun-god,
His friends mocked him.
‘Your mother must be crazy
Or you’re crazy to believe her.
How could the sun be anybody’s father?’
In a rage of humiliation
Phaethon came to his mother, Clymene.
‘They’re all laughing at me,
And I can’t answer. What can I say? It’s horrible.
I have to stand like a dumb fool and be laughed at.
‘If it’s true, Mother,’ he cried, ‘if the sun,
The high god Phoebus, if he is my father,
Give me proof.
Give me evidence that I belong to heaven.’
Then he embraced her. ‘I beg you,
‘On my life, on your husband Merops’ life,
And on the marriage hopes of my sisters,
Only give me proof that the sun is my father.’

I think I’d recommend that a reader unfaniliar with Ovid start with Hughes and then go on to McCarter to get the full story. You can get the McCarter translation here and Hughes here.

This was the top book on my shelves that I had read but not yet blogged. Next on that list is rather different – The Cider House Rules, by John Irving. It’s also right at the end of my 2023 books queue so it will be a while before you hear about it.