A Transformative Translation

Thousands of years after the writing of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, any interpretation of this canonical work may be open to debate, as many in the Middlesex community might have been surprised to learn recently. On January 28, thanks to the Mudge Family Fund for the enrichment of the classics, Dr. Stephanie McCarter came to campus to discuss the challenges of translating this monumental epic, also visiting Latin classes before and after her lecture. A professor of classical languages at Sewanee, the University of the South, Dr. McCarter will soon be publishing a new translation of Metamorphoses with Penguin Classics, taking a different approach than previous scholars to the depiction of power, violence, and transformation throughout the narrative poem.

While the 250 stories that comprise Metamorphoses have been interpreted numerous times over the centuries, modern translators have tended to obscure the meaning and intention of Ovid’s words in as many as 50 stories, glossing over or even romanticizing depictions of sexual assault. As an illustrative example, Dr. McCarter recounted the work’s first “love story” of the god Apollo and the river nymph Daphne. Struck by Cupid’s arrow, Apollo relentlessly chases the reluctant, fearful Daphne, whose escape from him is only secured when her father transforms her into a laurel tree.

The tale, as Dr. McCarter noted, has long been highly influential, inspiring great writers, sculptors, and painters. More recently, however, the story has become the center of debate on some college campuses, where students have questioned why instructors have focused solely on praising Ovid’s language and imagery – and eschewed discussions of the apparent issue of sexual assault. “Students have wanted teachers to acknowledge the violence, not censor the work,” Dr. McCarter explained.

Confronting this aspect of Metamorphoses and having difficult conversations about it, she advocated, could be worthwhile. “Ovid can help us grapple with issues of consent,” Dr. McCarter proposed, viewing classical literature as a potential bridge between the past and the present. “Ovid can empower us to think more critically about ourselves.”

Given that students have been primarily reading interpretations done by male translators, Dr. McCarter is pleased to see more women, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, taking on the challenge today, bringing new perspectives to the work. And since Daphne has often been described with details that are not in the original Latin – features and qualities that correspond more with modern ideas of beauty and femininity – it will be interesting to see how different her story may be in translations that adhere more closely to Ovid’s own words. As Dr. McCarter pointed out, translation is about making choices among words, the meaning and tone of which may, in turn, lead to a new understanding of this significant work.