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CritiqueQuotes • Translations

Metamorphoses illustrationIllustration, 1640 edition
By Ovid
Publication details ▽ Publication details △

First publication
8 AD

Literature form

Epic poetry, tragedy, pastoral

Writing language

Author's country

15 sections ("books"), approx. 12,000 lines

Changing dull and accurate to wild and funny

Translators seem to love working on Ovid. Dozens of translations of the Metamorphoses are available.

The earliest were produced during the Renaissance when Ovid, the bad boy of Latin literature, was rediscovered and embraced by scholars and writers. The first well-known English translation though was actually from a French translation in 1480. William Caxton, England's first printer, produced a prose version that has not survived in its entirety.

The most influential early translation, however, was Arthur Golding's in 1567. This is the version that Shakespeare read and borrowed from. You can see why. Ovid's hexameter (six beats to the line) are rendered into beautiful rolling lines of seven beats (fourteen syllables, giving the form the nickname of "fourteeners"). The diction is both Elizabethan and ancient—in the same way the King James Bible would be a few decades later. Ezra Pound would call Golding's translation the "most beautiful book in the English language".

Pound was exaggerating. Golding's Metamorphoses still makes for majestic reading, but those long lines and the high tone take some some of the fun out of it. Golding was a religious man and for him Ovid's work was a morality tale, or a series of morality tales.

Original and five translations of a passage ▽ Original and five translations of a passage △

First lines of Metamorphoses in Latin and five translations:


In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen!


Of shapes transformed to bodies strange, I purpose to entreat,
Ye gods vouchsafe, for you are they that wrought this wondrous feat
To further this mine enterprise, and from the world begun,
Grant that my verse may to my time, his course directly run


Of bodies changed to various forms, I sing:
Ye Gods, from whom these miracles did spring,
Inspire my numbers with celestial heat;
'Till I my long laborious work complete:
And add perpetual tenor to my rhymes,
Deduced from Nature's birth, to Caesar's times.


Of bodies changed to other forms I tell;
You Gods, who have yourselves wrought every change,
Inspire my enterprise and dead my lay
In one continuous song from nature's first
Remote beginnings to our modern times.


Bodies, I have in mind, and how they can change to assume
new shapes—I ask the help of the gods, who know the trick:
inspire me now, change me, let me glimpse the secret
and sing, better than I know how, of the world's birthing,
this creation of all things from first to the very latest.


I am ready to tell how bodies are changed
Into different bodies.

I summon the supernatural beings
Who first contrived
The transmogrifications
Into the stuff of life.
You did it for your own amusement.
Descend again, be pleased to reanimate
This revival of those marvels.
Reveal, now, exactly
How they were performed
From the beginning
Up to this moment.

In 1632 George Sandys published a translation into the iambic pentameter lines (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM) more common to English poetry. It's naturally more condensed and somewhat difficult to read today.

Many other British poets were not only inspired by Metamorphoses but tried their hand at translating some of the stories. In 1717 Samuel Garth compiled a complete edition made up of translations by Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, William Congreve and others. It too was mainly in iambic pentameter and, like previous poetic versions, was composed of rhyming couplets. Ovid's original Latin was unrhymed, but for some reason English translators right up to recent times have often opted for rhyme.

Brookes More produced an unrhymed version in 1922 that became a standard for much of the twentieth century. It's in blank verse (iambic pentameter without the rhyme) and shows a catchy enthusiasm—if you don't mind dashes and exclamation points all over the place.

A.D. Melville tried the same verse style with a more sedate volume in 1986, allowing a few rhymes for effect now and then, especially at the end of stories. It too has gained a modern following. The Melville translation is quite accurate and quite well footnoted. And quite dull. This edition in Oxford World's Classics is one you may want to have handy for reference while you're enjoying another translator's wilder rendition.

Such a wild rendition might be that of the American poet David R. Slavitt. The Metamorphoses of Ovid is said to be "translated freely". Which is to say it's nothing like Melville's Metamorphoses—nor Golding's, Sandys's, Garth's or More's. But it may be like Ovid's. He uses lines of six accents as Ovid did, albeit with irregular meter. The lines run into each other, rushing ahead to tell the story. Slavitt manages to capture the sweep of the stories while getting in all the little jokes and aides. Thoroughly enjoyable.

However, you might question while reading Slavitt how much Ovid you are actually eading. Slavitt has no qualms about putting his own spin on even the jokes. For example, he writes about a war in which both sides enlist the support of heaven:

...They had
not only gods but courage, which sometimes is as good
as divine assistance (or may be another way of describing
the same natural force)

The same passage is translated by Melville as:

Both sides had gods, and what's as good as gods,

Slavitt's added parenthetical remark underlines the punchline. But Melville's wording is closer to Ovid's. Also, classicists may find Slavitt's modern idiom, including slang expressions and anachronisms, like "cars" and "hubcaps", unsettling.

But if you like the creative approach, you may appreciate Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes. The late British poet laureate didn't translate the stories of Metamorphoses so much as he re-imagined them. Unfortunately Hughes rendered only twenty-four of the passages. But if you want to see how a modern-day Ovid might have written up these stories, you could find this volume quite a lot of fun.

— Eric


CritiqueQuotes • Translations

See also:

The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Odyssey

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