Why is it that so many people insist on translating Ovid's Metamorphoses nowadays? There was a time, of course, when it was easy enough for the average educated person to read it in the original Latin, but that time is long gone. Is that really sufficient explanation for the rash of verse translations which have been appearing lately?
Just out of curiosity, I've started to collect them as I come across them – not systematically, but according to the hazards of the marketplace. I now have twelve complete translations in my collection, no fewer than eight of them from the twentieth century, along with two from the twenty-first.
This list, I should say, is in no way exhaustive.
• William Caxton (London, 1480): prose -- unpublished manuscript [Facsmile edition (New York, 1968)]
• Arthur Golding (London, 1565-67): rhyming fourteeners [ed. Madeleine Forey (Penguin Classics, 2002): available here]
• George Sandys (London, 1626-32): heroic couplets [available here]
• John Dryden et al., ed. Samuel Garth (London, 1717): heroic couplets [ed. Garth Tissol (Wordsworth Classics, 1998): available here]
• Frank Justus Miller (Loeb Classics, 1916): prose dual-text. [rev. G. P. Gould (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984) ]
• Brookes More (USA: Marshall Jones Company, 1922): blank verse
• Rolfe Humphries (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1955): blank verse
• Mary M. Innes (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1955): prose
• Horace Gregory (New York: Viking Penguin, 1958): blank verse
• A. D. Melville (Oxford: World's Classics, 1986): blank verse
• Charles Boer (Dallas, TX: Spring Publications, 1989): free verse
• Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Harcourt, 1993): blank verse
• David R. Slavitt (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1994): hexameters
• Michael Simpson (Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001) : prose
• David Raeburn (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2004): hexameters
• Charles Martin (New York: Norton, 2004): blank verse
The ones in italics I don't actually own copies of. I've tried to specify in each case which edition I've used. There’s also, by the by, a good prose crib by the very industrious A. S. Kline, available here.
You'll notice the pace gradually starting to pick up as we reach the late twentieth century. Caxton's pioneering translation was never published at all, but remained in manuscript until the late twentieth century. After that Golding's Elizabethan version (one of Shakespeare's principal sourcebooks, described by Ezra Pound as "the most beautiful book in the language") held sway for sixty years or so, until Sandys decided to update it for the seventeenth century. He, in his turn, needed to be updated for the eighteenth century, after which we reach a long desert of neglect throughout the later Augustan and Victorian periods. Virgil was the poet to suit empire-builders, not frivolous, honey-tongued Ovid.
The present explosion of interest was perhaps prompted more by selections than by complete translations, though:
• After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, ed. Michael Hofmann & James Lasdun (London: Faber, 1994): various metres & stylesThe New Metamorphoses was certainly an idea whose time had come. In a way it was unfairly overshadowed by Ted Hughes' subsequent book. His versions are undoubtedly powerful, but lack the variety of Hofmann and Lasdun's compilation (which, in any case, started him off on the project in the first place). Ovid in English is one in an excellent series of anthologies of responses to major Classical and European poets over the centuries.
• Ted Hughes: Tales from Ovid (London: Faber, 1997): free verse
• Ovid in English, ed. Christopher Martin (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1998): various metres & styles
Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to compare some of these translations and see how they treat crucial episodes in The Metamorphoses. There are fifteen complete English translations listed above, twelve of them in verse (one in rhyming fourteeners, two in heroic couplets, two in hexameters, six in blank verse and one in free verse). Of these, I own – or have access online – to eleven. If you add the Hughes, Hofmann & Lasdun, and Martin selections to the list, that brings us up to fourteen.
There are fifteen books in Ovid's epic. I've therefore decided to add myself to the list as well, and to include a passage from my own poem "Jack's Metamorphoses" (published in brief 15 (2000): 57-62 and 19 (2001): 70-79).
Verse translations (partial & complete):
1. Arthur Golding (1567): Bk XIV (Pomona)
2. George Sandys (1632): Bk XV (Hippolytus)
3. John Dryden, Samuel Garth, et al. (1717): Bk VII (Theseus)
4. Rolfe Humphries (1955): Bk XIII (Glaucus)
5. Horace Gregory (1958): Bk VIII (Icarus)
6. A. D. Melville (1986): Bk IV (Daughters of Minyas)
7. Charles Boer (1989): Bk III (Semele)
8. Allen Mandelbaum (1993): Bk II (The Crow)
9. After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (1994): Bk VI (Marsyas)
10. David R. Slavitt (1994): Bk IX (Iolaus)
11. Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1997): Bk V (Arethusa)
12. Jack Ross, “Jack’s Metamorphoses” (1997): Bk I (Chaos)
13. Ovid in English (1998): Bk XI (Midas)
14. David Raeburn (2004): Bk XII (Rumour)
15. Charles Martin (2004): Bk X (Pygmalion)
Books of the epic:
Book I: Chaos, Four Ages, Flood, Daphne, Io, Syrinx, Phaethon
Book II: Phaethon’s fall, Callisto, Coronis, Aglauros, Europa
Book III: Cadmus, Actaeon, Semele, Tiresias, Narcissus, Pentheus
Book IV: Pyramus, Daughters of Minyas, Ino, Cadmus, Perseus
Book V: Perseus, Calliope, Proserpine, Arethusa, The Pierides
Book VI: Arachne, Niobe, Marsyas, Procne, Philomela, Boreas
Book VII: Jason, Medea, Theseus, Minos, Myrmidons, Procris
Book VIII: Scylla, Daedalus, Icarus, Meleager, Philemon and Baucis
Book IX: Hercules, Alcmene, Iolaus, Galanthis, Dryope, Byblis, Iphis
Book X: Orpheus, Pygmalion, Myrrha, Venus and Adonis, Atalanta
Book XI: Death of Orpheus, Midas, Peleus, Ceyx, Alcyone,Aesacus
Book XII: Rumour, Cycnus, Caeneus, Lapiths and Centaurs, Achilles
Book XIII: Ajax,Ulysses,Polyxena, Hecuba, Memnon, Galatea, Glaucus
Book XIV: Scylla, Sibyl, Polyphemus, Circe, Picus, Pomona, Romulus
Book XV: Pythagoras, Hippolytus, Cipus, Aesculapius, The Caesars