An Ovidian Taste Test: The Old Verse Translations of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’


Arts & Culture

All right, let’s do this as a speed round. Quick in, quick out. No diddling.

Fact: there were, between 1550 and 1750, exactly three supremo-supremo English versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They are as follows:

  • Arthur GoldingThe XV Bookes of P. Ovidius Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis, translated oute of Latin into English meeter, by Arthur Golding Gentleman, A work very pleasaunt and delectable, 1567.
  • George SandysOvid’s Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz’d, and Represented in Figures, 1632.
  • John Dryden et al., Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Fifteen Books, Translated by the Most Eminent Hands (sometimes called the “Garth” Ovid, after its editor, Sir Samuel Garth), 1717.

Much could be said about each of these. Golding was read and pilfered by Shakespeare. Sandys wrote part of his version in what is now the State of Virginia. Dryden is the father of English criticism. Golding writes in what are called fourteeners. Sandys provides notes (and supplementary essays) like a Victorian eccentric. Dryden wrote “Absalom and Achitophel.” We could spend all day on this kind of thing.

Instead, what I want is to put you in a position to judge between these guys’ versions. We’re just gonna do a simple little comparison. I’ll throw down a couple of judgments, and point out what you might otherwise miss.

You probably know it’s no easy thing, judging between rival verse translations, especially when they were produced before the 19th century. The good news has always been that it hardly matters how hard a task is, when no one’s gonna do it. Easy, hard—comes to the same thing. Yet somebody has to go in there. Somebody born after 1960.

How ’bout you? You don’t have to read the whole Metamorphoses three times; I’ve done it for you. The main thing is you gotta concentrate on the three exhibits presented below. If you read ’em carelessly they will seem more or less the same to you. And here’s the hideous part. They might seem the same to you, even if you concentrate. But at least you’ll know where you stand. You’ll be able to say with conviction “To hell with all of ’em.”

One thing before we get into it. The passage I selected (Metamorphoses I: 293–308) is not representative of the book as a whole. It’s rather more self-contained and memorable than Ovid’s usual run of sixteen lines. That’s the way it goes with narrative poetry. Forward momentum takes precedence over everything, and so passages like the one I’m about to quote are always gonna be exceptional. That’s why I’m quoting it, though. It’s easy on the eyes. Also, it doesn’t require a lot of explanation. All you need to know is that Ovid is describing a Flood, capital F. It’s a punishment, like in the book of Genesis. And the poet is having a good time describing the upside-down world, where everything is underwater.

Here’s the original Latin, for all the good that’s gonna do anybody:

Occupat hic collem, cumba sedet alter adunca
et ducit remos illic, ubi nuper arabat:
ille supra segetes aut mersae culmina villae
navigat, hic summa piscem deprendit in ulmo.
figitur in viridi, si fors tulit, ancora prato,
aut subiecta terunt curvae vineta carinae;
et, modo qua graciles gramen carpsere capellae,
nunc ibi deformes ponunt sua corpora phocae.
mirantur sub aqua lucos urbesque domosque
Nereides, silvasque tenent delphines et altis
incursant ramis agitataque robora pulsant.
nat lupus inter oves, fulvos vehit unda leones,
unda vehit tigres; nec vires fulminis apro,
crura nec ablato prosunt velocia cervo,
quaesitisque diu terris, ubi sistere possit,
in mare lassatis volucris vaga decidit alis.

Just for shits and giggles, here’s an image of the above passage as it appears in a facsimile of the 1518 annotated Latin version. Check the density of marginalia:

 Sexy! Anyway here’s a completely straightforward prose translation (the old Mary Innes version, Penguin Classics, 1955), so you know just exactly what the Latin says:

Some tried to escape by climbing to the hilltops, others, sitting in their curved boats, plied the oars where lately they had been ploughing; some sailed over cornlands, over the submerged roofs of their homes, while some found fish in the topmost branches of the elms. At times it happened that they dropped anchor in green meadows, sometimes the curved keels grazed vineyards that lay beneath them. Where lately sinewy goats cropped the grass, now ugly seals disported themselves. The Nereids wondered to see groves and towns and houses under the water; dolphins took possession of the woods, and dashed against high branches, shaking the oak trees as they knocked against them. Wolves swam among the flocks, and the waves supported tawny lions, and tigers too. The lightning stroke of his strong tusk was of no use, then, to the wild boar, nor his swift legs to the stag—both alike were swept away. Wandering birds searched long for some land where they might rest, till their wings grew weary and they fell into the sea.

Right. Now take a moment and savor it. Don’t be impossible. That’s some A#1 poetry, right there. People boating above their own homes, fish living in trees. Water nymphs can suddenly go up to the front door and knock. Dolphins bumping into oaks. Lions, tigers, wolves, all dog-paddling. And of course birds can’t stay in the air forever, so eventually they plunk down dead into the water. It’s a nice bit.

So now we look at Exhibit 1, Arthur Golding, 1567. Shakespeare was, like, three. Note that I am here (and everywhere) modernizing the shit out of the spelling and punctuation, basically adjusting any piece of mechanics that might interfere with your being able to sight-read the meter:

Some climbèd up to tops of hills, and some rowed to and fro
in boats, where they not long before to plough and cart did go.
One over corn and tops of towns, whom waves did overwhelm,
doth sail in ship; another sits a fishing in an elm.
In meadows green were anchors cast (so fortune did provide)
and crooked ships did shadow vines, the which the flood did hide.
And where but t’other day before did feed the hungry goat,
the ugly seals and porpoises now to and fro did float.
The sea nymphs wondered under waves the towns and groves to see,
and dolphins played among the tops and boughs of every tree.
The grim and greedy wolf did swim among the siely sheep,
the lion and the tiger fierce were borne upon the deep.
It booted not the foaming boar his crooked tusks to whet;
the running hart could in the stream by swiftness nothing get.
The fleeting fowls, long having sought for land to rest upon,
into the sea, with weary wings, were driv’n to fall anon.

One of the main objections voiced against the above is padding. For instance, note the frequency with which the word “did” is inserted to fill out the meter. There’s eight of those little guys up there, not one of ’em good (“did go” instead of “went”; “did feed” instead of “fed” and so on). On the other hand, anybody can see there’s some real poetry in a few of those lines. I quite like “It booted not the foaming boar his crooked tusks to whet; the running hart could in the stream by swiftness nothing get.” (A) it has a ring to it, and (B) it seems much better than anything you would get out of the bare sense: “The lightning stroke of his strong tusk was of no use, then, to the wild boar, nor his swift legs to the stag.”

Time for Exhibit 2, George Sandys, 1632:

One takes a hill; one in a boat deplores,
and where he lately plowed now strikes his oars.
O’er corn, o’er drownèd villages he sails:
this from high elms entangled fishes hales.
In fields they anchor cast, as chance did guide,
and ships the underlying vineyards hide.
Where mountain-loving goats did lately graze,
the sea-calf now his ugly body lays.
Groves, cities, temples, covered by the deep,
the nymphs admire. In woods the dolphins keep
and chase about the boughs. The wolf doth swim
amongst the sheep. The lion (now not grim)
and tigers tread the waves. Swift feet no more
avail the hart, nor wounding tusks the boar.
The wand’ring birds, hid earth long sought in vain,
with weary wings descend into the main.

Line one: “to deplore” meant “to lament or bewail one’s misfortunes,” so don’t let that trip you up. And once again, one finds some poetry. The dolphins “chase about the boughs.” The “tigers tread the waves.” But you also find a lot of bloody awkward (now not grim) haling of entangled fishes. When people criticized Sandys back in the day, the usual line was that his Ovid shows the dangers of the word-for-word approach to translation. In short, “Bye-bye, elegance.”

Exhibit 3, John Dryden, 1693 and reprinted in the “Garth” Ovid, 1717:

One climbs a cliff; one in his boat is borne,
and ploughs above, where late he sowed his corn.
Others o’er chimney tops and turrets row,
and drop their anchors on the meads below:
or downward driv’n, they bruise the tender vine,
or tossed aloft, are knocked against a pine.
And where of late the kids had cropped the grass,
the monsters of the deep now take their place.
Insulting Nereids on the cities ride,
and wond’ring dolphins o’er the palace glide.
On leaves and masts of mighty oaks they browse,
and their broad fins entangle in the boughs.
The frighted wolf now swims among the sheep;
the yellow lion wanders in the deep.
His rapid force no longer helps the boar;
the stag swims faster than he ran before.
The fowls, long beating on their wings in vain,
despair of land and drop into the main.

Just from these eighteen lines you can see why people thought Dryden represented a breakthrough. His philosophy was that word-for-word translation was stupid, because what happens is your original author has written something screwed up or inefficient or otherwise faulty, and it’s just fine in the original because of the sounds—but then you lose the sounds when you change the passage into English. So what are you gonna do? faithfully replicate the author’s faults? The stuff wasn’t even really faulty in the original: you’re making it faulty by stripping the passage of its warrant.

So what are you supposed to do? Dryden basically said: You gotta do what you gotta do. You nip and tuck the thing to the point where your result is elegant and limpid and has some reason for existing. You get some good outcomes that way.

“Insulting Nereids” is excellent. It’s not in the Latin, but it’s excellent. “Browse” is tasty. “The stag swims faster than he ran before” is kinda brilliant.

And yet.

Have you noticed that not one of these translators managed to include the part from the original about the dolphins smacking hard into the oak trees? The prose version had “dolphins took possession of the woods, and dashed against high branches, shaking the oak trees as they knocked against them.” Surely that’s too good to chuck. In fact, the late Ted Hughes went ahead and improved the image into this:

Dolphins churn through copses.
Hunting their prey into oak trees, they shake out acorns
That sink slowly.

“That sink slowly”! I remember, when I first read that, I ran to my Loeb Ovid to check the Latin and was sorely disappointed that Hughes had simply made it up. I wanted those acorns to be Ovid’s. But you know what? Good is good. Indeed, I’ll close with one of Hughes’ even more radical departures, from just before the dolphins. It’s not even a translation, but good is good and a good note to end on:

The Nereids roam astounded
Through submerged gardens,
Swim in silent wonder into kitchens,
Touch the eyes of marble busts that gaze
Down long halls, under the wavering light.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.