Sunday, March 7, 2010

O for Ovid: Losses in Translations

“One morning, as Publius Ovidius Naso woke from anxious dreams, he found that he had morphed while asleep into a monstrous insect.” So begins Ovid’s ambitious fifteen-book epic, Metamorphoses. Rife with tales of creation & destruction, love & war, weddings & wakes, songs & festivals, gods & heroes, nymphs & naiads, centaurs & satyrs, suicides & suitors, rape & incest, cannibalism & rape, marriage & rape, rape & birth, drunkenness & drunken rape, rape & rape & lest I forget, rape--it's kind of like the Bible sans the preachy stuff.

I read two translations of Metamorphoses, one by Rolfe Humphries (1954) & the other by Allan Mandelbaum (1995). Neither text is bilingual, so it’s difficult for me to say with certainty, but it might seem that Mandelbaum, judging by the stilted, if not awkward phrasing, adheres to the text fastidiously–which is not to say that’s how Ovid wrote, but that often literal translations read that way. In the past, I’ve always enjoyed Humphries' translation, which, perhaps because of its colloquial tone, I’ve assumed to be more impressionistic than literal. However, appearances–as the old chestnut, apropos of the poem, would have us believe–can deceive.

According to Sara Mack in The New Criterion, “Humphries probably comes close. But Humphries, while offering us a readable poem, doesn’t give us Ovid–he prunes Ovid’s luxuriance too drastically.” Whereas Mack may be slightly critical of Humphries, she deems Mandelbaum’s translation as “so heavily padded that he isn’t always recognizable as Ovid at all.” She cites as example Mandelbaum needing seven lines (51 words) to render Caenis’s response to Neptune, though Ovid required only two & a half (18 words). That, sorry to say if you’re Mandelbaum--& if you are, welcome to my blog!--proves to be one of Mack’s milder criticisms, as she expounds upon such errors as misused or misunderstood idioms, inaccurate word choices, mistranslations, misspelled names, mistaken characters, sporadic rhyming & tedious poetics. Mandelbaum, she concludes, “has done Ovid a great disservice.”

More recently, Charles Martin's translation of Metamorphoses appeared in 2003, which Mark Jarman, writing in The Hudson Review, praises wholeheartedly, saying it “reminds us that in these tales Ovid remains our contemporary.” To illustrate his point, Jarman writes:

One of Martin’s numerous tours de force, as he transforms Ovid into contemporary American English that dogs, cats, and the hip can understand, is to depict the daughters of Pierus challenging the Muses to a poetry slam, as follows:

“‘We’ll show you girls just what real class is
Give up tryin’ to deceive the masses
Your rhymes are fake: accept our wager
Learn which of us is minor and which is major
There’s nine of us here and there’s nine of you
And you’ll be nowhere long before we’re through
Nothin’s gonna save you ’cuz your songs are lame
And the way you sing ’em is really a shame
So stop with, “Well I never!” and “This can’t be real”
We’re the newest New Thing and here is our deal
If we beat you, obsolete you, then you just get gone
From these classy haunts on Mount Helicon
We give you Macedonia—if we lose
An’ that’s an offer you just can’t refuse
So take the wings off, sisters, get down and jam
And let the nymphs be the judges of our poetry slam!’”

Sigh, I hardly know where to begin. Well, how about for starters we “recognize” this passage is about as “hep” as a Toon Disney promo telling all the kids to “posse up” for the upcoming Hercules episode. Aw, yeah. Corn factor aside, it's not translation--it's paraphrasing. Not even that really. My Latin may be limited to translating inscriptions from statues in the park, but I’m pretty damn sure Ovid doesn't write rhyming couplets or portray the daughters of Pierus as crappy wannabe rappers from the suburbs. To be fair, I haven't read the Martin text, but if the idea is to bring Ovid into the 21st century, then shouldn't he be on Twitter?

No comments: