Thursday, 12 June 2014
Hard Rockin' with Dead Great Romans--Reb MacRath
That's my boy there: Ovid. The dullest of all Roman writers, I thought. Two pages of The Metamorphoses could put me to sleep for two nights--and the terrible Penguin translation could knock me out for a week. Samples of my torment:
J.J. Howard, 1807:
From bodies various form'd, mutative shapes
My Muse would sing:--Celestial powers give aid!
A.D. Melville, 2009
Of bodies changed to other forms I tell;
You Gods who have yourselves wrought every change...
Arthur Golding, 1567:
Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreate,
Ye gods vouchsafe (for you are they ywrought this wondrous feate)...
Iambic pentameters, rhymed and unrhymed...blank verse...prose--I never could get past the opening account of Creation--because I could not feel the once-living presence behind it. And because I had no sense of Latin as a once-living language. What the heck was the fuss about Ovid?
Well, one day at Atlanta's Oxford Books, I chanced on a new translation by an academic bad boy known as David R. Slavitt:
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...
Not only did I get past Creation, I knew I was on to something wild and blasphemously different when a god spies a fleeting nymph and calls out: 'Well, hello there, cutey!' In years to come, I'd meet and talk with academics who loathed David Slavitt. They'd allow him points for successfully adapting the hexameter to English. ('Longfellow's Acadian jog-trot,' he'd written, 'sounded to my ears like a bell-bouy.' His goal had been 'to give some sense of the formality of Ovid's Latin, that constraint he could tighten or relax as the rhetorical occasions prompted.') But they despised him for two reasons:
1) The respected academic had written several steamy bestsellers under the name Henry Sutton--The Exhibitionist sold 4 million copies. Worse still, he'd done the talk-show circuit.
2) His sometimes flamboyant translations took too many liberties with the original texts.
But no one had to tell me that the word 'cutey' hadn't existed in old Roman times; nor could the poet have actually said '(Her dance) would give Hippolytus a hard-on'. And I'd allow that the modified hexameters were not the same thing as the Latin. Still, for the first time in reading the classics I'd gotten a sense of real fun, vitality--while feeling a dead language come back to life. And I came to see how, in translation, the accuracy of an impression can be more important than a literal translation--and that the effect need not always be rendered at the precise location. Try this, from Slavitt's translation of Ovid's Remedies:
Your body is utterly weary. You wonder why
this rumpy-pumpy business ever seemed so important.
Now, Ovid was fond of his word play and may have used, elsewhere, something like 'rumpere-erumpere'. Slavitt echoed it here, where he could--and I, for one am happy.
Similarly, in Love Poems:
Let him find traces sometimes of another man's
the competitor has sent...
The playful doubling of presence and presents doesn't stray from what I've seen of Ovid in Latin. And when Slavitt uses 'babe' or 'dame', we're getting an impression of the cheekiness and naughty wit that got Ovid bounced out of Rome.
Slavitt offers terrific introductions to many Greek and Roman classics.
For a list of his works on Amazon, click:
And if you share my interest in translation, here's the best book on the subject:
The last book is a brilliant defense against Nabokov's insistence that poetry can't be translated. The author suggests, in fact, a translation that does Pushkin's Eugene Onegin proud.
P.S. Rumor is that David R. Slavitt is hard at work translating Horace, who may have finally found the right match.