Metamorphoses, by Ovid
trans. by Rolfe Humphries,
Indiana University Press, 1955; “The New, Annotated Edition,” 2018 (annotations by Joseph D. Reed).532 pp.
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
About this translator I am powerfully ambivalent. His García Lorca (Gypsy Ballads) seems perfect to me, a jewel. But his book of poems written in traditional Welsh forms (Green Armor on Green Ground) is like a bad dream. Death. I’ve never looked at his Aeneid, but I know Latin was supposed to be his specialty. He taught it for years. He did versions of Lucretius and Martial and Juvenal too, but I think it’s his Ovid that’s lasted.
Not too many 12,000-line translations from the ’50s are still in print, let alone getting a brand new set of annotations. About those I wanna say: jam a bookmark back there and read every single note. They’re the real thing, impossible to fake. The annotator (he’s a Classics prof at Brown) has something in common with Santa Claus: he knows when you’ve been sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. Also, some of the notes are charmingly peeved at Humphries’ small divagations from the Latin. Corrections are provided.
As for the translation as a whole, the main thing it’s got going for it is clarity. I, for one, felt I was able to pay attention to the stuff like never before. The structure of the Metamorphoses is such a Persian carpet already, you really don’t need it made any more difficult. So I strongly appreciated Humphries’ forward momentum and ordinary diction. Eloquent and/or Elizabethan translations are for people who already know the book well (and who among us really knows her way around this weird, weird book?). So I say double thumbs up to Humphries and Reed. Recommended.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).