Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC - AD17) was born at Sulmo on March 20, 43 BC of wealthy parents who survived the civil war. Ovid and his older brother were taken by their father to study in Rome, where Ovid gave up legal studies for poetry. The popularity of that verse, his family connections, and the public offices held all allowed Ovid to move in aristocratic circles, and he married three times. His Ars Amatoria (which referred to the banishment of Augustus's daughter Julia's for an affair with the son of the emperor's old enemy Mark Antony) angered Augustus, however, and Ovid's attempted apology, Remedium Amoris, went in vain. Augustus was particularly offended by Ovid's flippant attitude to his morality drive intended to establish family values in Rome. Ovid then committed some unknown political indiscretion and found himself banished in AD 8 to the frontier town of Tomi, at the mouth of the Danube on the Black Sea. Attempts at reconciliation failed, even when Augustus was succeeded by Tiberius, and in Tomi Ovid died, probably in AD 17, as much a victim of imperial politics as his own celebrity among the capital's fast set.

Ovid's poetry was enormously popular in first century Rome, and has been an important influence on European poetry from the Renaissance to the present. The Metamorphoses and Fasti provided abundant material to quarry, and the poetry appealed by its brilliant rhetoric, dissimulation and discrete irony. Ovid's wrote pleasingly from the first. His Amores extolled the charms of his mistress, Corinna, possibly a composite figure. The succeeding Heroides were elegies in the form of imaginary love letters from famous women in Greek mythology. Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) and Remedium Amoris (The Remedy of Love) were not only witty treatises on the art of seduction and intrigue, but went some way towards placing men and women on an equal footing. The Metamorphoses were some 250 interwoven stories written in the epic hexameter. His Fasti, an irreverent but informative poem on the Roman calendar, was terminated by the poet's removal to the Black Sea. There, in a garrison town among non-Latin-speaking barbarians, he wrote Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae ex Ponto (Letters from the Black Sea), both protesting at his unjust exile with fine elegy and independence.

Rolfe Humphreys Version

The Sanskrit translations explore the difficulties presented by quantitative measures, and here we shall simply see how translators have dealt with a familiar Latin author. We start with one of the more popular translators, Rolfe Humphreys (1894-1969), who used an irregular blank verse. The piece is taken from Metamorphoses 7, and describes the plague at Aegina. It starts:

A dreadful plague came upon our people. Juno
Hated our land, named for a rival of hers,
But this we did not know; we thought the cause
Was mortal, and we fought with every resource
Of medicine against it, but the evil
Had too much strength for us. In the beginning
Was darkness, and a murk that kept the summer
Shut in the sullen clouds, four months of summer,
Four months of hot, south wind, and deadly airs.

The first thing to notice is the measured tone. Ovid can be very detached, but here he's describing in serious calamity in serious language, and Humphreys is similarly somber. The measure is broken, with an hiatus after 'plague': two beats and then three, the structure being emphasized with alliteration on 'p'.

A dréadful plágue | cáme upón our péople ||||

That's a solemn drumbeat, difficult to follow, and Humphreys doesn't attempt to.

Juno hated our land || named for a rival of hers, |||

Though he does pick up an echo in line 3:

but thís we díd not knów |||

and again in:

we thóught the cáuse was mórtal |

and, after a lapse of:

and we fought with every resource of medicine against it || but the evil |


had tóo much stréngth for ús |||

We should also note the assonance in 'thought', 'cause' and 'mortal', which is echoed, if only faintly, in 'fought' and 'resource'. Something similar operates in the lines preceding: 'plague' and 'came, followed by 'hated' and 'named'.

Summarizing, the strategy seems to have been to:

1. introduce a rhythm with a strongly structured line, and then echo some aspect of it over the lines that follow.

2. lengthen lines with marked assonance.

That strategy can be more deftly employed, of course, as in the lines that follow, with their play on 's' and 'm':

In the beginning was darkness and a murk that kept the summer | shút in the súllen clóuds || four months of summer ||

and a tapering off to just two beats, in:

our mónths of hót, south wínd | and déadly áirs |||

The result is a relaxed blank verse that can accommodate stretches of uninspired rendering (every resource of medicine against it ), and modulate pleasantly between a conversational and formal tone.

Other Translations

So that we have something to compare, here is the charming Sandys 1632 rendering, which is quietly-paced:

By Iuno's wrath, a dreadfull pestilence
Deuour'd our liues: who tooke vnjust offence,
In that this Ile her Riualls name profest.
While it seem'd humane, and the cause vnguest;
So long we death-repelling Physick try'd:
But those diseases vanquisht art deride.
Heauen first, the earth with thickned vapors shrouds;
And lazie heat inuolues in sullen clouds.
Foure pallid moones their growing hornes vnite,
And had as oft with-drawne their feeble light;
Yet still the death-producing Auster blew. {2}

Also on the Internet is the Garth/Dryden version, more monotonous, though each line is stoutly constructed.

A dreadful plague from angry Juno came,
To scourge the land, that bore her rival's name;
Before her fatal anger was reveal'd,
And teeming malice lay as yet conceal'd,
All remedies we try, all med'cines use,
Which Nature cou'd supply, or art produce;
Th' unconquer'd foe derides the vain design,
And art, and Nature foil'd, declare the cause divine.
At first we only felt th' oppressive weight
Of gloomy clouds, then teeming with our fate,
And lab'ring to discharge unactive heat:
But ere four moons alternate changes knew,
With deadly blasts the fatal South-wind blew,
Infected all the air, and poison'd as it flew. {3}

The original Latin:

dira lues ira populis Iunonis iniquae
incidit exosae dictas a paelice terras.
dum visum mortale malum tantaeque latebat
causa nocens cladis, pugnatum est arte medendi:
exitium superabat opem, quae victa iacebat.
principio caelum spissa caligine terras
pressit et ignavos inclusit nubibus aestus;
dumque quater iunctis explevit cornibus orbem
Luna, quater plenum tenuata retexuit orbem,
letiferis calidi spirarunt aestibus austri. {4}

Our Translation

Not everything becomes clear by making a word-by-word translation using the online facilities at Tufts University:
dira        lues         Ira     populis                  Iunonis iniquae
ominous pestilence anger because_of_people  of_Juno uneven
incidit exosae    dictas            a      paelice terras.
falls   detesting was_speaking from paelice earth

dum visum      mortale malum  tantaeque    latebat
in      perceived mortal evil     of_such_size concealed
causa   nocens   cladis,        pugnatum EST arte             medendi:
motive  harming of_disaster fought      is   practical_skill healing
exitium superabat    opem, quae  victa iacebat.
ruin      surmounting aid,    which lived cast
principio   caelum   spissa caligine terras
beginning heavens thick    fog       earth
pressit  et    ignavos  inclusit   nubibus aestus;
pressed also sluggish confined clouds   glowing
dumque quater       iunctis   explevit    cornibus orbem
in         four_times together -              horns     orbit
Luna,  quater       plenum tenuata     retexuit orbem,
moon, four_times full       made_thin -          orbit

letiferis           calidi spirarunt aestibus austri. {5}
death_bringing warm breathed fiery       south wind
But, helped by previous translations, we can make a rendering even more oppressive than the Dryden version:

Brought on by Juno came a fearful plague
to hurt the land that took her rival's name:
the full import concealed from us, who tried
the arts of healing, failed, were overwhelmed.
Thick, sulphurous clouds oppressed the earth:
four months of summer lost in roiling fog,
four months a hot and deadly south wind blew.

Or, lighten it considerably by choosing words with more open vowels and less clogged by syllables:

We had no notion of the cause, but still it came,
the dreadful pestilence that Juno brought.
Our land was fated with a rival's name.
At first we thought the cause was natural, tried
our practices of healing: those all failed.
From this it started: fog grew on the earth
and slowly thickened into glowing clouds:
four months of summer lost in roiling mist,
four months an unhealthy south wind blew.

Or a little more colloquial:

We didn't think because our land took name
from Juno's rival it would cause such hate.
She sent a plague, no doubt a natural thing
but somehow more than medicine could touch.
It grew in evil: first were vapours, clouds
that thickened, glowed and fastened on the earth.
Four months of summer thick in mist, four months
in which a hot and deadly south wind blew.

And so on: it's all blank verse. How free or informal make it depends on the 'voice' we're aiming at, but the medium will accommodate most things, provided we keep accent and remember the internal structures that all verse needs.

Notes and References

1. Martin, Christopher, (ed.) Ovid in English (Penguin, 1998) 340.

2. Ovid's Metamorphoses by George Sandys 1663 Virginia.edu.

3. Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by Sir Samuel Garth and John Dryden. Adelaide University Metamorphoses 7. NNA.

4. P. Ovidius Naso. Bibliotheca Augustana. 7.523-533. Augsburg

5. P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses Perseus Digital Library. Sometimes slow, but with excellent online help. Tufts