What can ancient verse reveal about the current moment? In her forthcoming translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics, Oct.), classicist Stephanie McCarter renders the poet’s concern with questions of power, violence, and gender intelligible to a contemporary audience. McCarter spoke with PW about the poem’s continued significance and the challenges of translating sexual violence from the classical world to the present day.
Why translate Metamorphoses?
Two routes brought me to the project. The first is that I regularly teach courses on women and gender in antiquity for my job at the University of the South [in Sewanee, Tenn.]. I had noticed that much of the language around sexual violence is not handled very well; sometimes it’s unclear to my students what’s happening in these scenes. I wanted to clarify the issues around sexual violence and handle sexual violence responsibly.
The other route had to do with changes in my own writing over the years. I’ve become convinced that academics need to speak not just to one another but to as many people as we can. Translation can open up literature from the past. We can get people who don’t have access to learning Latin thinking about what Ovid can tell us about our own culture.
How did you approach the language of violence, gender, and sexuality in the text?
I wanted to be consistent with how I used language that depicted rape. Ovid’s primary term is a legal term for rape as well as a term for various acts of violence or force: vis, this little word where we get our word violence from. I used the language of force every time that word showed up in the text whether it was to do with rape or not because I wanted the reader to be able to draw clear connections across the violence of rape with other violent acts. I wanted to be very careful with the language of the body because Ovid is so interested in the body. So much of the epic is about one thing taking on a new form, which he calls a new body. The way that he does or does not connect the body with gender, sex, sexuality, desire, lack of desire—this is all very interesting to me.
When the text uses terms that are not gender-specific, I didn’t want to use gender-specific terms. One example of this is how the human chest often gets translated as breast for female characters. So you have a lot of breasts in other translations that aren’t there in the original. That makes a big difference in how some characters are envisioned and gendered.
What makes Ovid’s work still relevant?
Metamorphoses gets my students thinking the most about questions of their own identity and cultural moment. We’re still defined by change; we’re still reckoning with many of the same questions about gender and power. That makes Ovid feel very relevant. I want my students to be able to read a version of the text that feels relevant and contemporary to them.
Ovid is also interesting for us because he’s interested in many of the same questions we are. For example, how does violence change us? He’s interested in the psychology of trauma. He’s also interested in the power of art and how art can be used as a therapeutic device, a way of reasserting our agency. These are universal human questions.