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Political aspects are VERY subtle indeed
on March 19, 2015
The marketing of the Penguin edition translated by Boyle and Woodard is what moved me to write this review. Penguin's marketeers claim that Fasti is a "subtle but powerful political manifesto;" B&W expand on this theme in their introduction. This piqued my interest in the work, but I was frustrated once I began reading.
Maybe Ovid wasn't hiding his jokes and barbs by the standards of his day: for all I know, his contemporaries would be smiling ironically or even rolling on the ground with laughter as they read. But for a reader of this edition to appreciate those bits requires something approaching a professional Latinist's erudition. If the political aspect of the book interests you, be aware that to a great degree it's not visible from the four corners of this work. Mainly its based on (i) what Ovid *omits* from the book (e.g., failing to mention Augustus or members of his family in certain contexts where they might have expected it), and (ii) what Ovid says here *taken together with* what he said in other of his works, e.g. Ars amatoria. Even the example about Jupiter and rape mentioned in the blurb, which seems to be in Ovid's entries for Feb 5 through Feb 12, is rather subtly expressed in the poem's text -- I might easily have passed it on a first reading if B&W hadn't mentioned it in their introduction.
In other words, even if there's a political message written here in secret ink, so to speak, usually you'll need to bring in UV lights, lemon juice and other stuff to be able to read it. And often, you'll need to bring your own. While the translators are generous with apparatus (maps, an outline summary, almost 250 pages of scholarly endnotes, a glossary), this material isn't really focused on bringing into relief the political reading for which B&W argue. In particular, the endnotes don't highlight this big picture: although abundant, they tend to focus at a more micro level on specific events, names, places, and calendrical matters. The Introduction is the reader's best guide, but by its own admission it cites only a few examples -- hardly enough to make a "manifesto."
So I wasn't entirely shocked to find, after some digging with a search engine, that the political reading of the Fasti is still quite contested among modern classical scholars. Many don't accept it, and even some who do read it as more pro-Augustus than, as here, anti. This edition is itself a manifesto of an academic sort. That happens all the time in scholarship and I can grant it's legitimate, though I wish I hadn't mistaken the sales pitch for something more neutral.
There's another issue, too. The Fasti's subject, a festival-by-festival discussion of the calendar, prevents the poem from flowing along as beautifully as, say, the Metamorphoses. Nonetheless, for me this translation made things even choppier. Maybe in the belief that they were making things simpler for the reader, B&W use a lot of full stops where they don't occur in the original (or at least, in modern editions of the original text accepted as authoritative). The result is often a string of disconnected sentences, sounding at times more like oracle than narrative.
Here's an example, from 4.275-280 (with Latin from the 2014 Latin/German edition published by Reclam, based on the 1988 Alton et al. edition of Ovid's text, published by Teubner -- the same as used by B&W):
A thousand hands gather. A hollow ship painted
/ With burnt colors holds the Mother of Gods.
She is freighted through her son's water most safely,
/ And nears the long strait of Phrixus' sister.
She passes wide Rhoetium and Sigeum's beaches,
/ Tenedos and Eëtion's old realm.
mille mane coeunt, et picta coloribus ustis
/ caelestum Matrem concava puppis habet.
illa sui per aquas fertur tutissima nati
/ longaque Phrixeae stagna sororis adit,
Rhoeteumque capax Sigeaque litora transit,
/ et Tenedum et veteres Eetionis opes.
Notice how B&W use four sentences against Ovid's two, suppressing Ovid's "et" ("and") and using periods instead of more liquid commas -- all the more unfortunate since what's being described is the passage of a ship. The choice to begin each line with a capital letter (by no means obligatory in English) chops things up further, especially when the syntax carries over into a new line, as in the first two lines quoted (275-276). I found that it was often easier to get the sense of the translation by looking at the Latin, instead of the other way around. Maybe such roughness is a trade-off for the technical tour de force B&W achieved: tracking the original couplet-by-couplet and usually line-by-line, while sticking to a standard couplet of 12 + 10 syllables. But for the reader who wants a smoother understanding of what Ovid was talking about, a prose translation might be clearer in many places. (That's the case at least with the inexpensive Reclam, if you read German. I haven't yet checked the Oxford Classics English-only edition, nor the Loeb, whose English is from the 1930s).
My deduction of stars relates mainly to the gap between the "political manifesto" Penguin promises and its actual accessibility to the average reader, even one with some Latin; but the prickly translation is part of the reason, too.