Centuries of conservative translators have robbed the Metamorphoses of its subversive force. In this boldly lyrical translation, C. Luke Soucy revives the magnum opus of Rome’s most clever and creative poet, faithfully matching the epic’s wit and style while confronting the sexuality, violence, and politics so many previous translations have glossed over.

C. Luke Soucy is a translator, poet, and vocal Minnesota native. In addition to literary translation, he has worked in regional theatre, in a chromatography lab, and as a university bureaucrat. Soucy is a 2019 graduate of Princeton University, where he received the E. E. Cummings Society Prize of the Academy of American Poets.

Tell us about your background and what motivated you to work on this translation. 

The book started as a way of keeping my Latin up after college. While reading excerpts of the Metamorphoses in class, I’d been taken by Ovid’s bizarre, beautiful storytelling, so I started reading a few lines every day to stay in practice. Soon, I figured I should write down what was in my head, and might as well do it iambic pentameter. Only after Book One did I look around and see how different my approach was from other translations. That alone motivated me to finish, although I didn’t foresee making it all the way to publication. As someone who wasn’t straight, white, out of my twenties, or taught Latin in grade school, a part of me always assumed classical translation was a job for other people. 

There have been many translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. What makes your translation unique? 

This edition does something new on several fronts—poetic, academic, and cultural. For one, it’s the first time the Metamorphoses has been translated into English epic verse without exceeding the length of the Latin. I did this by using a tight lyrical idiom matching the line-by-line literary qualities of the original while keeping unusually close to Ovid’s text, puns and all. Every previous pentameter translation expanded the original’s length, resulting in an unbalanced, loose, and frankly flaccid translation occluding the pithy wit and wordplay that makes Ovid special. On balance, this translation is both the most literary and the most accurate. The other important piece is the world has simply changed. More scholarship has been done on the work, and rising enthusiasm for classical mythology means more non-specialists want to read it. Our book acknowledges this with some of the most robust introductory material, notes, and illustrations now available in a translated edition. But there have also been social changes that affect how readers approach the poem, which includes many stories about oppression, especially toward women. Ovid explores the injustice of the power dynamics at play, and it’s genuinely shocking how many other translators have worked against him, even if it means adding lines to make an assault seem more ambiguous. The goal of my work is to provide an accurate, poetic, and open-minded translation. That means being conservative in approach to the poem’s text, but not in attitude toward its content. 

What is one of your favorite parts from the book? 

Probably my favorite is the story of Dawn and Memnon, which comes right after the Trojan War. Ovid hates rehashing Homer and Virgil, so instead of the conventional Troy story he writes this beautiful tragic vignette of Dawn beseeching Jupiter to memorialize her fallen son. There’s plenty of epic blood-and-guts stuff elsewhere in the poem, but his Trojan War ends up largely being about a mother’s love. 

What makes the Metamorphoses, and especially this new translation, relevant today? 

Of course, anything that’s been influential for millennia contains multitudes and will always find new resonances. But the Metamorphoses is still special. Here are stories you think you know, yet the way they’re told is all about questioning tradition, power, and credibility. Of the Roman poets, Ovid is the most irreverent, the most unpredictable, and the most interested in his female characters and in the forms oppression can take. This goes against the popular conception of Rome—all marble, rigidity, and grandeur—and so translators have historically sanded these features into something more comfortable and predictable. But I think those subversive, nonlinear qualities are much more accessible today, even without modernizing or politicizing the text itself, and my translation shows that. At a time when people are more concerned than ever about interrogating power and opposing oppression, it’s important to have a translation that can accurately and eloquently refocus our gaze on such an underrated, unconventional, and deeply humanist poet.