Classical poetry is full of sexual violence. We shouldn’t hide that.



Stories of rape are uncomfortably prominent in the literary canon, and no canonical work includes more such tales than Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Apollo, pierced by Cupid’s arrow, pursues the nymph Daphne, who becomes a tree to escape him. Jupiter, king of the gods, violently assaults Io, whom he then turns into a cow. The nymph Callisto endures sexual violence at the hands of Jupiter, then physical violence at the hands of Juno, his queen, who turns her into a bear. Nearly 50 acts of rape or attempted rape appear in the epic, and many of these in turn have inspired significant works of art and literature, such as Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne,” Titian’s “The Rape of Europa” and Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.”

Familiar as they often are, these stories present a challenge to translators: How should one render in English acts that are often grotesquely violent in Ovid’s original Latin? For decades, many have simply sidestepped the issue, obscuring violations with romantic euphemisms or even suggesting, through subtle turns of phrase, that the women in Ovid’s tales consented to assault. As a classicist, one of my principal goals as I set out to prepare my own new translation of Ovid’s epic poem was the clear and accurate rendering of these scenes of rape. It was, I thought, critical to treat sexual violence in the “Metamorphoses” as frankly as Ovid himself does.

These issues were central for me in part because I regularly teach the “Metamorphoses,” and the presence of sexual violence in it has made its place in classrooms fraught. In 2015, an op-ed penned by undergraduates at Columbia University went viral for its criticism of a professor who focused on “the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery” in the epic without adequately addressing the presence of rape. The piece launched a sprawling debate about “trigger warnings” that led to a string of think-pieces, some of which were sympathetic to the students’ concerns and some of which denigrated the undergrads as “snowflakes” who could not handle the difficult aspects of great literature.

It seemed to me that there was a fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of this debate. The Columbia students were not trying to censor material involving rape — they were simply asking that such violence be framed and scrutinized as violence. It was the unconsidered aestheticization that troubled them — the implicit premise that this was an unimpeachable work of beauty that could only elevate without ever doing harm. And this is true beyond Columbia. The idea that overly sensitive students are seeking en masse to censor such material runs counter to my two decades teaching in college classrooms. I have never had a student object to the frank discussion of rape in the text. If anything, contemporary students are much more prepared to discuss this difficult aspect of literature than many from my own generation. What they are not prepared to do is accept it uncritically.

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Readers need editions of the epic that will facilitate such analysis. Notably, the translator’s role in communicating rape went unexamined in the larger trigger-warning debate that followed the Columbia op-ed, despite the fact that most of those who read Ovid’s text do so in translation. It was David Raeburn’s early-21st-century English, not Ovid’s Latin, that the Columbia students were reading. Translations that euphemize rape risk giving readers the impression that Ovid was unambiguously flippant about sexual violence when in fact he underscores the psychological and physical trauma it produces.

In the case of Apollo and Daphne, one of the tales cited by the Columbia students, Raeburn adds details that are simply not present in Ovid’s Latin and that amplify the power of the male gaze. When Apollo runs his eyes over Daphne’s body, for instance, Ovid tells us simply that he looks at her “lips” and “fingers” and “arms,” yet Raeburn goes further. In his rendering, Daphne’s lips are “teasingly tempting,” her fingers “delicate” and her arms “shapely.” When the hard bark runs up Daphne’s soft torso, “mollia praecordia,” Raeburn has it surround her “soft white bosom.” The accumulation of these alterations distorts Ovid’s presentation of Daphne’s body, drawing readers into the role of voyeur and making it seem like the narrator revels in her objectification in ways the Latin does not justify. In Raeburn, it is as if her body simply invites Apollo’s assault.

In translating Ovid’s scenes of rape, I took care to use English words that reflect his own language of violence, which ties rape to the epic’s larger theme of abusive power. The most common Latin word Ovid uses for rape is “vis,” or “force.” This was indeed a legal term for rape in Rome, although it was also applied to other violent acts, such as armed insurrection or wielding weapons within the city’s bounds — acts that undermined the Roman citizen’s expectation of safety and bodily autonomy. The punishments for rape by “vis” ranged from personal retaliation to loss of citizenship and even death. If we judge the epic’s rapes by the standards of the Romans, they are appalling crimes.

When “vis” appears in the epic, whether in the context of rape or not, I consistently use the word “force” to enable readers to connect various types of violence. Ovid frequently pairs the word “vis” with the word “pati,” “to suffer,” which can denote being the penetrated partner in a sexual act. The phrase “vim pati” (“to suffer force”) becomes in Ovid an almost technical term for rape, as in Apollo’s rape of Dryope, which I translate, with Ovid’s own directness, as she “had suffered / a forceful rape.” In Ovid, a perpetrator may also “exert force” against another, as when he uses the phrase “vim tulit” to describe the river god Cephisus’s rape of Liriope or when Leucothoe accuses the sun god of raping her. Although translators do occasionally use the word “rape,” they are highly inconsistent, more often watering down Ovid’s language of force, with “vis” becoming “ardent wooing” or “advances” or simply disappearing altogether. In Stanley Lombardo (2010), for instance, Dryope “lost her virginity” to Apollo. In Allen Mandelbaum (1993), Cephisus “had his way” with Liriope. And in Horace Gregory (1958), Leucothoe says the sun god “dazzled” her.

Sometimes it’s necessary to deviate slightly from strict fidelity to Ovid’s exact verbiage to capture what the poet’s words would have meant to his original audience. Ovid’s other main Latin term for denoting sexual violence is “rapio,” from which the English “rape” is derived. Although the primary meaning of “rapio” is “snatch” or “steal,” Ovid uses it repeatedly in tales of sexual assault. The girl Mestra, for instance, identifies the god Neptune as her rapist by saying that he possesses the “raptae praemia virginitatis” — “the prize of her stolen virginity.” In such passages, I simply use the word “rape.” In my translation, Mestra says, “You who raped me — stole my prized virginity.” The most accurate translation is not always the most literal.

Jupiter’s rape of Io similarly calls for accuracy over literalness. Ovid here uses just two words to narrate the rape: “rapuit pudorem,” literally “he stole her chastity,” which I translate as he “raped her, chaste no more.” Translating this phrase too literally into English blunts its violence, making it sound old-fashioned or euphemistic when Ovid’s language is neither. Procne later uses a similar phrase when she threatens to castrate Tereus, her sister’s rapist, by slicing off the organ that “stole” her sister’s “chastity.” The violence of such theft is matched by the violence of her threat.

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Translators have, of course, found ways to obscure and dilute such language. In Charles Martin’s 2004 translation, for instance, Jupiter simply “dishonored” Io, an act that leaves the specific crime unclear. Going beyond euphemism, Gregory rewrites the scene as consensual in his translation. Rather than “steal Io’s chastity,” his Jupiter “overcame her scruples,” a phrase suggesting seduction rather than rape. In his 1986 version, A.D. Melville uses the euphemizing “ravish,” a word that translators repeatedly employ in Ovid’s rape scenes. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, this is now an archaic term for rape that more commonly implies “ecstatic delight” or “sensuous pleasure.” It appears frequently in the titles of romance novels.

Even the most horrific stories of “vis” have been euphemized in translation. In one especially brutal episode, both Apollo and Mercury rape a 14-year-old girl named Chione. Mercury makes her fall asleep with his wand, then rapes her. In my translation: “Unconscious from its mighty touch, she suffers / the god’s forced rape.” Other translators obscure the rape or give Chione agency she lacks. In Mandelbaum’s version, she “submits / in deep sleep, to his godly violence.” It is unclear how Chione can “submit” to violence in her sleep. Rolfe Humphries’s 1955 translation reframes Mercury’s “vis” as “power”: “Under his touch she lay, and felt his power.” The girl here seems awed into submission rather than bent to Mercury’s will by force.

If we want readers to consider the brutality present in great literature, we must give them the tools to do so. And with a writer like Ovid, a well-translated text is the first of those tools. Ovid is arguably the canonical poet of sexual violence, and as such he offers a rich space for considering how we think, speak and write about such trauma. We need to use and normalize the words “rape” and “force.” When translators refuse to back down from such language, they can treat sexual violence as violence, allowing readers to speak its name, scrutinize it, ponder how it works and recognize how it continues to transform too many of us.

Stephanie McCarter is a classics professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. Her new translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is now available.

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