Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 50.

Liz Oakley-Brown, Ovid and the Cultural Politics of Translation in Early Modern England. Studies in European Cultural Transition. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. Pp. viii + 222, incl. five black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 0-7546-5155-X. UK£47.50

Henry Power,
University of Bristol (from October 2007, University of Exeter)

Liz Oakley-Brown’s aim in this book is to show that English versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses ‘are important sites of cultural and textual difference from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries’ (p. 1). The texts under discussion are diverse, and her choice ‘has been determined by those versions of Ovid’s poem which engage with the construction of early modern identities in specific ways, some of which are eccentric to the usual canon’ (p. 13). The survey touches on Titus Andronicus (and Edward Ravenscroft’s post- Restoration reworking of it), Abraham Fraunce’s generically indeterminate Countesse of Pembroke’s Yvychurch, George Sandy’s Caroline translation, a selection of lesser-known Ovidian adaptations and translations by female authors, Samuel Garth’s 1717 edition by various hands, Caxton’s prose translation, and Elizabeth Talbot’s sixteenth-century tapestries depicting scenes from the Metamorphoses.

The ‘cultural politics’ of the title are for the most part the politics of gender (though there is also analysis of George Sandys’ support for the personal rule of Charles I, and of Elizabeth Singer Rowe’s Williamite and anti-Gallic adaptations of Ovidian myth). In her discussion of Titus Andronicus, for example, Oakley-Brown is interested principally in the idea of Lavinia as a female reader, and translator, of Ovid. In her discussion of Fraunce’s versions of Ovidian myth, her focus is again on the voice given to women within the text. Fraunce draws attention, she suggests, to Mary Sidney’s reputation as a female translator. She surely goes too far, though, in suggesting that Talbot’s tapestry of the fall of Phaeton ‘instead of simply depicting women in a subordinate position . . . implicitly promotes their textual agency’ (p. 131). In order to do so, she has to explain that one of the Naiads in the tapestry might resemble Talbot herself, that Philip Hardie has argued that Phaeton’s body is effectively textualized through his mother’s discovery of his epitaph, and that it was the Naiads who wrote Phaeton’s epitaph. This is a tortuous reasoning, which has little to do with the matter in hand, and which is apparently prompted by a desire to find equivalence between the various texts under discussion. But even if one allows a connection between the sections which take gender as their subject, it can only be a connection of the most basic sort. And it is hard to see how the chapters on Sandys, or Garth, or Caxton relate to this material. Although Oakley-Brown has interesting things to say about all of these texts, there is a basic problem of integration. This is partly, no doubt, a consequence of the sheer diversity of her subject matter.

It is partly, also, because the book lacks a clearly stated aim, or consistent methodological approach. Oakley-Brown dismisses at an early stage the idea of conducting ‘prescriptive comparative analyses between source and target languages’, for two reasons: first, she says (quoting Michael Cronin), because such an approach ‘ignores the fact that most people who read a translation do so because they do not speak the source language’; and, second, it is near impossible ‘to secure an originary source text for the early modern English translations of the Metamorphoses’ (p. 15). The first point is questionable, to say the least. The second is an important caveat, but surely not one to justify ignoring the source text altogether, as Oakley-Brown does. Translations can of course be read utterly independently of the texts from which they are translated. It seems strange to do this, though, in a study concerned specifically with the ‘cultural politics of translation’. Oakley- Brown’s summary of her own methodological approach does not make it entirely clear how she will approach her diverse subject matter: ‘Throughout the book, I largely explore Ovidian translation by way of the variable relationships between translator, patron, publisher, readership and critical reception in order to “critique the violence of my own language”’ (ibid.).

In any case, Oakley-Brown often reverts to the ‘prescriptive approach’ she has rejected. In her third chapter, she suggests that George Sandys’ translation of the Metamorphoses tones down the violence inherent in Ovid’s Latin:

'This . . . is particularly marked in his translation of the myth of Philomela. The restrictive prosody of the couplet form assists in reducing the depiction of the violence wrought against Philomela. . . . However, the extent to which Sandys plays down the violence is most apparent when his translation is considered alongside Golding’s version of the myth.' (p. 78)

As it gives an indication of Oakley-Brown’s approach to close reading, I quote the relevant passages in full:

While she reviles, invokes her father, sought
To vent her spleen; her tongue in pincers caught,
His sword devideth from the panting root:
Which, trembling, murmurs curses at her foot.
And as a serpents taile, dissever’d, Leaps:
Even so her tongue; and dying caught her steps. (Sandys, VI. 577-82)

But as she yirnde and called ay upon hir fathers name,
And strived to have spoken still, the cruell tyrant came,
And with a pair of pinsons fast did catch hir by the tung,
And with his sword did cut it off, the stump wheron it hung
Did patter still. The tip fell downe, and quivering on the ground
As thoug that it had murmured it made a certaine sound,
And as an Adder’s tayle cut off doth skip a while: even so
The tip of Philomelaas tongue did wriggle to and fro,
And nearer to hir mistresse-ward in dying still did go. (Golding, VI. 707-15)

To me, at least, it is not immediately obvious how Sandys has played down the violence of the scene. I can hardly think of a more gory or evocative image than the panting root of Philomela’s tongue - - surely all the more effective for being concise. Sandys’ only significant divergence from the Latin is in having Philomela’s tongue murmuring curses at her foot: an anthropomorphic detail, if a distracting one. Oakley-Brown doesn’t quote the Latin, but tells us that:

'the anthropomorphic transformation of Philomela’s tongue, so poignantly rendered in the Latin text and Golding’s translation, is contracted in Sandy’s Ovid; this is a translation practice which continues throughout much of the Metamorphosis Englished.' (p. 78)

Poignancy seems an unlikely quality to discover in either of these passages, which, like Ovid’s, tend towards the baroque; Oakley-Brown also finds poignancy in the innuendo-laden exchange between Narcissus and Echo (p. 104). In any case, the sole argument advanced for the greater poignancy (and, despite Oakley-Brown’s declared critical approach, accuracy) of Golding’s version seems to be that he uses more words. This passage is typical of the book as a whole. Oakley-Brown steers clear of detailed textual analysis, and asserts more than she argues.

Ovid and the Cultural Politics of Translation in Early Modern England can be hard work, for two reasons. First, Oakley-Brown has a taste for academic jargon, and a tendency to indulge that taste at the expense of clarity. The book’s final sentence, in which she tries to draw together its various strands, is a good example:

'English translations of the Metamorphoses are the ‘very life of difference’; indeed, they are sites of différance in which the translation and transformation, construction and deconstruction, of English subjectivities may be explored.' (p. 193)

At the close of a book covering such a broad range of texts, readers expect -- and need -- a cogent conclusion. This is obfuscation. Second, she quotes extensively and unnecessarily from other critics, whose words are often incorporated into her text without explanation. This is especially awkward, since the book has endnotes rather than footnotes. Thus, in order to find out what Oakley-Brown means when she promises to ‘explore Ovidian translations . . . in order to “critique the violence of my own language”’ (quoted above), we have to skip to the end of the chapter. When we do, and when we have tracked down a copy of Eric Cheyfitz’ The Poetics of Imperialism,[[1]] we discover that the quotation originally referred to the appropriation of Native American culture by Anglophone colonialists. It is hard to see how this adds to the reader’s understanding.

The excessive reference to other critics, as well as giving the book the feel of a cento, creates a false impression of punctiliousness. At one stage, Oakley-Brown wrongly attributes a quotation to Dryden’s preface to All for Love (it comes from his preface to Troilus and Cressida), and offers Paulina Kewes’ Authorship and Appropriation as her source for it (p. 35).[[2]] Kewes, though, attributes the quotation correctly. This is a single example, accidentally encountered; it does not inspire confidence in the rest of the notes (which take up 41 of the book’s 193 pages, not counting half-pages). The book does not give the impression of having been checked thoroughly. Typos are frequent. There is a stray page-break on p. 98. The notes are out of order on p. 93.

This is, to summarise, a disappointing book. Its range is impressive, but it suffers from a lack of clarity and cohesion. Oakley-Brown has identified several fascinating topics relating to the reception of Ovid, all of which have a strong claim on our attention. They would, perhaps, be better served by separate (and more carefully written) critical accounts.


[[1]] Eric Cheyfitz, The Poetics of Imperialism (Oxford 1991).

[[2]] Paulina Kewes, Authorship and Appropriation (Oxford 1998).