The Creative Art of Translation

Miles Johnson |

The Stories of Daedalus in Ovid's Metamorphoses

This essay is part of our initiative to showcase outstanding high school writing on topics in Classics. If you or a teen Classics enthusiast in your orbit have a brilliant essay to share, send it our way at [email protected] ! For more information, check out this editorial by In Medias Res editor John Kuhner.  

Minerva turns the plummeting Perdix into a partridge. Engraving by Crispijn the Elder

This essay explores the process of reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses and translating sections of the text from Latin into English verse, a project that I completed as an independent study over the course of the 2022-2023 academic year. In the sections that follow, I discuss translation theory, categories of literary and creative translation, several examples of translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses from the past fifty years, and finally my own original version of the myth of Daedalus, Icarus, and Perdix from Book VIII of the Metamorphoses. I undertook this project because I liked the word-for-word translation method used in my high school Latin classroom, but through the process, I learned how to turn a literal translation into a freer form of translation.

I. What is Translation?

The scholar Willis Barnstone proposes a broad and inclusive definition of translation. Translation is everywhere, in all human activities. Writing involves the process of turning thoughts into words; reading involves turning words into mental thoughts; translation of a text into another language involves finding equivalence. Thus, as Barnstone states, “every perceived metamorphosis of a word or phrase within or between languages, every decipherment and interpretation of that logo on the panel, every act of reading, writing and interpretation of a text, every role by each actor in the cast, every adaptation of a script by a director of opera, theater, film, ballet, pantomime, indeed every perception of movement and change, in the street or on our tongues, on the page or in our ears, leads us directly to the art and activity of translation” (19). This is a useful starting point for any discussion of translating Ovid, whose text is an exploration of metamorphosis, i.e. changing forms, both physical and poetic.

More specifically, the translation of an ancient Latin text calls for more than simple word-for-word equivalence. This “word for word” method is often found in the Latin classroom, but it should be considered an aid to language learning rather than an end in itself. However, what translation can strive to achieve is equivalence, as according to Barnstone, “there is no equivalence without difference” (18). Rather, Barnstone states that “the measure of success or failure in translation of literary texts is determined by the extent to which an equivalence of the entire cognitive and aesthetic elements is transferred and re-created in the new text” (47). In other words, a successful translation not only encapsulates the literal meaning of the original text but other characteristics that make up the text, such as irony, tone, and style. For an author like Ovid, who is playful and self-aware in the extreme, a “good” translation will have to capture some of the poet’s wit, verve, and humor.

II. Metaphrase, Paraphrase, and Adaptation

Barnstone lays out two large categories of translation: literal information transfer and literary transposition. Literal information transfer is necessary in cases of commercial, diplomatic, and scientific information, such as translating a passport or the instruction manual for a dishwasher. Literary transposition, on the other hand, pertains to literature, religion, and philosophy. Within the category of literary transposition, Barnstone describes three classes of translation: metaphrase, paraphrase, and adaptation. Metaphrase is a strict word-by-word or literal translation of the text; adaptation is a re-creation or imitation of the text; and paraphrase is the middle ground between the other two. In a metaphrastic translation, the original author of the text is always visible, and the translator takes on a secondary role. The translation itself proceeds word-by-word, line-by-line with the goal of remaining as close to the original work as possible. Similar to a metaphrase translation, a paraphrase translation remains close to the original text. However, the author of a paraphrase translation can take certain creative liberties that would not be found in a metaphrase translation. At the other extreme from metaphrase is adaptation, in which the translator is most prevalent in the translation, and significant components of the text itself can be changed. In fact, many of the most creative and successful adaptations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses are not “texts” at all, but take the form of poems, songs, plays, movies, paintings, or sculptures.




III. Examples of Translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses

In preparing to write my own translation of a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I read several translations of this epic poem in different styles and from different epochs. In this section, I compare translations that are representative of a range of artistic goals: the metaphrase translation of Allen Mandelbaum (1993), the paraphrase translation of Ted Hughes (1997), the creative translation of Mary Zimmerman (2001), and the free adaptation in the Broadway show Hadestown by Anaïs Mitchell (2006).

Allen Mandelbaum’s metaphrase translation of The Metamorphoses, published in 1993, offers a near word-by-word translation of Ovid’s lines. Mandelbaum translates Ovid’s verse in meter, maintaining the poetic aspect of Ovid’s work, while also remaining nearly identical to the meaning of the original text in each line. Mandelbaum’s text sets out to provide a readable and accurate rendition of the original text.

Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid, published in 1997, serves as an example of a paraphrase translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When Hughes translates Ovid’s stories, he maintains the plot of the original Latin text. Although Hughes does not translate word-by-word, almost every single line maintains the same general meaning as the corresponding line from the original text. However, many of Hughes's lines are also significantly shorter than those of Ovid. Additionally, unlike Metamorphoses which flows continuously from story to story, Tales from Ovid is composed of standalone stories. Additionally, as the name suggests, Tales from Ovid does not include all of the stories from the Metamorphoses; instead, Hughes selects sections from all 16 books of the work.

Mary Zimmerman’s play Metamorphoses, which premiered in 2001, is an example of a creative adaptation of Ovid’s poem. Zimmerman’s play is a translation of the original text into a dramatic script. While the play maintains many of the same plot elements and characters of Ovid’s stories, Zimmerman makes several significant changes to the original text. For example, in the story of Phaeton, rather than driving the chariot of the sun, Phaeton drives his father’s car, while a therapist narrates. While the stories from Zimmerman’s play are still recognizable as Ovid’s, her adaptations make her stories unique. Similar to Ovid, Zimmerman’s adaptations of the different stories flow together. Zimmerman expands on the idea of a constant flow by introducing a central pool of water on stage to bring this “flow” visually into the theater.

The opening lines of each translation serve as a useful means for examining the various translation styles that each translator employs. Here is Ovid’s original Latin:

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas,
corpora; di, coeptis (nam vos mutastis et illas)
adspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi
ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.

Allen Mandelbaum translates these lines as:

My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
But since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes: may
the song I sing be seamless as its way
weaves from the world’s beginning to our day.

Mandelbaum makes a number of minor changes, including lengthening the original four lines into six and changing the meaning of a number of phrases such as describing his work as a “book of changes.” However, Mandelbaum upholds the meaning of each phrase, rendering his translation essentially equivalent to Ovid’s in meaning.

In Tales of Ovid, Ted Hughes translates these lines:

Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed
Into different bodies.

I summon the supernatural beings
Who first contrived
The transmogrifications
In the stuff of life.
You did it for your own amusement.
Descend again, be pleased to reanimate
This revival of those marvels.
Reveal, now, exactly
How they were performed
From the beginning
Up to this moment.

Hughes uses free verse and radically shorter lines than Ovid’s Latin hexameters. Yet, although the translation of each individual phrase differs from the original Latin, the overall meaning of the passage remains coherent with Ovid’s. By shortening the lines so drastically, Hughes keeps each individual thought or phrase in a single line.

Mary Zimmerman’s “translation” of the Metamorphoses into a dramatic script is the most creative translation of these lines:

Bodies, I have in mind, and how they can change to assume new shapes-- I ask the help of the gods, who know the trick: change me, and let me glimpse the secret and speak, better than I know how, of the world’s birthing, and the creation of all things, from the first to the very latest.

Zimmerman maintains the logical structure of Ovid’s verse, but completely changes his style and rhetoric. She transforms Ovid’s verse into a block of prose text and adds a number of words not found in the original Latin, including a personal speaking voice that asks the gods to “change me.” The addition of a first person narrator is a radical shift from Ovid who does not employ the first person throughout the entire Metamorphoses.

The freest adaptation of a myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses that I encountered is Hadestown, a contemporary Broadway show inspired by the stories of Hades and Persephone and Orpheus and Eurydice. The play intertwines the two myths, demonstrating the parallelism between the two central romantic relationships. Composed by Anaïs Mitchell, the form of the adaptation as a musical or “folk opera” emphasizes the importance of music and song in the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Additionally, some of the songs in Hadestown emulate Ovid’s verse. For example, much of the play’s emphasis on the relationship between Hades and Persephone stems from lines 10.25-26 of the Metamorphoses in which Orpheus reminds Hades that he too has been captured by love.

IV. Labyrinth, Icarus, and Perdix

After studying these various translations and creative reinterpretations of Ovid, I decided in my own translation project to focus on one series of myths from Book VIII of the Metamorphoses. The tales of the Labyrinth, Icarus, and Perdix are three sequential stories in the Metamorphoses featuring Daedalus. In the story of the Labyrinth, Daedalus is portrayed as a genius inventor (ingenio fabrae celeberrimus artis, 8.159). His success is demonstrated again in the beginning of the story of Icarus, in which Daedalus creates wings capable of allowing him and his son Icarus to fly over the ocean to escape captivity on Crete. However, at the end of the story, the wings fail and Icarus dies. Finally, the story of Perdix shines a negative light on Daedalus, who throws his nephew Perdix from the top of the Acropolis out of envy because the young boy was already a better inventor than his uncle. I chose to work on these three myths because they contain stories I had heard about before even reading the Metamorphoses, and they also allowed me to analyze the rise and fall of the reader’s perception of Daedalus.

The three stories are told in non-chronological order; Daedalus’ murder of Perdix happened before he created the Labyrinth and lost his son Icarus. However, the way in which Ovid re-organizes the stories leads the reader to move towards a more pessimistic interpretation of Daedalus’ character over time. As a result, the reader's perception of Daedalus undergoes a sort of metamorphosis; upon reading the story of Perdix, the reader can no longer revere Daedalus as purely a skilled inventor or a bereaved father, but rather must weigh Daedalus’ genius with his vices. Additionally, the parallelisms between the three stories demonstrate themes apparent in the rest of the Metamorphoses. While the gods cause several transformations from humans into other forms throughout the entire work, humans are not capable of creating these same metamorphoses. In the Perdix passage, Athena is able to transform Perdix into a partridge as he falls from the Acropolis. However, when Daedalus attempts to turn himself into a bird, it leads to his son’s death, demonstrating the limits of human ingenuity and talent.

V. My Translation of Ovid

My translation of the stories of Daedalus aims to be read alone as a standalone translation by an audience who enjoys classics and has a relatively strong understanding of them. My translation is a paraphrase of the original text, and the story and plot remain the same. I strove to translate into English lines of ten syllables with a loose iambic pentameter rhythm.

The process of creating this translation went beyond the work I am accustomed to doing in my high school Latin curriculum. I began by reviewing the Latin verses, marking any stylistic choices made by Ovid that I aimed to include in my translation. I then translated all three stories word-by-word, a task similar to preparing for my Latin class. Once this was completed, I consulted a number of different translations, including those by Allen Mandelbaum, Arthur Golding, and others, in order to find inspiration and pick out specific translation decisions to include in my work. Using the inspiration I found from Ovid and these translators, I edited my word-by-word translation into more natural language. With difficulty, I then attempted to convert these lines into iambic pentameter. Although not every line is in meter, I was able to make most lines contain ten syllables with a semblance of iambic rhythm. This exercise instilled in me a greater respect for verse composition, as well as a deeper understanding of Ovid’s technique as a poet.

Ovid's Metamorphoses
Book VIII, Lines 152-259

King Minos, disembarking from his ship
to set foot at last upon the Cretan land,
then made a sacrifice of bulls to Jove,
and fastened spoils to his palace walls.

The infamous shame in his house had grown:
a two-formed monster, half-human, half-beast,
the proof of the scandal of its mother.
Minos hastened for it to be removed
and imprisoned the beast in a winding
labyrinth filled with blind walls past counting.

Daedalus, famed for his incredible
talent, set to work: he made this structure
untraceable by leading sight into
oblivion through its twisting paths.
Just like the Meander River – how its
playful waters flow back and flow forward,
how it sees its own departing waves arrive;
back to its source, then again out to sea,
the river drives its undulations on:
just in this way, Daedalus filled endless
paths for error; the creator himself
was scarcely able to find the threshold:
such was the deceit of his labyrinth.

Following the completion of the maze
Minos imprisoned the half-bull, half-child.
The monster fed on Athenian blood
for two sets of nine years, but finally
at the third tribute, he was defeated.
With virgin aid, Theseus easily
found the exit to the labyrinth by
unrolling a thread, a task not done before.

Immediately after his escape,
Theseus set off with Ariadne.
He cruelly abandoned his companion
alone on the island known as Naxos.
Dionysus aided the lamenting girl,
and in order that she would become a
perennial constellation, he took
off the crown from her head and set it in
the sky. The slender crown flew through the air,
and its gems transformed into shining flames.
They, lying among the constellations,
remain below Corona, and next to
Nexus and the man holding a serpent.

Daedalus, weary from his long exile,
longed to return again to his homeland,
but all routes of escape were blocked by sea.
“I cannot travel by land or water,
but nothing blocks me from taking the sky;
so then let us travel along that path!
For though Minos controls all other things,
even he does not rule over the air.”

His mind fell into undiscovered art,
recreating nature. He began by
setting some feathers in increasing size,
just as if they had grown along a slope,
like pan-pipes that were fashioned long ago.
He bound the middle feathers with a thread,
and the lowest ones he fastened with wax.
And when at last they all had been joined,
he curved them to imitate a real bird.

Icarus stood in his father’s workshop,
unaware that he would cause his peril.
He made a game of grabbing the feathers
and softening the wax with his fingers.
Icarus unknowingly in his play
foiled the extraordinary project.

When the final touches had been added,
Daedalus tried on the two beating wings,
and flapped them to let him balance on air.
Then he instructed his young son like this:
“Fly a central path. If you go too low,
your wings will get too heavy from the waves,
and if you go too high, they will ignite.
Stay between extremes and do not stare at
Boötes, Helice, or at Orion:
I will be your leader. Follow my path.”

As he spoke to Icarus, Daedalus
fit the newly-created wings on him.
And while he did this, he began to cry.
He kissed his own son – alas, one final time! –
and rose, while fearing for his companion
flying behind him, like a bird bringing
her children from the nest into the air.
He urged Icarus to follow his lead
and instructed him on the lethal task.
While he flew, he gazed at his son behind.

A fisherman, pulling his line, caught sight
of them, and so did a shepherd leaning
on a stick, and a plowman resting on
his plow, and they became senseless from shock –
Surely, they believed, these figures able
to travel across the sky must be gods.

As they flew, they passed the island Samos,
Juno’s favorite place. They also left
Delos and Paros behind, as well as
the islands Lebinthos and Calymne.
The further he flew, the more Icarus
began to rejoice in audacious flight,
and he sought to travel a higher route.
But he flew too close to the sun, and the
wax holding together the wings melted.
Helpless, wingless, he beat his naked arms.
Though he shouted the name of his father,
the dark water covered up his soft voice.

And the unfortunate father, now no
longer a father, called out, “Icarus!
Where are you? Where in the waves should I search?”
He saw the feathers floating on the water.
He cursed his creation and constructed
a tomb for his own dead son in the land
which takes its name from him: Icaria.

While Daedalus buried the body of
his ill-fated son, a chatting partridge
peeked out at the man from a muddy ditch,
and beat his wings, singing a joyful song:
a bird that had never been seen before,
but one who held a great accusation
against you Daedalus, still unaware.

For the bird was your very own nephew,
whom your sister, unaware of his fate,
had entrusted to you so that you would
teach him your craft. The boy was twelve, quick, keen.
He, after studying a fish’s spine,
fastened countless teeth onto a sliver
of iron, and thus invented the use
of a saw. He was the first to join
two iron arms together in a knot,
making them equally distanced in a
circle, so that one arm was standing still
and the other arm spinning: a compass.

His success led you to become jealous.
You shoved him from Minerva’s citadel.
But since Minerva favors those who have
natural ingenuity, she plucked
him falling, and turned him into a bird,
winging him on the fly. And she transferred
the vigor which before had distinguished
his mind to his newly formed wings and feet.
But he kept his name as before, Perdix.
Even today he does not fly too high,
nor does he build his nest in high branches.
Mindful of his ancient fall, the partridge
flutters close to the ground, remaining safe.

Barnstone, Willis. The Poetics of Translation. Yale UP, 1993.
Hadestown. Composed by Anaïs Mitchell, 2006.
Hughes, Ted. Tales from Ovid. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.
Mandelbaum, Allen. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Harcourt, 1993.
Metamorphoses. Directed by Mary Zimmerman, 1996.


Sign up to receive email updates about new articles

Miles Johnson

Miles Johnson is in the Class of 2024 at the Collegiate School in New York City.


Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.