Rape, Lost in Translation

How translators of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” turn an assault into a consensual encounter

Leucothoe is only one of the many raped women of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, though she is not as famous as Daphne, Io, Persephone, or Philomela. She is collateral damage in Venus’s revenge against the Sun, who exposed the goddess’s affair with the war-god Mars. To torment the Sun, Venus enflames him with desire for Leucothoe, a mere mortal, and each day he prolongs his light by watching her — until watching her is not enough. We’re told versions of this tale time and again in the epic: a beautiful girl, caught in the gaze of a powerful male, violated, and forever transformed. Translations of Ovid often pass lightly over these violations, describing women as being “ravished” or “enjoyed.” But in Leucothoe’s case in particular, translators have so obscured and mitigated Ovid’s language that it seems almost no rape at all but a consensual sexual liaison, a woman won over by the brilliant beauty of a god.

Since translation is an art centered upon small details, I must consider what may seem minutiae in order to glean exactly what happens to her. But, as any rape victim whose every action has been parsed knows, defining rape has far too often been a matter of minutiae. Translation all too often replicates contemporary social attitudes regarding what constitutes seduction, rape, and consent — and the often problematically hazy lines we have drawn between them.

The Sun comes to Leucothoe disguised as her mother. Dismissing her slave girls, he discloses his identity:

She was frightened,
Let fall the spindle and distaff, but even her fright
Was most becoming. He delayed no longer,
Turned to his true appearance, the bright splendor,
And she, still fearful of the sudden vision,
Won over by that shining, took his passion
With no complaint.

This is Rolfe Humphries’ now classic mid-century translation. It is hard to understand here precisely what happens in Leucothoe’s bedchamber. It’s clear that the Sun will take her whether or not she is willing — but she seems almost to consent. She is “won over.” Is this, in the memorably horrific words of an erstwhile U.S. congressman, “legitimate rape?”

There is less ambiguity in the Latin. Here are Ovid’s words followed by my own translation in iambic pentameter, the meter preferred by many translators of the epic:

pavet illa, metuque
et colus et fusus digitis cecidere remissis.
ipse timor decuit. nec longius ille moratus
in veram rediit speciem solitumque nitorem;
at virgo quamvis inopino territa visu
victa nitore dei posita vim passa querella est.

She quakes, and in her fright
distaff and spindle fell from fingers slackened.
Dread made her lovely. He delayed no more,
returned to his true form and normal brightness.
But though the virgin feared the sudden vision,
defeated by the brightness of the god,
she quit her protest and endured his force.

Vim passa est (“endured his force”) is as clear a description of rape as one can find in Latin. Passa est, from the Latin word pati, has one connotation of being the recipient of sexual penetration. Seneca the Younger, for instance, describes someone penetrated by a man as “enduring (pateretur) the man.” This aspect of Ovid’s Latin is untranslatable without destroying its terse subtlety. But passa est more explicitly suggests suffering something deeply unpleasant, which makes Humphries’ “took” feel off the mark. This is, after all, the word that gives us “passion,” not only the erotic passion of lovers but the bodily passion, the suffering, of Christ or his martyrs.

The word that gives us ‘passion,’ not only the erotic passion of lovers but the bodily suffering of Christ or his martyrs.

Where “passion” appears in Humphries’ rendering, it’s not a translation of passa est, from which it’s derived, but of vim, “force,” a word that communicates aggression, not ardor. In sexual contexts this is frequently the Latin equivalent for the English “rape.” Later in the epic, Ovid tells how Vertumnus nearly rapes Pomona but wins her instead through mutual desire. In my translation:

He readies force but needs no force — the nymph,
seized by the god’s good looks, felt equal wounds.

There are parallels here to the rape of Leucothoe. Pomona is “seized” and Leucothoe “defeated.” Ovid even likens Vertumnus to the bright sun just before these lines. But whereas Ovid explicitly states that “force” is unnecessary for Vertumnus (though he was quite willing to use it), “force” is exactly what Leucothoe endures. The similarities between the two stories make the differences starker.

The same nexus of language is seen in Valerius Maximus’s description of prince Sextus Tarquinius’ rape of Lucretia, perhaps the most notorious incident of sexual violence from Rome. Here the famously chaste Roman matron is “forced to suffer (pati) sexual intercourse through violence (vim).” This rape, according to the legend, so enraged the Romans that they overthrew the kings and instituted the republican system of government.

Where is such anger on Leucothoe’s behalf? Why would Humphries downplay her brutal rape?

Two aspects of the text overly influence translators. The first is the god’s nitor, which has not only the primary meaning of “brightness” but also the secondary meaning of “beauty.” This suggests, just maybe, that Leucothoe is actually seduced by the god’s handsomeness. This detail combines with Leucothoe’s failure to complain. In this view, she consents — he is just too dreamy to resist.

There is a better explanation. Leucothoe does not protest because sexual violence silences her, as it does many rape victims both in Ovid’s epic and today. The Sun’s awesome beauty and blinding illumination combine to be undeniable proof that her assailant is a god, against whom she is simply powerless. What good would protest do? Failure to complain is hardly equivalent to verbal consent, no matter how handsome the rapist. And can she even see his gleaming nitor? Can any mere mortal look directly upon the sun? In just the previous book of the epic, another mortal, Semele, beholds the true form of a god, her lover Jupiter — and is incinerated.

Leucothoe does not protest because sexual violence silences her, as it does many rape victims both in Ovid’s epic and today.

When Leucothoe’s father discovers her loss of virginity, he flies into a rage — not at the Sun, but at her. Pointing to the Sun, she insists he raped her in what is her only direct speech: “He inflicted force on me, unwilling.” Her words vim ferre echo other rape accounts. Seneca the Elder uses precisely these words when speaking of a young woman who killed the man raping her (vim inferentem). Humphries’ “He made me do it!” fails to fully render Leucothoe’s unambiguous statement. Leucothoe’s father does not believe her and buries her alive, killing her. The Sun, in a bizarre act of pity applied too late, transforms her into frankincense.

Why do we too not take her at her word? Why do we refuse to believe Leucothoe when she insists she was raped?

I choose Humphries’ translation as my prime example because it’s widely taught and read, not because it is the most egregious in stretching Ovid’s Latin. In fact, it’s quite typical. Some translators veer from Ovid’s original language in only a few details — but details are crucial. Vim becomes “advances” (Stanley Lombardo) or even “ardent wooing” (Frank Justus Miller). It is distressing how breezily violent rape becomes insistent courting.

Some elide the key word “force,” vim, entirely. For instance, Charles Martin:

This unexpected apparition frightens
the virgin, but its radiance overwhelms her,
and she gives in to him without complaint.

Or Allen Mandelbaum:

That sudden vision finds her still afraid,
but godly radiance is just too great.
And she — unable to protest — submits.

There is no “rape” in these rapes. Others euphemize Leucothoe’s direct statement accusing the Sun of rape. A.D. Melville gives, “He ravished me against my will!” Martin, “He plundered me! I did not pleasure him!” Mandelbaum maintains the rape accusation but changes it to indirect speech: “even as she claims…that she was raped against her will.”

The Girls Who Turned into Trees

Some versions play up Leucothoe’s consent far beyond what the Latin could ever justify. David Raeburn, for instance:

Shocked as she was by this sudden appearance, the girl was utterly
dazzled. Protest was vain and the Sun was allowed to possess her.

Or Horace Gregory:

The god, revealed,
Showed her his sudden heat, his manliness,
At which she trembled, yet could not resist it;
She welcomed the invasion of the Sun.

Gregory later has Leucothoe accuse the Sun not of raping but of “dazzling” her, with no suggestion of her unwillingness.

David Slavitt, who admits to taking “all kinds of liberties” in his translation, gets far too carried away imagining the details of Leucothoe’s desire:

The distaff falls from her numb fingers and onto the floor,
making the only noise in a long and dreamy silence.
She stares in disbelief as his features blur and change
from those of her mother to new and grander proportions — it is
indeed Apollo who stands there, splendid and awesome! The girl,
meek, is in shock as he comes to enfold her in his strong arms.

These additions seem almost meant to make us feel a frisson of erotic titillation. Have we been made complicit in a rape that has been glossed over and concealed from us?

The thing is, even with these distortions, omissions, and mistranslations, the Sun still rapes Leucothoe. No other word suffices for when a man (a god!) comes to a woman (a mortal!) when she’s alone, terrifies her, asserts his power over her, then sexually penetrates her. It is indeed doubtful that clear consent can even be offered in such a situation. And what if Leucothoe had offered a vocal sign of compliance? As Monica Lewinsky points out in a recent article for Vanity Fair, such highly disparate power dynamics create “a circumstance [where] the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.”

Is such nitpicking, in the end, really valid? Isn’t this a small moment in a grand, sweeping epic? Aren’t translators meant to take liberties to make something new that stands independent of the original text? To a degree, yes. Yet the translator does a disservice by eliding or diminishing the disturbing aspects of the original, particularly when these involve sexual violence or abuse of power.

It is irresponsible, especially in our present moment, to overlook rather than interrogate the epic’s sexual violence.

To quote a comment by Emily Wilson on the Odyssey that equally pertains to Ovid’s Leucothoe, “Rape culture is deeply intertwined with how this scene is read, and how it’s taught to impressionable teenagers.” It was indeed the Metamorphoses that gave rise to the trigger warning debate on college campuses when a Columbia student complained about a professor’s failure to acknowledge the ubiquitous presence of rape in the poem, instead “focus[ing] on the beauty of the language and the splendor of the imagery.” Educators and translators alike have a responsibility to do better. Rape in Ovid’s poem has indeed received renewed scrutiny in the wake of the #MeToo movement, as has rape in Greco-Roman myth and Classical antiquity more generally. It is irresponsible, especially in our present moment, to overlook rather than interrogate the epic’s sexual violence.

We must think carefully about why translators have mitigated, even erased Leucothoe’s rape. Their hedging in many ways reflects our own contemporary lack of adequate vocabulary for capturing sexual violence and our tendency to gloss over rape with language that mitigates and obscures it. We still lack clarity about what exactly constitutes consent — is it communicated with words or with the body alone? Rape remains a topic around which more questions swirl than clear, definitive answers. Even now, some think it is rape only if a woman screams. These translations echo our failure to trust women who say they have been raped, and they reenact how we downplay female victimization while exonerating male perpetrators, biases recently outlined by Kate Manne.

These mishandlings of Ovid’s tale illustrates how gender biases are reproduced in the art of translation.

These mishandlings of Ovid’s Leucothoe tale illustrate well how gender biases in society at large are reproduced in the art of translation, a phenomenon Emily Wilson has eloquently illuminated. As she has pointed out, such “biases can lead to some seriously problematic and questionable choices (such as…translating rape as if it were the same as consensual sex).” It matters that the person shedding light on such biases is the first woman to publish a translation of Homer’s Odyssey into English.

It is fitting to conclude by observing that only one woman, Mary M. Innes, has published a complete translation of the Metamorphoses into English, more than 60 years ago — Jane Alison’s 2014 Change Me comprises decontextualized selections, not including the story of Leucothoe. Here is Innes’ prose version of Leucothoe’s rape: “Leucothoe, though frightened by the unexpected sight, was overcome by his magnificence, and accepted the god’s embraces without a murmur.”

Perhaps it’s the right time for another woman to be given a try.

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