Author Q&A: Len Krisak, translator of Ovid’s Erotic Poems

15271Today's Q&A is with the poet Len Krisak, who has translated the classical poet Ovid's erotic poems Amores and Ars amatoria for  new volume titled Ovid's Erotic Poems. Krisak captures the music of Ovid's richly textured Latin meters through rhyming couplets that render the verse as playful and agile as it was meant to be. Sophisticated, satirical, and wildly self-referential, Ovid's Erotic Poems is not just a wickedly funny send-up of romantic and sexual mores but also a sharp critique of literary technique and poetic convention. Here he talks a little bit about the process of translating poetry, and more.

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Penn Press: How did you balance form and meaning while translating Ovid’s poems?

Len Krisak: These two are in perpetual tension in translation—especially in verse translation. I assume as a matter of course that the form must be respected first. Then I work under Dryden’s rubric of paraphrase—the closest re-wording possible of the “content” or “idea” of the poem, within that form.

How did you choose the rhyme schemes and meter in your translations? What are the parallels between the metrical form of your translations and that of Ovid’s original poems?

Here, I tried for an iambic equivalent, in six and five feet, of Ovid’s six- and five-foot lines, which are of course quantitative in meter, and not in the accentual-syllabic meter I used. The original Latin does not rhyme at all, but I felt a Dryden–Pope “polishing off” of Ovid’s lines was truest to his very closed-off, self-contained couplets. They are the English way of achieving wit and humor.

In your opinion, are there any aspects of Ovid’s poetry that are just untranslatable in English?

Sure—the exact aural equivalents of his sounds and the quantitative meters. Trying to write quantitative English verse, despite the occasional attempt throughout the history of English poetry, is virtually impossible.

Which poem did you most enjoy translating and why?

An impossible question!

How has reading and translating Ovid’s poetry influenced your own work as a poet?

Although this may sound horrifying, I’m afraid it’s most often the other way around. Hence the constant complaint of critics that Pope’s Homer sounds like Pope, and Dryden’s Ovid sounds like Dryden, etc. Of course, many qualities in Ovid are things I try for in my own, original English poems—clarity, wit, concision, force, elegance, and so on.

How have Ovid’s erotic poems impacted medieval and renaissance discourse on (courtly) love?

Oh, my! I have to stress that I’m not a scholar, but a poet. These are matters perhaps best left to the experts, like Sarah Ruden. [Ruden contributed the introduction for Ovid's Erotic Poems.] As a glorified layman, I suppose I might venture to say that the whole apparatus of courtly love—the cruel mistress, the adoring liege-service and all that—are not exactly what Ovid has in mind. He is far more clear-eyed—maybe at times even jaundiced or brutal—when it comes to love. And much of what Ovid’s doing in these two works is playing with literary conventions—a knowing, winking parody of Latin didactic verse. Was he capable of sincere and heartfelt love for his (third) wife? I think the Tristis and other work written in his exile might confirm that.

Your translation conveys a very humorous or tongue-in-cheek attitude from Ovid toward love. Was that unusual in classical poetry?

Oh, not at all. Catullus comes to mind, and even occasionally Propertius.

To what extent are readers to assume that his views are serious or merely for the purposes of entertainment?

I feel strongly that there is no disjunction between the two. It’s that “merely” that’s the catch, I’m afraid. Someone once asked Frost if poetry was essentially “frothy” (or some such word). He replied that it was play for mortal stakes! In Ovid, the humor must surely cause us to think, even if long afterwards. And what’s the old classic tag (from either Horace or Longinus)? “To move, delight, and instruct.” Notice that it can very well be all three.

How does Ovid’s treatment of erotic love compare to modern views on the subject?

Oh, dear.  Once again I beg to withdraw as no expert whatsoever on that subject! Perhaps each reader will have to consult his or her own experience to come to an answer.

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Len Krisak is author and translator of several volumes of poetry, including Virgil's Eclogues, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press. He has won several poetry awards, including the Richard Wilbur Prize, the Robert Penn Warren Prize, and the Robert Frost Prize. Ovid's Erotic Poems is available now.