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Posts from May 2020

Before sea and dry lands — heaped masses and messes and the seeds of ill-joined things!

I talked a bit about the epic structure and the opening lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I. The Homeric epics begin in medias res — with a quarrel in the Achaian camp in the ninth year of the war, or with Telemachus beset in Ithaca and setting out from news of his father, just weeks before Odyseeus’s eventual return. Ovid emphatically does not start his epic in the middle of anything — the unbroken song goes back to the very first beginnings of the orbis, and the very first taking of a form — the first forming of the world itself. Here’s the the next five lines in Metamorphoses, Book I (I.005-009), in their original Latin.[1]

Mundi origo.

Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum
unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,
quem dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
nec quicquam nisi pondus iners congestaque eodem
non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum.

Like before, it’s tough to translate the Latin word-order directly into English. Here’s a word-for-word breakdown of the Latin:

5Antemareetterrasetquodtegitomniacaelum
prep.n., neut. acc. sg.conj.n., fem. acc. pl.conj.rel. pron., neut. nom. sg.v., 3d sg. pres. act. ind.pron., neut. acc. pln., neut. acc. sg.
[before][the sea][and][the lands][and][that which][covers][2][everything][sky, heaven]
6unuserattotonaturaevultusinorbe,
adj., masc. nom. sg.v., 3d sg. impf. act. ind.adj., masc. abl. sg.n., fem. gen. sg.n., masc. nom. sg.prep.n., masc. abl. sg.
[one][was][all][of nature][the looks][3][in][the globe][4]
7quemdixereChaos:rudisindigestaquemoles
rel. pron., neut. acc. sgv., 3d pl. pf. act. ind.[5]n. neut. nom. sg.adj., fem. nom. sg.pf. pass. part., fem. nom. sg. + conj.n., fem. nom. sg.
[that which][they have named][Chaos][crude, unformed][and] [disorganized, confused][mass, pile, heap]
8necquicquamnisipondusinerscongestaqueeodem
conj.pron., neut. nom. sg.adv.n., neut. nom. sg.adj.pf. pass. part., neut. nom. pl. + conj.adv.
[nor][anything][except][6][weight][idle, stupid, senseless][and] [piled][in the same place]
9nonbeneiunctarumdiscordiaseminarerum.
adv.adv.n., fem. gen. pln., fem. abl. sg.n., neut. nom. pl.n., fem. gen. pl.
[not][well][joined][by discord][the seeds][of things]

In this case, a hyperliteral word-by-word translation stays a bit more intelligible. Still pretty awkward, though:

Before sea and lands and that which covers everything, sky
one was in all — nature’s appearance [was, that is] — the circle of the world
which [they] have named Chaos: rude, confused also, mass
nor anything whatever but for weight, idle — piled up, too, in the same place,
of the not-well-joined …[7], — because of strife, — the seeds, of things.

Here’s a prosy sort of translation; for reasons of conventional English word-order it looks at grammatical agreement and uses it to join some of the phrases together that Ovid had put asunder.

Mundi origo.

Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum
unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,
quem dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
nec quicquam nisi pondus iners congestaque eodem
non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum.

World’s Beginning

Before the sea and lands and the sky that covers all, the appearance of nature was one in all the globe, which they (people) have named Chaos: a crude,[8] unorganized heap, nor anything at all except a senseless weight, and also — piled up together, all in the same place — the seeds of things not well-joined due to discord.

I’ll have some more to say, and some attempts at a less prosy sort of translation, in a following post.

All the original translations that I post to this blog are freely available in the public domain.

  1. [1]I got the text from P. Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses at the Perseus Digital Library; they transcribed the text from Hugo Magnus’s edition of 1892 (Gotha: Friedr. Andr. Perthes).
  2. [2]Like a weaving or blanket; shelters, protects; hides, conceals.
  3. [3]Appearance, expression; face.
  4. [4]Circle, ring; the world, the earth, the universe.
  5. [5]Syncopated form, for dixerunt
  6. [6]Lit., if not
  7. [7]Agrees with and describes things, at the end of the line.
  8. [8]Rude, unformed.
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