I can’t be everywhere. But I want to be. 

I have lived all around the United States, but no matter where I’ve staked my claim, I wanted to travel elsewhere. When I was a teacher, my wife (also a teacher) and I had all summer long to travel. Later, as a writer in Arizona, I wrote hundreds of travel stories for my newspaper. I’ve been to three continents, seen more than seven seas, been to all but one state (Hawaii) and to all Canadian provinces and territories (save Nunavut, Labrador and Prince Edward Island). From Hudson Bay in the north to the Cape of Good Hope in the south, travel has been a source of experience, growth, joy, and enlightenment. 

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Travel dissipates provincialism, fosters tolerance, expands awareness, and perhaps most importantly, keeps one alive, awake and engaged. 

But I can’t be everywhere. And now that I am 75 with wobbly knees and the straitened pocketbook of a retiree, travel has become difficult. Long hours driving are too exhausting, and the last time I flew anywhere, I thought it would kill me (I’m six-foot-four and the airplane seats keep getting more and more squeezed: On the last flight, I had to angle my legs out into the aisle — and then the passenger in front of me decided to recline his seat. And that doesn’t even account for the madness of gate hopping at a sprawling hub-airport.)

 

When I was a kid, my parents made sure the my brothers and I were exposed to travel and they spent many summer vacation taking us to places, such as Niagara Falls or Washington, D.C. And when at home, in the 1950s, I’d watch whatever travel shows turned up on TV. There were a few: Bold Journey, Kingdom of the Sea, I Search for Adventure. Col. John D. Craig, John Stephenson and Jack Douglas hosted these shows, made mostly of home movies of travelers, and with lots of South Sea islands and exotic tribes. I ate them up. 

And so, television provided a surrogate for travel. And I continued to watch any travelogue I could find, up through Michael Palin and Tony Bourdain. (Food and cooking shows were often just as much about travel and culture as about frying or simmering.)

 

Now that YouTube has elbowed its way past TV, it has its own brand of travel, and one variety I have found absolutely riveting are the many — hundreds, really — postings of train journeys, filmed from the front window of a locomotive cab. These videos usually run anywhere from about a half hour to up to 9 hours, and typically run unedited, showing the view from the front of a train as it crosses huge swaths of countryside. 

Scottish Highlands

You learn a huge amount about nations from such trips. Normal travel shows tend to focus on the highlights and the cities. But the train, running, say, from Nice to Paris, shows you the land that tourists pay little attention to. And yet, it is those long “flyover” miles that can speak most eloquently about a nation’s character. 

Admittedly, no one is likely to watch a three-hour uninterrupted window view, which can become monotonous, but I put the video on while I do other things and keep track of the voyage, the same way you might read a book on a real train trip and glance out the window from time to time to see how the countryside had changed. 

Slovenia

Nevertheless, I find myself hypnotized, wanting to see what is just around the next bend, and that often keeps me watching for hours. 

These videos vary in quality from fuzzy, low-resolution and often shaky, hand-held images, to the highest quality HD productions, sometimes sponsored by the nation itself, or the rail line. But always, they take me traveling when I cannot leave the house. 

Norway

They come from almost everywhere, with the three biggest sources being Switzerland, Norway and Japan. But I’ve found train trips in New Zealand, 

New Zealand 

Siberia, 

Siberia

Montenegro, Which turns out to be one of the most beautiful countries I’ve never actually visited. 

Montenegro

and “the mountains of the Netherlands” (Yes, I’m not making that one up). 

Train yard in Oslo

Norway comes to us by a YouTuber going under the rubric RailCowGirl. She is a train driver and has uploaded more than a hundred train trips, seen through her windscreen. (A second train driver has also posted videos, under the name “GingerRail.” It’s worth checking those out, too.) They cover many seasons and weathers, and while many of them are of the same trip from Bergen to Oslo, there are also excursions to other sites, including the Arctic Circle. Following the seasons alone is often simply beautiful. A few run over the mountains in a snowstorm with the rails completely hidden under the white. Wind blows, window-wipers try to keep the view clear, the snow comes swirling down, although “down” might be wrong to describe horizontal weather. 

The Switzerland videos focus primarily on the Alps and mountain landscapes. There are also several city tram videos, and at least one I’ve found taken from an aerial tramway (It’s stunning). 

 

The winner, though, as far as I’m concerned, is Japan. I’ve learned more about Japanese geography from these videos than from almost any other source. We tend to think of Japan as an urban nation, with 14 million people scrunched into a city of blaring neon lights, loud traffic, and a million tiny ramen shops and pachinko parlors. But take one of these train trips out of the city and you discover that the vast majority of Japan is both rural and mountainous. 

A special aspect of the Japanese videos is found in the many local regional trips on diesel-powered one-car trains that go from countryside community to to other countrysides, on old, squeaky tracks through the backcountry of Japan, into mountain valley villages and riverside towns. They travel at a slower pace and you can see so much to the right and left of the tracks — the farmland, the houses and architecture, the local businesses and the people, often waving at the train as it passes. 

Other Japanese videos do go through cities, and often from one jammed up urban center to another, with lots of rural clean air between them. There is a fastidiousness to most of the Japanese train videos that vies with the commercial professionalism in the Swiss films. 

I often choose a Japanese trip above any other for its beauty and peacefulness. It’s just amazing watching a trip through the springtime with all the cherry trees in bloom. 

In contrast to the tidiness of the Japanese videos, those from Eastern Europe and Russia often show us overgrown tracks, decaying railway stations, abandoned rolling stock, and an industrial landscape with no environmental concern evident. The rural trips are nevertheless often beautiful, even if weeds are growing in the rail ties. 

Romania 

You can take the jungle ride from Peru’s Machu Picchu down to the flatlands. 

A trip to New Zealand

 

British Columbia’s Kootenay River Valley

 

Colorado’s Royal Gorge

 

Through Queens on New York’s elevated subway

Singapore,

 

Taiwan

Thailand

Multiple trips through Vietnam go from crowded hovels in the back streets 

To beautiful pastoral countryside

You can get a very wide picture of a country from multiple of these train journeys.

For railfans, there are tons of tunnels

Bosnia

And bridges

Vietnam

And views of locomotive controls

French train from Nice to Paris

RailCowGirl often begins her videos with her engine in a yard and we watch as she inspects it before boarding, drives it through the yard to pick up passenger cars, and brings it into the station, before taking off on the journey. It is fascinating for anyone interested in railroads and rail procedures. 

Not everyone has the patience for a four-hour stare out the front window of a train, but for those who do, there is a world to learn. 

I’ve concentrated on train travel. But there are also many videos of boat and ship travel, and a great series of British intercity bus trips. 

A number of Americans have posted “dashcam” footage of road travel, including at least one running for 9 hours using time-lapse photography to squeeze in some 3000 miles of driving. 

Watching these over the years I have supplemented my own travel across portions of the globe, and gotten an overpowering sense of the roundness, smallness, and the continuity and kinship of the world. 

Click any image to enlarge

The first photograph I have of myself is at 15 weeks old, being weighed. Those first moments of life are only measured in weeks. 

Then, in the first year or so after we are born, our age is normally given in months. “He is 10 months old,” or “18 months.” We don’t usually start counting years until after the age of two. Then, it is a year-by-year thing. 

Perhaps there is, when very young, a tendency to split years in half, so that one might claim to be “two-and-a-half years old,” but that soon changes. It would sound very odd for some freshman in high school to say he was “12-and-a-half years old.” Or worse, later on on a job application to claim to be “23-and-a-half years old.” 

So, from three on, we tend to measure our lives in whole years. One is five, or twelve or 18. The last year, though, that gets its own frame, is probably 21, a year with a certain magic ring to it, as if, “Now I am officially an adult.” 

And so, the 20s slip by and the next major milestone is 30, then 40, and 50 and 60. As adults, we think in decades. “I’m in my 40s,” or “My 60s.” 

To go along with that, of course, there is the accelerated sense of time, so the decade becomes a reasonable yardstick for age. The difference between 32 and 33 is basically meaningless. Not like the difference between being four years old, and being five and first heading off to kindergarten. 

And so, the measurement of time goes from months to years to decades. And the psychological perception of time passing changes, too, and so summer vacation after you were in second grade was an endless horizon of infinite time — at least until you were trundled off to third grade. 

So, the years become the milestones, then the decades. When we are young, the day can seem forever, with all that daylight after school to go out into the yard and play until dinnertime. But this diurnal spinning speeds up, so that when you are become a grandparent, the sun circles  across the sky like the dizzy spinning an airplane propeller. 

But there is another stage in this time-perception shift. I just turned 75. Three-quarters of a century. And I look back and see my time on this planet divided into chunks of 25 years — quarters of a century. I have now completed the first three chunks, with no promise — even likelihood — that I will see another quarter-century. And I look back and see a very different landscape in the rear-view mirror, one divided into segments of a century — the unit of a hundred years now seems the yardstick to use. 

Bits of a century: Me, in Lion King pose, at roughly 20, 50, and 75

I was born just after the world war ended. The Korean War happened mostly before I was old enough to go to school. The Kennedy assassination was the present I lived through, before it became current events, and later a chapter in a history book (and by now, probably a paragraph). It is fading into a past that has gobbled up most of my life. 

There is a through-line from the earliest memory to the moment I am typing this. Parts, of course, have faded and other parts no doubt given unearned importance, but that skein of fabric runs continuous, but in longer and longer segments, and so, now, 25 years seems a meaningful chunk. 

Five generations: Great grandmother, grandmother, mother, wife and son

But I can also sense the longer sway of time. Now that I have lived 75 years, I can easily imagine the quarters-of-a-century before my birth, back to my father’s birth in 1919 or my great grandmother, Anna-Gurine Kristiansen, who was born in Norway in 1871. I knew my mother’s grandmother, Aase Aagesdatter, born in the Old Country in 1879 and lived until I was 30 years old, when I was still counting by decades. 

And I can see my granddaughters, born at the turn of the newest century and now entering the decade-by-decade portion of their lives, and see that time spreading out ahead of them well after I am gone. And so, perhaps even centuries are not long enough to gather it all in. 

In Ancient Rome an age — a saeculum — often translated as a “century,” was measured from the birth of your parents to the death of your children after you. It averaged perhaps 110 years, but was left indefinite. That was a meaningful container for time to be understood. My father, born in 1919, me in 1948, my daughter in 1963 and her twin daughters in 2001. That age will end when they grow old and look to the future of the children they might have. 

When I was young, the present moment was the fulcrum of time, leaving the past to the past and the future to obscurity. But now, having lived through my portion of a century, I sense no pivot point, just a continuum, in saecula saeculorum, from back before any memory and ahead past any speculation.  

 Translation is a funky thing. You might think a literal transcription would be best, but language doesn’t work that way. 

If we translate Holly Golightly into French, and have her window shopping, the French reader will assume she is looking for a glazier — i.e., shopping for windows. If the original had been in French and we translated it to English as “licking the glass,” we’d assume Holly was more than slightly daft.

You can try to be literal and lose all the flavor, or you can try to find equivalent idiomatic expressions, or you can recast the whole thing, as if you were writing an original from a similar inspiration — your own words for a similar thought. 

I recently posted a blog entry about various versions in English of Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses. (link here). 

“It’s amazing that all the translations are so different,” responded a friend. And they are. I have been fascinated with the issue of translation for years, now, and have compared many versions of several works and am also “amazed” at how different they can be. 

Most recently, the Ovid comparisons has been obsessing me. And so, I went back to the original to see what I could ferret out about these variations. One discovers that although Ovid’s language moves quickly and simply, there is some ambiguity built in to those words. A translator has to disambiguate the text, and in the process make a single meaning for what in Latin can be multiple. 

The first four lines of the Metamorphoses, in Latin, read: 

The Latin is alien to English speakers first because word order is not a central concern of Latin grammar. Ovid arranges his sentences according to his metrical choice — Latin hexameter. And that is built around syllable length, not stress. And so if you were to just put down a word-by-word transference from Latin to English, you get, essentially, nonsense.

In 1828, a British publisher printed an interlinear translation, intended to help students in learning Latin. To simplify the project, Ovid’s word order has been shifted to mimic English word order. Thus published, the sense, more or less, becomes clear.

That is: “My-Spirit prompts to tell of forms changed into new bodies. O-Gods (for ye have-changed even those). Breathe-kindly on-my attempts and-carry-down the-continuous song from the-first origin of-the-world to my-own times.” 

(The hyphenated phrases are Latin single words that must be broken into multiple words to be rendered in English). 

All this is good, and one could easily smooth all this out into very plain English: “My spirit prompts me to tell of forms changed into new bodies. O Gods (for you have changed even those), breathe kindly on my attempts to carry down this song continuously from the origin of the world to my own times.” 

And there you have it: Ovid translated cleanly and understandable.

Except.

 

Except that this version, as plain as it might be, avoids some of the complexities of the Latin, which doesn’t so easily give up its meaning in a one-to-one way with our King’s English. And it doesn’t explain the wide variants rendered by translators from 1567 to our own times. 

Over the years, translators couldn’t make up their minds whether bodies were changed into new forms or forms into new bodies. Ovid writes forma into nova corpora. But in English that seems backwards. 

It’s been explained as hypallage (a rhetorical trope in which elements are switched from the place expected, as in “the angry crowns of kings” instead of the “crowns of angry kings.” It was a trope often used in Latin writings.) Ovid talks of “forms” changed into new “bodies,” where, in English, we might expect “bodies changed into new forms.” The difference is that in Latin, “forma” describes the “true” shape of something, in other words, the way it was created, such as your body or mine. Ovid is saying that the true shape of his mythological figures are being altered to new, perhaps temporary, bodies — in other words, the new bodies are not the “real” bodies.

In English, we would tend to word it the other way around, so that our “real” bodies are given new “forms.” And so, some translators write it that way, while others maintain the forms-to-bodies version.

This may seem like a trivial thing, but if you grew up with Platonic ideals and they were ripped apart into “false” new shapes, you’d understand what Ovid is getting at here. Of course, he does not make a big thing about it: He expected his listeners (or readers) to understand that the way we might understand “three strikes and you’re out.” It is just buried in the culture. Theirs, though; not ours. 

Most English translations really start with anima

“My spirit prompts” can be understood as “My design leads me” (1899 Riley); “I want to speak about” (1903 Kline); “My mind is bent to tell of” (1916 Miller); “My soul is wrought to sing of” (1922 More); “My purpose is to tell of” (1955 Innes); “My intention is to tell of” (1955 Humphries); “My soul would sing of” (1993, Mandelbaum); “My spirit drives me now to sing about” (2012 Johnston); “My mind leads me to speak now of” (2012 Martin); and most recently, “My spirit moves to tell of” (2022 McCarter). 

But of course, the poem really begins with the word “Nova”… “New.” And a few attempt to mimic the Latin word order, approximately. One could attempt something in English, contorting it like a gymnast: 

Certainly, that is awkward sounding, and I am not recommending it as a preferred translation. We should want something that moves as cleanly in English as Ovid moves in Latin. Mimicking Latin won’t do that. 

But there are other issues, too. You’ll notice I used “weave the thread” of song. Ovid has “deducite” — to lead away, draw out, turn aside, divert, bring out, remove, drive off, draw down. It is used, says one set of notes, to mean to extend like a chain, or, as I have it, “weave the thread,” but more like “add links to links to make up a whole chain” of mythological stories. 

You can see the problem here: Which idiomatic Latin usage of “deducite” should you use here — again, without turning the passage into something utterly unreadable. 

That chain, and its metaphorical maritime implication is echoed in “adspirate,” which implies a fair wind in the sails, as if the gods were blowing their breath to move ships. These things are not clear in English and are only implied in Latin, but they are there. 

The multiple possible meanings of many of these words can bring variation to a potential translation. “Carmen,” for instance, can be a song or a poem — or a prophecy, an incantation, a tune. “Tempora” can be time, or a season, or a duration. “Fert” can be to pick something up, to carry it, to take something up. A translator has to decide what is best meant and how in English to make that clear.

 

There is a giant ambiguity in these lines that gets very differently translated. When Ovid calls on the gods, he says “nam vos mutastis et illas,” which means, literally, “for you (plural) change (or move, or remove, or move away from) and that (or there, or yonder).” What do you make of that? 

In previous centuries, it was taken to mean, basically, “for you gods caused those changes.” And that seems to make sense of it. But beginning in 2001 with Michael Simpson’s translation, many have assumed it is the poem that the gods have changed. “Gods, inspire this poem I’ve begun (for you changed it too)” (2001 Simpson); “O gods (it is you who have even transformed my art)” (2004 Raeburn); “inspire this undertaking (which you’ve changed as well)” (2004 Martin); “inspire my work (for you’ve transformed it too)” (2022 McCarter). 

These two interpretations can not both be correct. Ovid is obscure here, and leaves a good deal to the discretion of the translator.   

Or to the edition. A translator has to pick among variant texts in Latin, collated by different editors. And the Latin is not completely identical in all of them. Remember, Ovid survives not in manuscripts from Roman times, but from copies made by monks in scriptoria through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, and when copies are made, mistakes are made. Which is the true version: That is the job of an editor putting together a modern published edition. 

Joseph Reed, in his annotations to the new edition of Rolfe Humphries’ translation write of this confusion: “Most manuscripts have ‘for you, gods, changed those [forms] as well’ (nam vos mutastis et illas), which Humphries seems to be translating here, omitting the troublesome ‘as well,’ which has no clear reference. Since the 1970s, most editors prefer to read the slightly different text, ‘illa,’ found in a few manuscripts, which yields the very different sense: ‘for you changed that [undertaking of mine] as well,’ referring to the new direction Ovid’s own poetry now takes from his earlier themes and metrical forms (love elegy) to those of epic-length mythological narrative.”

The difference between “that” and “those” (illa et illas). No matter how you parse it, the original is obscure. 

Finally, you must decide what you want in your Ovid. If you are a scholar you want whatever is closest to the poet’s original language, even if it is obscure. And I sympathize with the impulse. But if you are simply a reader who is looking for Ovid’s storytelling, then you will be just fine with letting the translator turn the ambiguity into something that makes sense (culturally and linguistically) in English. Sometimes the actual words don’t relate the actual meaning. 

Ovid is lucky, in that he really does survive translation well. He can be reworked without losing his essential Ovid-ness. And it is true that some writers survive the tidal pull of translation better than others. That pull can distort some works beyond help, while others keep their gussets unruffled. Hence, a good translation of the Iliad or Shakespeare can work just fine in a new language, because the story is paramount. Shakespeare tends to travel well. His plays are valued in many lands and many languages. There are famous examples of Macbeth in Swahili, of Hamlet in Russian, and dozens of operatic versions in Italian, French and German. They all pack a wallop. And Shakespeare is loved in all those languages by their native speakers.

But that other class of writing, where the effect depends on how it is being said can defy the best translator. I have never found a good translation of Goethe, for instance. In English, his poetry often sounds commonplace. But I am assured by a native German speaker that Goethe’s poetry is the best from his country by being written in the most elegant of German language. Horace in Latin is similar; in English you wonder what the fuss is all about; in Latin, it is the height of sophistication and elegance.

Going in the other direction, how in hell can you translate John Milton into French? You can tell the story of Paradise Lost, sure, but how can you convey the special organ-tone quality of his language.

“Round he throws his baleful eyes.”

Translate it into French and it comes out as the equivalent of: “He looks around him malevolently.” Not the same thing, all the poetry is gone out of it. These things are untranslatable, and hence, Milton can never have the global currency of Shakespeare. 

There is behind language, a world. You can concentrate on the language, or on the world. It is easy to be lulled into forgetting the difference, to think that words describe the world, and that the best language is the most accurate lens on the things of this world but they are not the same, but rather, parallel universes, and what works in words does not necessarily explain how the world functions. In the reality of our experience, there are no nouns, no participles. There is only “is.” Can you get at that “is” through words. We try. And we try again.

And so, Ovid is lucky, he takes translation with grace, even glee. For although his Latin is singled out as impeccable, it is the stories that matter, and we can get them in English (or French or German or Chinese). 

Which is why my favorite version is Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid, which is only a partial translation (it includes just 23 of the hundreds of stories Ovid retells) and is really more a metamorphosis of Ovid into English: rewritten as if Hughes himself were telling the stories, rather than translating the words of Ovid. It is a re-creation rather than a translation. 

It is a version I recommend to everyone as a complete joy. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Ovid is just plain fun to read. There are classic Latin texts that feel like doing homework, but Ovid — especially his Metamorphoses — just scoots by and can only be described in modern terms as a “page turner.” 

Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC to AD 17) was probably the most prolific poet of ancient Rome, writing many books, often quite salacious. He wrote about how to seduce a woman, how women should attract men, how to break up with a woman — you get the picture. But his most famous book was “Changes,” or Metamorphoses in its original, which told dozens of mythological stories, mostly old Greek tales. It was a best-seller when it was written, copied out by hand many times over, and remained a best-seller through the Middle Ages and into modern times. Many writers — including Shakespeare — cribbed from Ovid and a good deal of what most people have absorbed of Greek mythology really comes through Ovid as the middle man. If you know about Daphne and Apollo or Pyramus and Thisbe, it is likely the Ovidian version you have seen. 

Ovid wrote in a sleek, fast Latin that told his stories economically. He has been used to teach students Latin for centuries, and has been translated into most of the world’s languages.

I’m one of Ovid’s devoted readers, and have gone through the book many times, in different translations, beginning in the 1960s with the old, standard Rolfe Humphries version (which I can’t say I found easy going). 

Since then, I have re-read the Metamorphoses many times, each time in a new translation. The newest is by Stephanie McCarter. She is not the first woman to take on the work, but she has made it a point to unforgive the gods their brutality. Where other translators give us gods “ravishing” their mortal victims, McCarter forthrightly calls it rape. In the “Me-Too” era, there is no glossing over the violence and brutality, the sexism and misogyny inherent in the myths. 

I applaud this shift of reference, but despite that, I found her verse tough plowing. These things are a matter of taste. Previously I had sailed through the 2004 translation by Charles Martin and found the lines so fast under my eyes, I hardly noticed I was reading a translation. Turning the pages with McCarter, I never forget that under her words there is a Latin pluperfect subjunctive. That it is a reasonably accurate version I don’t question. It is. But I want something else for my pleasure. Ovid’s original was always praised for its fleetness, and so I would wish my English equivalent also to fly by, so that I am immersed in the story rather than in the mechanics of the language relaying it. 

But reading this new version also made me want to look at how others have assayed the project. 

I took on a week-long effort to concentrate on the first four lines of the book and compare how each translator has looked at them, and found rather notable differences, considering how plain the meaning actually is. 

For this, Ovid must take a share of the responsibility. There is some ambiguity in his words, which make the poetry richer, but the translations more problematic. 

Then, there is the question of whether the translation should be prose or verse, and if verse, should it rhyme? Ovid wrote in hexameters, but English is geared to pentameter. Should you try to count six or count five? Six often sounds a bit awkward in English, while pentameter comes as naturally as breathing. Is six closer to Ovid’s original, or is the swiftness of English pentameter more faithful. Each translator has his or her own solution, and any can work. 

The first English translation was by William Caxton, who probably also gave us the first printed version (as opposed to hand-written by scribes), although the only versions extant seem to be the handwritten ones). It was in the Middle English that Chaucer would have read. He titled it The Booke of Ovyde Named Methamorphose

But the first translation that counts and is still readily available was made in 1567 by Arthur Golding. It was Golding that Shakespeare read and cribbed from. He opens his version with the four-line prologue:

It is written in “fourteeners,” the meter and rhyme scheme of the theme song to Gilligan’s Island: “Just sit right back and hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip/ That started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship.” It was a popular meter in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nowadays, it can feel a touch jogtrot. (Now try to read Golding’s lines without singing them to the tune). 

The second translation came in 1632, by George Sandys, who decided that English pentameter was more natural to the native speaker and recast the whole in a five-beat line, which shortened each and made for swifter reading, but also left out a bit of the original meaning.

The most famous early translation came out in 1717, done by a team of writers rather than a single translator. These included John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, John Gay, and William Congreve, among others. In was rendered in heroic couplets and was surprisingly fluent. Dryden took on the whole first book and began the introduction:

That became the standard Ovid for many years, and is still read and still quite readable. 

But then came the Victorians, who saw, among other things, Ovid’s usefulness in teaching Latin to its young men. And so you get a spate of them, usually in prose, meant almost as cribs for translation. 

The one I have read several times is the Henry T. Riley, in a two volume pocket series published in 1899. Like many of the versions of its era, its notes try very hard to reconcile Ovid’s paganism with Victorian Christianity, and so, where Ovid talks of “gods,” the Victorian translators often write “God.” This isn’t much of a problem, if you are aware of it as you read. Riley’s proem runs:

Anthony S. Kline, who seems to have translated pretty much everything at one point or another, came out with his Ovid in 1903. It is still widely available. It is in prose and meant to be almost pedestrian, i.e., not high-falutin’ and poeticalized. 

In 1916, the Loeb Library translation came out, with Ovid’s Latin on the left-hand page and Frank Justus Miller’s prose on the right-hand, opposite the original. It doesn’t quite work as an interlinear, but it will help anyone attempting the work in Latin. 

In 1922, writer Brookes More gave us a prose version for Theoi Classical Texts. Like many others, it as much interprets Ovid’s words as translates them. The word “strange” does not appear in the Latin. 

A new spate of translations hit in the 1950s, after the war, when so many new students were headed to university under the G.I. Bill. 

In 1954, A.E. Watts put it in pentameter and squeezed it all down to a fast-running nugget. His purpose seems to be to get the gist as directly as possible. 

A year later, Mary M. Innes uses prose and is pretty much as close to the original as it can get, across languages and cultures. It has been a mainstay of Penguin Classics and is still widely available and read. 

The same year, the widely read Rolfe Humphries version came out in what must have been at the time a very contemporary sounding verse. It is the one I read in high school and didn’t like. Reading it now, I wonder what was I thinking. It is still in print, in a shiny, new annotated version published by Indiana University Press. It moves quite fast. 

Finally, in 1958, Horace Gregory published his verse version, which attempts, also, to feel contemporary, but to my ears feels a tad straight-laced. 

The text sat dormant for a couple of decades, but in the 1980s, Ovid became a growth industry again. 

Oxford World Classics commissioned A.D. Melville for a new translation of the Metamorphoses, published in 1986. It is self-consciously poetic, with words such as “ere,” “countenance,” and “naught” to stumble over where more conversational words would be clearer. 

Charles Boer took another approach in 1989, with what one reviewer said is “like it’s spouted from the lips of some prehistoric shaman, barking out a tale to his animal skin-garbed flock.” In short, punchy lines, not always strictly grammatical, he seems to want to express each point as curtly as a newspaper headline. Articles evaporate and nouns shoot each other. It’s sui generis. To give the flavor of it, I have to quote more than just the proem. 

The proem is short and pithy, but the whole book is an acquired taste

Allen Mandelbaum was a translating machine, and has given us versions of almost everything we might want to read, from Homer to Vergil to Dante. His Ovid, from 1993, in an Everyman Classic, which means it is gorgeously bound and printed in a handsome Bembo typeface. This is a book that looks really good on a bookshelf, but I’m afraid I find the translation rather worksmanlike. He takes six lines to say what Ovid said in four. 

David Slavitt competed in 1994, with an entry in a very loose hexameter and what he says is “translated freely into verse.” He wanders a bit, and seems to add things into the text that sound more like commentaries on the text. In his introduction he writes: “As a translator, I take all kinds of liberties, but I am strict in my observation of length and scale, which I take to be significant artistic decisions that any new poem ought to respect and re-create.” In other words, he’d rather match Ovid’s prosody than his content. Some people swear by him.

The new century, 2000 years after Ovid actually wrote the thing, has exploded with new versions of his magnum opus. 

Philip Ambrose attempts to keep a line-by-line parallel with Ovid’s Latin, with sometimes an awkward phrasing, as when Phoebus, sounding like Yoda, tells Phaethon “But warn against this action I can”

Also in 2001, Michael Simpson brought out his prose version, attempting, he says in his introduction, “the rapid and direct American idiom while avoiding colloquialism on the one hand and academic translationese on the other. His version includes as many pages of notes, as of poem. 

I’m jumping ahead to 2004, skipping over Charles Martin for the moment, and to David Raeburn’s version for Penguin Classics, available in a handsome clothbound edition. It looks great on a bookshelf, but Raeburn’s somewhat wordy take means that most of the lines are longer than the page is wide, leading to insufferable line-breaks. Ugly. Reading it is like taking three steps forward and one back, over and over again. (This is a problem of book design rather than translation). 

In 2012, Ian Johnston put the text into swift pentameter, and what is more, posted the entire book for free on his website. There is also, of course, a handsome physical book to buy. The tales are laid out with marginal headings to keep track of the often confusingly interlaced stories. 

That leaves three translation to consider: My two favorites and the newest one. 

Charles Martin’s 2004 version for W.W. Norton is about as graceful as you can get, with a very free pentameter that moves as swiftly as Ovid is meant to move. I find no speedbumps in its wordage or lineage. It is the version I read over and over. 

But that doesn’t mean it is my true favorite, which is, I think, the best translation of anything that I have ever encountered. The problem is that Ted Hughes only worked on sections of the Metamorphoses, and so his version is incomplete, and second that his truly free approach means that he occasionally slightly rewrites Ovid to make things clearer or more proportioned to English (Ovid’s Latin doesn’t work word-for-word in English). It’s as if it were a completely original poem by Hughes rather than a translation of the Latin. I absolutely love Ted Hughes Tales from Ovid and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Which brings me back to the new McCarter translation, the latest in the long freight-train line of Penguin Books versions. If you read just the proem, she gets the gist of it absolutely perfectly, both metrically (as pentameter) and by giving us Ovid’s meaning as clearly as possible. 

But the rest of the book is less graceful, and about three pages in, I found myself working to read it. Martin’s version is greased and slides frictionless. McCarter is more like bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstate, with a kind of start-and stop hiccups, and it sometimes suffers from what Simpson dubbed “translationese.” 

Translations seem to fall into one of three camps. One attempts to be as faithful as possible to the original, to simplify it and make it plain; the second seeks to poeticize it and make it sound as much like poetry as possible, and by that, we mean Victorian poetry; a third stream values contemporaneity, to make Ovid sound as if he were writing today, with the risk that in another 10 years it might sound as dated as Beatniks or bell bottoms. 

Any of these approaches can work, as long as the words spring along quickly and effortlessly, and Ovid’s stories keep you turning pages. Tastes vary and any one of these translation may strike you. I’ve laid out the range of them, and they can all be found somewhere in some published form. 

The best version for you is, of course, the one that keeps you reading to the end. 

Next time: A closer look at Ovid’s Latin

I’m tired of hearing that we live in a visual culture. The fact is, we are generally very bad at seeing. I am constantly reminded of this by bad signage, bad book design, bad photographs, and bad TV. To say nothing of the horror that is TikTok. 

It may be true that we like to use images instead of text whenever we can, but we also tend to treat the images as if they were text: That is, we turn them into the equivalent of hieroglyphs or rebuses. Hence the popularity of emojis. 

But seeing a picture of a house and thinking “house,” is really just turning a picture into a word. Yes, no alphabetic letters need be used, but the information conveyed is basically the same. That is not seeing; it is translating. 

I am reminded of this because of a frequent problem I find on some back-channel TV stations when they broadcast a program in the wrong aspect ratio. It is a visual goof that bothers me no end, and yet, so many people, when I point it out, simply don’t notice it. Faces can be squeezed thin or stretched fat and the visual-verbal translation isn’t affected, and therefore, not noticed. 

 

Believe me, I’ve been laughed at for fussing over aspect ratio. But how can people not SEE? The visual information is distorted even if the verbal information is left unbothered. 

Aspect ratio is simply the ratio of the width of an image compared with its height. A square is the same in both measurements, and hence, its ratio — its aspect ratio — is one-to-one — 1:1. 

If a rectangle is twice as wide as it is tall, its aspect ratio is 2:1. 

When photographs are made, or films or TV is shot, they are created in a particular aspect ratio. For instance, for decades, the standard aspect ratio for Hollywood films was 1.375:1, which was adopted in 1932 for the entire industry. Before that, silent films were mostly shot in a 1.33:1 ratio, which can also be stated as a 4:3 ratio, which corresponded to four sprocket-holes on standard 35mm film. But when sound was added as an extra track alongside the image on the film, the picture had to be made a wee bit smaller to accommodate, and hence, the 1.375:1 ratio. 

That all sounds very technical and who cares? Well, what happens, then, when you display an old film on a new TV, which are now standardize at an aspect ratio of 16:9, a “widescreen” ratio? When done right, you get a “letterboxed” image, with black bars on either side of the picture. When done wrong, the squarer image is stretched out to fill the wider screen and you get a lot of fat people. 

This used to be a big problem in the early days of digital television, when many stations heard complaints about those letterboxed images. The response was to crop the movies down to fit the screen, losing a good bit of visual information in the process (a process dubbed “pan and scan”), or — too often — just stretch it all out to fit. To anyone sensitive to visuals, this was a nightmare. But again, many people — especially at the TV stations mutilating the images — just didn’t seem to think it important. 

The reverse also happens when a real widescreen movie (some films are made in aspect ratios wider than 16:9, such as the 2.4:1 of the most widely used widescreen movies. Then, shown on a standard TV screen, you get everything squished down. 

Many of these widescreen movies were shot with anamorphic lenses, which allowed for a wider image to fit onto a narrower piece of film. In essence, they squeezed the picture thin on purpose, and then when it was projected in a theater, a reverse anamorphic projection lens would spread the image back out to its natural dimensions. Tons of films were made (and are made) this way. 

The problem shows up with DVDs, too. Some are produced in a natural aspect ratio, usually 16:9, but others, mostly older ones, were created anamorphically, and so you may need to use your remote to find the proper aspect ratio (or “screen size”) for the disc. If not, you watch squeezed people. 

I remember when my college film series showed a version of Bad Day at Black Rock but didn’t correct the anamorphic images. We watched the whole movie distorted into a squished frame. It was nauseating, at least to me. The projectionist, when this was pointed out, said he didn’t see what I was talking about. (The same projectionist showed Birth of a Nation with the music track turned off because “it’s a silent film.” There is no accounting for how these people get in charge of things.) 

Most all of us have something like this, which bothers us no end. For some it is bad spelling or incorrect grammar. For others, it is making too much noise when eating soup. Others still cannot bear canned laughter on sitcoms, or the superfluous chyrons streaming across the bottoms of cable newscasts, telling us exactly what the speaker is saying. We can hear them, you know. You don’t need to spell it out. 

Anyway, one of those irritations that just drives me nuts is the inability of so many to actually notice when the picture has gone bad on their TV. The wider the original, the squishier the mistake. I remember seeing an early broadcast of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly scrunched into an old cathode-ray TV screen, like a closed accordion, and I thought, “How can poor Clint Eastwood even breathe?”

The aspect ratio problem, though, is really just a symptom of a wider issue: that too many of us are just bad at seeing, of not paying attention to what our eyes are telling us. It is the translation problem: We don’t see to see, we see to extract only so much information as we feel we need. If we can follow the plot with skinny people, then good enough. 

But seeing isn’t just about keeping track of the story. It is about being alive in the world, of noticing everything around you, of taking in what existence gifts you with. The green of a tree, the roundness of a tire, the texture of denim. To notice is to be alive; failure to notice is deadening. 

Art, and I include even popular art, is there to remind us of, and to interpret, the world we live in and the lives we lead. The best art slaps us awake, the way the slap of the doctor makes the newborn take its first breath. We can see what we had taken for granted, we can reinterpret what had become habitual. Failure to use your eyes is to refuse a gift being offered by existence. 

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I have lived in all four corners of this country: in the Northeast until I was 17; in the South — for the first time — until I was 30; in the Northwest for a bit more than a year; back in the South until I turned 39; moved to the Southwest until I was 64; and back, finally, to the South. I am now 74. And so, I’ve lived in the American South longer than anywhere else, and while that does not give me the right to consider myself a Southerner (you have to be born here for that — maybe even your granddaddy had to have been born there for that), I have come to have a complex and conflicted love for the region. The South has a mythic hold on the psyche that no other region can match. 

Oxford, Mississippi

Perhaps the biggest problem in dealing with the American South is that there is no good way to separate the reality of it from its mythic power. Other regions have their myth, too, for sure. There is a Puritan New England, and there is the Wild West, but both of those have an element of legend to them — they are made up of familiar stories, whether of pilgrims debarking at Plymouth Rock, or Wild Bill Hickok playing aces and eights. These are stories that get repeated and we presume they tell us something about the character of the inhabitants of these regions. But the South is not built of stories, but of myth, which another thing entirely. 

There is something external about stories and legends; myth is born from that place in the psyche that Carl Jung called “the shadow.” Stories are told; myth is felt. It is something profound but unexamined — it is the sense of significance, of meaning, even if we cannot exactly put our finger on any specific meaning — the way a dream can feel significant, even if we don’t know why. 

Windsor Ruins, Mississippi

And there are at least four conflicting myths about the South, which can overlap. There is the “moonlight and magnolias,” which is now and has always been bullhockey; there is the redneck South, riven with poverty, ignorance and superstition; there is the Black South, which has its own subdivisions. And then, of course, there is the “New South,” with its Research Triangles and its civic progress. 

Yanceyville, North Carolina

The first is the bearer of the Lost Cause, a self-deluded sense that the Old South was a place of gentility and honor; the second includes both the rural farm South and the Appalachian hillbilly; the third is counterweight to both of the first two, and yet, is also the power-grid on which the first two run — it is there behind all of it. 

And lastly, if you have ever watched a new butterfly wriggle slowly, struggling out of its chrysalis, seeming to be stuck halfway, then you have a pretty good image for the New South trying to leave behind the problems of the Old. The Old is unwilling to let go. 

Because history is the foundation of Southernness. 

 

Zubulon Vance birthplace, North Carolina

When I first arrived in the South, in 1966, one of the first things I saw on driving into the campus of Guilford College, in Greensboro, N.C., was a giant banner hanging out of the third-story window of my dorm with “Forget? Hell!!” written on it in gigantic hand-scrawled letters written on a bedsheet. It was my introduction to the sense of grievance that has ridden the back of the South since the Civil War. It is a sense of being put upon by others, of having been defeated despite the assumed bravery, honor and courage of the soldiers attempting to protect the South and its heritage. Of course, this is all myth, but myth is a powerful driver. 

In Homer’s Iliad, when two soldiers meet on the fields outside Troy  and are about to beat each other into bone-snapping pulp, they first stop to tell each other their genealogy. 

“And the son of Hippolochus answered, ‘Son of Tydeus, why ask me of my lineage? … If, then, you would learn my descent, it is one that is well known to many. There is a city in the heart of Argos, pasture land of horses, called Ephyra, where Sisyphus lived, who was the craftiest of all mankind. He was the son of Aeolus, and had a son named Glaucus, who was father to Bellerophon, whom heaven endowed with the most surpassing comeliness and beauty’…” And this goes on for another 30 lines, explaining the history of his family from its origin among the gods. No one is merely an individual, but rather the tail-end of a long history, known to both the warrior himself and to his foe. 

Bell Family, Mayodan, North Carolina

This sense of history is rife in the American South, too, and the Civil War takes the place of the heights of Ilion. 

My late wife, Carole Steele, was born in North Carolina and learned about the war first-hand from her great-grandmother, Nancy Hutcherson Steele, who was 10 when it began. She had plowed the fields during the war while her father and brothers were away fighting. When she died at the age of 98, she did so in my wife’s childhood bed in a small house on the banks of the Dan River. Carole was 8 at the time.

Steele family, just after Civil War

The confluence of childhood and history formed the seed of the poetry she wrote. The blood in her veins was the blood in her father’s veins, in her grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s. History, blood and identity flowed like a river. 

“My father’s blood is always a river/ rushing to his mind/ igniting diamonds,” she wrote. She called the sense of history being alive in the genes the “long man,” an identity stretching across centuries. 

Carole described the feeling in several of her poems. One describes the feeling of being in the South and reads, in part, “It was for the wasps/ singing in the rotten apples/ under the trees,/ the sweetish smell/ of rabbit guts and/ frozen fur stuck to the bloody/ fingers/ and frost on the stubble,/ the dipper and the well,/ tobacco juice in the privet hedge,/ and liquid night/ the muted rumble/ of old voices/ at the kitchen table/ drifting up the wooden stairs”

I learned from Carole and her family, that there is usually a deep sense of belonging that Southerners feel: The second pillar of Southernness is place, and what is more, place and history are almost the same thing. A genuine love of the patch of ground where they grew up, a love like you feel for a parent. It is a love of where you were born that may not extend beyond the town or county and maybe the state. But for Carole, Rockingham County was where her father and grandfather were buried. Another poem ends: “your Daddy is a fragrance/ gathered in the peach trees/ over there.”

That fact alone meant there was an unseverable umbilical connection to that omphalos, that tiny patch of Piedmont, those trees, those creeks and rivers, those very weeds that crept over the edges of the crumbling pavement on the back roads. It is the feel of the red clay between your fingers, the blackbirds roosting by the hundreds in the oak tree. Home. 

And, in the meantime, the blood of countless slaves and freedmen enlarged the tragedy of the South. There were lynchings and later the violence of the civil-rights movement.

Mobile, Alabama

It isn’t only rancor and slaughter that give the South its sense of history, but the land itself. You can stand in a cornfield in rural Sprott, Ala., 25 miles north of Selma, and see the stand of trees at its border, knowing the trees are no more than 60 years old. And that before those trees began filling in the countryside, there were cotton, sharecroppers and poverty. A dilapidated wooden shack sits in the middle of the woods, and you wonder why anyone ever built there.

Then you recognize they didn’t. The sharecroppers’ home — just like those written about by James Agee in his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of 1941 — was built by a cotton field, but times change and history presses on and the fields are now woods.

Sprott, Alabama

There is history elsewhere in the country, too: Bunker Hill, Mass., Fort Ticonderoga in New York or Tombstone, Ariz. But they are singular places you go to visit — somebody else’s history. The South is so full of history that its land and people seem buried under the sense of it.

The first democratic legislature in the New World was Virginia’s House of Burgesses. The author of the Declaration of Independence was a Virginian. And the Revolutionary War came to a close at Yorktown, Va.

Shiloh battlefield, Tennessee

Each state has its Civil War sites, where thousands of its men are buried. There are the street corners where civil-rights workers were hosed and beaten by police. Cotton fields where slaves were whipped. It is interesting that the one place in the country where Black and White share the most is the South.

For most Americans, history is a story told in a schoolbook. It seems removed from the lives we live. For most Southerners, history is something their grandparents did or was done to them.

And I, of course, have come late to this epic, first in 1966 when segregation was officially illegal but still largely in effect. The local barber shop would not cut a Black man’s hair; “We were not trained how to,” the barber explained, weakly and not very convincingly.

Jim Crow was so unconsciously buried in the White brain that a local ministry could, with no irony, proudly boast that it offered help and aid to “the alcoholic, the prostitute, and the Negro.” 

 

After graduating from college, I eventually found work writing for the Black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, N.C., The Carolina Peacemaker, where I found myself writing editorials for the city’s Black population. It felt strange to do so, but I never felt less than completely welcome. When I visited the African Methodist Episcopal church, I was invited in with a warmth I never felt in New Jersey — and, I might add, magnificently fed in the church basement after the service. Clearly the resistance to change in the South was a one-way thing. 

My daughter, Susie, who is also a journalist, worked in daily papers in Jackson, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., also started on a Black weekly — the Jackson Advocate, in Mississippi, where she had the same experience I did of welcome and inclusion. 

I did not find that sense in 1967 when I and a few of my college friends attended a Ku Klux Klan rally in Liberty, N.C. There, the sheriff of Forsyth County gave the keynote harangue with tales of Africans feeding their babies to crocodiles, and how Africans still had the “stub of a tail.” The smell of alcohol was pervasive, and the festivities ended with the circling and burning of a 30-foot cross, built of intersecting phone poles set alight with poured kerosene. Meanwhile, a scratchy recording of The Old Rugged Cross played on a miserable loudspeaker system. 

Later, I covered the followup to the 1979 Klan shootings in Greensboro. Klan members and American Nazi Party members were acquitted for the killings of five protesters. The city police were claimed to have colluded with the Klan, and 25 years later, the city apologized. So, the recent rash of police violence against people of color comes as neither surprise nor shock to me. 

Yet, I love the South and choose to live here. It fills my mythic life also. In the 1970s, it was the Eden from which I was exiled. I was setting roots and rhizomes in the soil of the house I shared with the woman I expected to grow old with. It was the paradise garden: In the front yard was an Yggdrasil of a shaggy, ancient black walnut tree, covered in moss. In the back yard was a pecan tree. There were two fig trees from which we ate fresh figs. There was a vacant lot next door with an old pear tree. A chinaberry grew on the street side. And a proud row of the most brilliant red maple trees along the road, changing reds throughout the year — buds, flowers, leaves, branches, each with their own ruddy glow. 

There were lilacs beside the house, wild Cherokee roses along the driveway, random chickory spreading blue along the foundation. Between our yard and the vacant lot, I counted more than a hundred species of weed — or rather, wildflower — with my Peterson Guide. I grew a vegetable garden with beans, peppers, eggplants, okra and tomatoes. 

There were mockingbirds that I trained to whistle, pileated woodpeckers that would climb the pecan tree. Crows, owls, cardinals, sparrows, redwing blackbirds, the rare ruby-throated hummingbird. Circling overhead were buzzards and hawks. There were butterflies and beetles. Ants highwayed up and down the walnut tree. A luna moth sat on the screen door. 

We lived there for seven years, digging our feet deeper into the soil, until the Archangel Michael came brandishing his sword: My love left me suddenly and I left the house. And I left the South. 

When I returned, some years later and bearing with me a numbed depression, I was taken in by my college friend and his wife, and a second, shadow-Eden was set in Summerfield, N.C., in an old house with only a wood stove for heat, and three great ancient oak trees in the back. I walked through the woods behind the house and into a small ravine — the petit canyon — and soaked my loss in the loam and leaf litter. 

The thing about depression and myth is that they play into each other. It isn’t so much that depression makes you the center of the universe, but that it wipes away everything else, leaving only yourself and your loss. You are forced to experience your life at a mythic level and for me that meant the land, its history and its people. 

New River, Ashe County, North Carolina

I recovered, moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains when I was invited by Carole. The house was on a bluff above the New River, with a dark green patch of pine trees on the hill and an unmowed grassy field on the other side of the house. I could stand at the kitchen sink, doing dishes, and watch the weather shift over the peak of Mt. Jefferson, five miles off to the north. 

Ashe County, North Carolina

Together we moved to Virginia, where Carole taught in Norfolk and I taught in Virginia Beach. Six years there, with much travel around the country. When Carole got a job offer in Arizona, we moved, lived in the desert for 25 years and when we both retired, moved back to North Carolina, to be near our daughter. 

Swannanoa Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina

It’s been 10 years now, and five since Carole died, and I have hunkered down in Asheville, at the foot of the Swannanoa Mountains, and feel as if I am where I belong. The trees and birds, the weeds and the occasional wandering black bear, the snow on top of the hills, the barbecue joints and auto parts stores. 

Age has a way of deflating myth. When I was in my 20s, the world seemed aglow, lit from within by a kind of mythic importance. The South had that glow: its people, its landscape, its history. I have come back to the South after a quarter-century in the desert. It has lost some of its oneiric power, as, indeed, the world has in general. But the South feels comfortable and human and my children and grandchildren all live here and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I burrow in and pull its blankets around my shoulders. 

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It’s not easy being an English major. Our ears are constantly battered, our eyes poked by print and bad signage. And what we love is daily assaulted by those who don’t even understand that they are doing violence to their mother tongue. 

Yes, I know. We each have our cross to bear. Those talented with numbers watch with sadness America’s poor math scores. Those who can draw are dumbfounded by the lack of visual literacy in our population. Those with the musical gift watch pop stars who require autotune to hit pitch. 

But the curse upon English majors is to hear TV newscasters mangle the language, politicians utter pious and meaningless gobbledy-gook, advertisers hollow out their words to imply what isn’t there. Most of these people should know better; they are too often deliberately subverting the language for some personal gain. 

And beyond that, there are common solecisms one encounters daily. How many times do e-mail writers confuse “there,” “they’re,” and “their?” Or someone order an “expresso” at Starbucks. Or hear the personal pronoun “I” used in the objective case — as in “Jessica gave her tickets to Tracy and I.”

We English majors cringe. 

I am not talking about a simple slip of the tongue, or, in print, a typo. Typos happen. I don’t know how many times, when working for the newspaper, I got phone calls or e-mails asking, “Don’t you people have proof readers?” But you try putting together the printed equivalent of a new novel every day without having the occasional misprint. It happens. A certain forgiveness is essential for living a graceful life. 

But I’m not talking about that. Typos happen once and don’t typically get repeated. I’m talking about misusing English habitually. 

Please don’t mistake me for the language police. I am a devout descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. Language is governed by usage, not rules. But some distinctions still need to be made for clarity. And while some usages may be changing, others remain a norm and to ignore them is simply illiterate. 

Indeed, speakers and writers all cause frequent flinching from those of us attuned to the mother tongue. In our household, we find ourselves yelling at the TV screen every time a talking head says “less people are moving to the cities,” or “the problem centers around …” or “none are …” Often in unison, we will yell at the screen, “None IS!” 

There are a bunch of issues that seem widespread in speech but also in print. Rampant apostrophes; excessive exclamation points; typing in ALL-CAPS.

There are words whose meanings are just not understood and used in jarring ways. “Enormity” does not mean “big.” An “epicenter” is not a fancier word for the “center.” To “beg the question” is not to “raise the question.” Yet you hear these constantly. Oy. 

There are common mispronunciations: “Mischievious” for “mischievous;” “nucular” for “nuclear;” “ek cetera” for “et cetera.” More flinching for us English majors. 

I’ve got four primary categories for these grammar and vocabulary issues. There may be more, but these are the four that constantly grab my attention.

— The first we can dismiss pretty quickly. I’m talking about breaking the pedantic “rules” enforced by grammar Nazis — those who adhere to outdated strictures and feel it is their duty to point out the mistakes to their fellows. 

These no-nos have been called “zombie rules,” and were devised mostly in the Victorian era by grammarians in pince-nez who tried to make English behave like Latin. Outdated ideas, such as that a sentence should not end in a preposition. That was never true for English. Just ask Shakespeare, or remember Winston Churchill’s famous “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put,” to show how silly such an idea is. 

The same for split infinitives. Let’s face it, “to go boldly where no man has gone before” does not mean the same thing as “to boldly go.” The first emphasizes the “bold” part, as if that were the important thing. But the true version, with the cloven infinitive, emphasizes the journey. There is a reason it was written the way it was. It was not a mistake or a solecism. 

Such zombie rules need to be whacked into an open grave with the backside of a shovel. 

We can still see the ghost of a few of these zombies as they dematerialize. The distinction between “who” and “whom” is now largely gone, left only for old schoolmarms to point out. “A lot” remains two words, but so many people write “alot” it may well enter the official language soon. 

“Who did you give that to” sounds idiomatic, whilst “to whom did you give that” sounds stilted, even though the first breaks two rules at one go. Oh, and yes, “whilst” is just silly.

There used to be significant differences between “Can I go to the concert?” and “May I go.” But only the pedant points them out. The same between “I might go,” and “I may go.” In the past, you would find schoolteachers parsing the differences between “among” and “between,” and between “common friends” and “mutual friends.” Ask Dickens about that one. 

— The second category includes common misuses that have spread virally. Some may eventually become part of proper usage, but as of now are still solecisms. There is a difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested.” Between “ensure” and “insure.” Between “further” and “farther.” 

Apostrophes do not create plurals, yet sign painters seem to love to sprinkle them into their work. Holiday cards come with the message, “Greetings from the Connolly’s.” “We did a lot of drugs in the 60’s.” (Just move the danged apostrophe in that last one — “in the ’60s.” And because typing on computers makes it an extra step, try to avoid using a single open-quote in place of the apostrophe — not “in the ‘60s.”)

Words that are similar get confused: “discreet” and “discrete;” “flout” and “flaunt;” “foreward” and “forward,” “loath” and “loathe.” “Hoard” and “horde” (to say nothing of “hord,” used almost exclusively for “wordhord,” meaning “vocabulary.”) I knew a poor medical secretary who fought with a physician when she had dared correct a letter in which he had dictated, “keep you appraised of the situation.” She fixed it to “apprised,” and the doctor scolded her and retyped it “appraised.” Some of these things are stubborn. 

I also remember a real estate sign I saw, advertising a “track of land for sale.” And politicians often like to take a different “tact” to a problem. 

— The third group concerns idiom. If you want language to be logical and rational, you will have to give up on English — or any other language, for that matter. Idioms are common usages and they laugh in the face of logic. 

A good deal of our speech consists of idioms, and if we don’t want to sound like someone for whom English is a second language, we have to let them through the gate. I’ve seen so many corrections yelled at “I could care less” — no, it is not the opposite of “I couldn’t care less,” it is the same, just as “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same. It is an idiom.

After all, “window shopping” doesn’t mean you are shopping for windows. Idioms are just things that have slipped into our informal language over time, often unnoticed. 

If you have “bought the farm,” it doesn’t mean you purchased property upstate to grow sorghum. Elbows don’t have grease. Whistles are not cleaner than anything else. Turkeys are not cold. Thunder cannot be stolen. Teeth have no skin. 

It isn’t only English, of course. In Japan, if you “have a wide face,” it means you’ve got lots of friends. Why? Dunno. It’s an idiom. In Spain, to turn someone down is to “give them pumpkins.” In Portugal, if you treat someone especially nice who doesn’t need or deserve it, you are “feeding the donkey sponge cake.” In France, window shopping is “licking the glass.” In Latvia, to “blow little ducks” is to talk nonsense. In Sweden, “There’s no cow on the ice,” means “don’t worry.” 

I remember Mrs. Weinstein observing that some glutton “eats like he’s got nine rectums.” A Southerner driving fast for long distances will say he is “busting bugs on my teeth.” A Southern widower is a “granny dodger.” I loves me some idiom. 

Idioms are also regional locutions, or cultural markers. Black English is not English with rules broken, but English with its own set of rules. An Englishman might complain that Americans say “different from” and think it is wrong, because he’s been taught to say “different to.” These things happen over time, space and cultures. English is not a monolithic, single thing with a single right and wrong. 

Appalachian English has a whole different vocabulary: “That Granny woman has a jag o’ simples in her poke” means the midwife has a small amount of medicinal herbs in her bag. 

Variant dialects treat tenses differently, pronouns, even sentence structure differently. They are not wrong. They are just variants. 

In the U.S., among younger speakers, you are sure to hear “like” meaning “said.” “An he’s like, ‘Are you going to the show?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, of course.’” It sounds illiterate to older listeners, but over time, it may very well become standardized. Still, I wouldn’t want to put that down in a job application. 

“Would of,” “should of” and “could of” are just mishearings of “would’ve,” “should’ve” and “could’ve,” and may also eventually become standard English as idiom. Not yet, though, please. 

— Finally, there are my personal grievances. Each of us makes a choice on which grammatical or vocabulary usages we find acceptable and which remain ugly in our ears. We each have to draw a line somewhere. My own line is rather forgiving, but there are locutions that give me a bad electrical ping to my spine and I react instantly.

I don’t know where your line may be, but here are a few of the things that are over mine:

Pictures are hung; criminals are hanged. I will yell at the TV screen when I hear them confused. 

“Imply” and “infer” are two different and opposite things. 

“Less” and “fewer” are clear as a bell to me. Ring the wrong one and I start awake. More screen yelling. 

While it doesn’t bother me too much when I hear or read it, in my writing I still make a clear distinction between “convince” and “persuade.” 

Certainly, I have been trained to Pavlovian perfection by having worked at a newspaper for so many years and having memorized the Associated Press Stylebook the way John Gielgud memorized Hamlet. And so, even though I have been retired for a decade, I still mostly adhere to AP guidelines. 

(Those guidelines are not always right. For years, the Stylebook required us to spell the small hot peppers as “chillies,” although that made us look illiterate to any Southwestern citizen who knows they are “chiles.” Eventually, my newspaper broke with AP and let us spell it in a way that didn’t make us seem like idiots. Many years later, the Associated Press relented and now they also require “chiles.” Change comes dripping slow.)

Probably the biggest, and most common problem that I react badly to is the use of “I” in the objective case. It grates on my ears like a fork on a dinner plate. I cannot stand it. Yet it is becoming pervasive. 

No doubt, all those people, who, as schoolkids, were scolded for saying “Me and Tommy went to the store” — “No, that’s ‘Tommy and I,’” said the teacher, maybe with a threatening ruler in her hand — have taken the lesson to where it doesn’t belong and now feel it must be more correct to say, “He gave it to Tommy and I.” However it came about, it is barbarous and should be extirpated. 

Related to the “I” problem is the increasing use of “myself” where “me” would do. Perhaps it sounds more correct to some ears, but it is an unneeded prolixity. Much of common writing by those who were not English majors seems to want to sound more important than it is, and longer words, or words that sound as if they should be more “correct,” infects such language. “Roger and myself went to the store” is another barbarism, as is “He gave it to Roger and myself.” Ugly, ugly, ugly. Don’t do it. 

Language changes over time and we cannot stop it any more than we can stop aging. Some changes come, sit in the vocabulary for a decade or so and disappear into the phrase graveyard, like “23-skidoo.” Proposals to make gender-fluid pronouns are being tried; perhaps they will stick, most likely they will fade. “Ms.” was once a fad word, but has become so normal, no one even notices anymore. Language changes.

But those with their antennae out are trying these words and phrases out and testing them for durability. Meanwhile, barbarisms are still barbarisms.

Artists have visual talent; musicians have hearing talent; dancers have kinetic talent. English majors have a sensitivity to language and grammar and just like a wrong note causes pain in a pianist, so these solecisms can cause anguish to the poor English major. Have pity on us. 

The Houston Astros have won the 2022 World Series, beating the Philadelphia Phillies 3 games to 2. I am conflicted. 

I have hated the Astros since their inception, and for several very good reasons. (I admit that any reason for cheering or despising a sports team, unless it’s your home-town team, is totally irrational. But humans are an irrational species, and so, hating the Dallas Cowboys, for instance, is a common impulse. Just like hating the Yankees.) 

It’s not that I was rooting for the Phillies. No one who cares about the Atlanta Braves, as I do, has anything but the rawest animosity for the team. But my hatred for the Astros trumps my natural disdain for the rival Phillies. 

I was hoping — planning, even — for a World Series with the Braves, but barring that, between the Dodgers (I was willing to accept the Dodgers) and the Yanks, such a face-off being the historical classic. But fate was not kind to me, and I had to watch the last bits of baseball for the year as an uninteresting back-and-forth between teams I don’t care about — even despise. 

Why do I hate the Astros? I’m afraid I have to confess that my animosity, like the Southerner’s for General Sherman, has its roots in ancient history. 

The marks against them begin with the Astrodome — the first domed all-purpose stadium and the progenitor to a plague of such ballfields across the country (gratefully, they are all now mostly demolished as historical artifacts, good for neither baseball nor football). It was an ugly stadium.

Secondly: AstroTurf. Since grass would not grow without sunlight, the roofed stadium had a problem, and it was solved through chemistry — i.e., Monsanto, the chemical company that brought us glyphosate-based herbicides, now recognized as carcinogens. AstroTurf spread like cancer around Major League ballfields — an ugly uniform green rug, layered on top of concrete, and making a playing surface that injured the players forced to work on it. 

Baseball was designed as a pastoral, bucolic game, and played on a field of grass. An industrialized baseball should be a contradiction in terms.  Grass is natural, uneven, varied; Astroturf is as uniform as Imperial Troopers in Star Wars.

Thirdly, the early Astros uniforms were the start of another trend in baseball: ugly uniforms. The striped orange uniforms of the early Astros remain, in my mind, among the most despicable. They led to a rash of “re-imagined” uniforms that are now laughed at, such as the Chicago White Sox short pants version, and the San Diego Padres camo. 

There are other reasons for me to hate the Astros, although some may be petty. I won’t argue that. But the Astrodome provided the setting for the climax of the Worst Movie Ever Made (or at least the most pretentious), Brewster McCloud. God, I hate that movie.

 

And after 51 seasons with the National League, they moved to the hated American League in 2013. The country may be divided politically into red states and blue states, but baseball fans have their own tribal affinities: National vs. American leagues. You have to choose one. My family, going back to my father, a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan, has always been National Leaguers. 

Then, there is the 2017-2018 sign-stealing scandal, where the Astros used a video camera in center field to steal the opposing teams’ catchers sending pitching signals to their pitchers. Baseball has always allowed for on-field attempt to steal signs, as when a runner is on second base and can see the catcher’s signs, but to do it surreptitiously with hi-tech equipment was a clear violation of traditional fair play. The team and players were sanctioned when caught, but for many fans of the game, it was little more than a wrist-slap. 

All those are on one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant — I won’t argue about that — but look at the number of them. And what have we got on the other side?  

There are two mitigating factors in my mind that ease the discomfort of the Astros World Series win. 

The first is J.R. Richard, who, from 1975-1980 was probably the most unhittable pitcher in the majors and, for me, the most fun to watch. He could be wild, and regularly led the league in walks and wild pitches. Yet, he also struck out huge numbers and once had three consecutive complete game shutouts. I loved watching him.

The other mitigation is Dusty Baker. I loved him when he played for the Dodgers, but even more when he took up managing and moved from team to team, always bringing his quiet, careful demeanor with him. If ever anyone deserved to win a World Series just for character alone, it would be Baker. 

And so, there you have it. I hate the Astros; I really liked two Astros on-field staffers. I’m not sure the positives outweigh the negatives. But then, this is only sports, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter. 

But that’s how sports works. It doesn’t matter, but we give it all our hearts and minds as if it did. As I said, human beings are irrational.

I am 74 years old and it is fall again. Again. There are a countable number of them left for me, a fact of which I am daily aware. It will soon be winter.

It is the middle of October and the leaves in Rockingham County, N.C., are falling like snow all day and clotting the ground; the woods around the house are turning brilliant colors. It is something I’ve seen 74 times and each cycle around it seems more beautiful and more precious. 

Fall color can be reduced to mere postcard cliche. We drive the highway and look for the yellows of oak and the reds of maple and see them gleam in sunlight and think, Oh how pretty. 

That is the view from the car window; it is too far away to see the leaves clearly — just broad patches of attractive color. I am not saying that view is a lie. It is beautiful and we should enjoy it if we take a weekend drive into the mountains to see the hues. We enjoy what it is given to our age and awareness to see. 

But at 74, I walk out into the grounds behind the house and pick up one of those expired chlorophyll factories, wet and matted from under my feet and what I see is very different. Not less beautiful, but much less pretty. 

The dead leaf is ribbed and spotted, with holes eaten through, worn at the edges. Patches of dun yellow, raw red and sometimes so dark in maroon as to be almost black. Few leaves fall in a perfect and whole shape. Most have been damaged, mostly by time, bit by bugs. They are curled and sere. 

The highway view of the fall is a generalized one, the close up is individual, almost personal. The highway view is the short story; the individual is the novel — a great Tolstoyian or Dostoevskian epic. It is a constellation of detail. Like a great abstract painting, you can gaze at it and see a palimpsest of accretion, of time having its way, of decay not as the loss, but rather as a build-up of detail, each on top of the other. A Pollock able to reward the look at any detail pulled from the whole. 

We are all sitting on the patio in the back yard, with woods acres deep behind and the sweetgum tree has covered the deck. While we talk, I pick up one and feel its roughened surface, its crisp desiccation, but mostly its bruised and patterned color. 

And I recognize myself in them, now that I am old. My skin is also sere and crisped. It has its mottling and discoloration. The sheen of youth is  rasped away. This is not a lament, but a recognition. Surely there are recompenses for the years’ brutality. 

Primary among them is an equanimity. Motes that seemed essential are washed away; acceptance promotes forgiveness; the need to advance in the world vanishes. 

And, perhaps most important, I find beauty in things that, when I was younger, I could not recognize, or found ugly. After such long experience on earth, I look for different things — very different from when I was young and ignorant. Now I am aged and ignorant, but have learned to see things with a wider eye. 

So those failing leaves speak to me of a profound beauty. A beauty of mortality. Of multiplicity, of profuse accretion — of time as a building up of one thing on top of another, a layering of meaning. A depth. 

I don’t know if this will be my last fall season. I could live another 20 years, although no reasonable actuary would advise placing a bet. I do know that it forces me to appreciate the worn leaf and see its innate glory.

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Many years ago, my late wife bought me a copy of A Book of Clouds, published in 1925 by author William A. Quayle. It is a hefty clothbound volume, primarily of old black-and-white photographs of clouds, layered with Quayle’s particular garish encomia and reminiscence about the glories of skywatching. 

Clouds seem to bring out the gooey and poeticizing cliches in a writer. “I was kinsman of the clouds,” Quayle writes. “And as I grew, the clouds still sailed their crafts of  snowy sail across the blue sea of my heart. Clouds, so to say, were indigenous to my soul. I did not begin to notice them: I always noticed them. I did not learn to love them: I always loved them.” 

The book is fervid with such expostulations: “When clouds give reports of portentous skies, of prepending tempests, when they are black as pools of midnight water, their eminences wrinkled as if zigzag lightnings had been the shears which cut their patterns, then as the sun lurches behind their darkness, the fine fire that rims them and seizes all their peaks gives a touch of delirium to the soul.”  

I love this book, for all its gushy writing, because Carole gave it to me, and because, in an era of irony and unbelief, there is something utterly sincere under the purple prose. 

A few years later, she gave me another book, The Cloud Collector’s Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney, a small volume and kind of a field guide to cloud identification — almost a Peterson guide. In it, Pretor-Pinney gives genus and species names of various formations, implying that a taxonomy of anything as gaseous and impermanent as a cloud might be spoken of almost as if it were a wildflower or a bunting. 

And so, there are is a list of Latinate names, not just the familiar “cumulus” and “cirrus,” but also “lenticularis,” “castellanus,” “radiatus,” and “undulatus.” Carl von Linné would have been proud. Each page is devoted to another cloud form, or cloud-related or -adjacent subjects: “pileus,” “virga,” “nacreous,” “noctilucent,” etc. It’s lots of fun. 

Pretor-Pinney, it turns out, is a veritable cheerleader for cloud watching. His full name is Gavin Edmund Pretor-Pinney, son of Anthony Robert Edmund Pretor-Pinney and Laura Uppercu, daughter of George Winthrop Haight — in other words, he’s British and has the “twitcher’s” enthusiasm, but for clouds rather than finches. And in 2004, he founded the Cloud Appreciation Society and two years later, wrote both The Cloud Collector’s Handbook and The Cloudspotter’s Guide. In 2019, he wrote A Cloud A Day, which features 365 cloud images accompanied with a short piece of cloud science, an inspiring sky quotation or a detail of the sky depicted in a classic painting. 

The Society has its website (link here) and features galleries of cloud art by painter-members, collections of cloud poetry, and many, many photographs. The paintings are especially entertaining, and hugely varied in approach.

Artists L-R — Top: Peter Nisbet; Carol McCumber; Elizabeth Busey. Bottom: Judy Friesem; Jethro Buck; Barbara Miller. 

And there is a Cloud Appreciation Manifesto (of course, there is): 

“We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them. We think that clouds are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

“We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day. We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance. We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

“And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!”

Of course, Pretor-Pinney isn’t alone. 

There are loads of books, including a raft of children’s books, all about clouds. 

 

The sky is a slate upon which we can project our sense of beauty, our sense of meaning, the expanse of creation, and the progress of time. We look up and always, it is new. Always it is moving. To rephrase Heraclitus, you can never look at the same sky twice. 

And the sky has been there in painting for centuries, but usually as a background for more important goings-on in the foreground. Then, in the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries several artists began studying the clouds and the sky for its own sake.

Most famously, a series of cloud studies by John Constable and sketches by Alexander Cozens. 

Cozens:

Constable:

“Clouds, for Constable, were a source of feeling and perception, an ‘Organ of sentiment’ (heart or lungs) as much as meteorological phenomena,” writes author Mary Jacobus in the book Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud. “If painting is another name for feeling, and the sky an organ of sentiment, then his cloud sketches are less a notation of changing weather effects than a series of Romantic lyrics: exhalations and exclamations, meditations and reflections, attached to a specific location and moment in time.”

In other words, the clouds, either painted or merely watched, become a subject for contemplation, even meditation. Beginning in the 20th century, paintings became increasingly abstract and the point being not subject matter but the substance of paint — color, shape, line, form, design. To look at a Jackson Pollock painting, or one by Mark Rothko, you are asked not to name a subject matter, but to relate the canvas to human affect, i.e., what does the painting make you feel?

A number of artists and photographers have turned to clouds to make images that are both abstract and descriptive. The clouds themselves provide the abstraction. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Modernist photographer Alfred Stieglitz made a tremendous series of images of clouds, which he titled, “Equivalents,” meaning that the visual was an equivalent of the emotion. 

He made more than 200 such images, with the intent that they could express emotions, much as music can, purely by abstraction. They are images of actual clouds, but they are also shapes on a piece of photographic paper. You can see them as photographs of the sky, or as pure abstractions. Either way, for Stieglitz, the important part was that an emotion be evoked. 

 

Another photographer, Edward Weston made pictures of clouds through his lifetime, less consciously manipulated than Stieglitz’s, but cloud abstractions nonetheless. 

The German painter Gerhard Richter made a series of cloud paintings in the 1970s. A Sotheby’s catalog said, “the clouds are caught in a moment of confrontation between the painterly and the photographic, the representative and the abstract, the natural and the supernatural.” Much of Richter’s art is political or otherwise Postmodern tricks about the nature of art itself. As for the clouds, Richter himself said, “I felt like painting something beautiful.”

He kept a notebook of images, which he called “Atlas,” in which he kept many sketches, photos and paintings of everyday items, and a whole section on nothing but clouds. 

I have made countless photographs of clouds. I step out of the house pretty much every day, just to look up and watch clouds. They keep my eyes fresh and my mind invigorated. I have two books I have made: one of images of landforms and clouds seen from my airplane window; and a second of clouds pictures made all on a single afternoon in Arizona during the rising and waning of a monsoon storm. They can be viewed online here and here

When we spend as much time indoors as most people have these past two pandemic years, it is a relief to refocus our eyes outward (and upward) to a distance beyond the four walls. The clouds are far enough that our stereoscopic vision interprets the distance as indistinguishable from infinity. That refocus is necessary to keep us in touch with the greater things. Too often our eyes are focused on electronic screens held less than arms distant. Stretch your eyes back out. Look up. Keep watching the skies. 

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