Dr. Stephanie McCarter, a classics professor at Sewanee since 2008, recently won the Harold Landon Translation Award for her translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Dr. McCarter provided a new perspective on Ovid’s poem with her contemporary feminist background, but before translating Ovid, Dr. McCarter was just a college student with a nerdy passion and a knack for Latin.
Dr. McCarter gained her Ph.D. in classics from the University of Virginia after discovering her passion in her undergraduate years at the University of Tennessee. What started off as attending a Latin class for the language requirement became the catalyst to Dr. McCarter’s whole career. She said she started to read Horace and Virgil and got “obsessively into it.” The University of Tennessee’s large student body allowed her to find her people in the classics courses that she took. Because of the community that she found and the love she developed for the classics, she knew that teaching was her future. Dr. McCarter said, “I knew I wanted to be a professor because the moment I stepped foot on a university I knew I was home.”
Such a passion infiltrates not only her work life but also her way of thinking. “I see the world through the lens of classics,” Dr. McCarter said, “I can’t help it.” Whether she is processing the Me-Too Movement or her grandfather’s time in World War II, she uses the classics as “a framework for assessing the world.” Dr. McCarter’s first publication was an essay about her grandfather and how his time in WWII related to Aeneas in Virgil’s The Aeneid. Around the time of the essay’s publication, she started translating Horace. After her daughter was born, Dr. McCarter said , “I never want to write another word that I don’t just really want to write.” The poetry of Horace had been a favorite of hers since she was a young college student, and translating his poems and publishing essays seemed to be a good way to reconnect with the side of herself that loves to write creatively and engage with literary texts.
During her high school days, Dr. McCarter wanted to become just like her English teacher, whom she adored. Before Horace and Virgil, she loved Chaucer and Philip Larkin. Her background with poetry and creative writing, however, ended up contributing greatly to her success as a translator. When working with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dr. McCarter found herself in a difficult process of stepping away from what she calls “translationese” which is a habitual writing style that most translators fall into. To step away from artificial syntax that was not altogether pleasant to read, Dr. McCarter started to translate directly into meter. This was nothing short of an “aha!” moment as it freed her to be more creative and won her the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.The award, given for literary merit, “was hugely validating to me,” McCarter added.
Her other publishing escapades, such as her monograph on the epistles, or her first work of translation of Horace, were “scary,” she said. McCarter was the first woman to translate all his odes into English. Being vulnerable and putting one’s own words and thoughts out there for the world to see can only be described as such, according to Dr. McCarter. However, her mantra when translating Ovid was “why not me.” She called this motto “foolhardy,” but it shows real courage and resilience to be able to follow her passions and continue to publish.
Her work on Metamorphoses is widely acclaimed for the way she dealt with sexual violence. On October 2, Dr. McCarter spoke about the process of translating Ovid and how she refrained from sexualizing the body of women andfrom romanticizing sexual assault, as has been done in previous translations. She mentioned in the talk that while she translated Ovid, she utilized feminist scholarship in order to reassess Metamorphoses and to not deny the women their agency. Dr. McCarter’s studying of Ovid allowed her to realize that Ovid was casting the human condition onto the women of Metamorphoses to explore what it was like to feel out of control of one’s own body, and due to women’s positions in society during Ovid’s time, writers were able to explore a lack of agency or autonomy. She also highlighted in her talk that she avoided gendering or racializing the bodies of women so that her reading did not appeal to one specific audience. Other translators often appealed to the assumed heterosexual male reader.
Dr. McCarter recalled that coming to Sewanee showed her the importance of writing in a way that communicates with everyone. “So much of my efforts is making the classics appealing and accessible to people who aren’t tenured professors in classics,” she stressed. She laments the fact that classics departments are shutting down in other schools and wishes that more classicists would realize how many audiences the classics can appeal to.