The poet and translator Michael Hamburger called his autobiography A Mug’s Game. Whatever one may feel about poetry, the name applies to poetry in translation. Dryden distinguished three kinds of translation: the literal, the free, and the intermediate kind. Literal translation of poetry is usually of low literary quality; free translation of it may have literary merit, but seldom makes an impression like that of the original; the intermediate kind suffers almost always from one of these deficiencies, very often from both.
While the scriptural account of the origins of man still had authority, people believed the myth of Babel; existing language approximated in some degree to the original true language, so that a text in one language might be matched by its exact equivalent in another. Translation of prose from one European language into another, seeming at first sight comparatively simple, lends color to this assumption. But even if we keep to European languages, we have only to advance a little way to find things harder; study such an elementary specimen of translation as the instructions in several languages for using the safety kit on airplanes, and you will notice marked differences of structure and of idiom.
Ancient Greek differs appreciably from modern European languages in both these respects. These languages have lost most of the inflections that they once possessed; Greek has a high degree of inflection, and so can vary its word order as they cannot. Greek makes much use of particles, serving to link sentences or to convey various shades of emphasis or other nuances, some of them expressed in other languages by underlinings or a special tone of voice. It has a marked tendency to avoid the passive; its own passive originally borrowed its forms from the middle voice, which usually implies that the subject’s action is in his own interest or otherwise related to himself. It makes subtle use of the subjunctive and optative moods; in its classical form, it retains a dual number as well as a singular and plural. A translator from or into such a language, if he is to have any real success, must recast the passage to be translated in his mind; that is why the exercise of translation into Greek, once highly valued in universities but now almost abandoned, supplies a valuable intellectual discipline.
Greek verse does not use rhyme, and Greek has no stress accent. It has a pitch accent, but the meter depends not on this but on the number of syllables, which may be long or short; Americans are taught to pronounce according to the accent, which makes it harder for them to understand the meter. The dialogue parts of Greek tragedy are in iambic or trochaic verse, these being the meters thought to be closest to the rhythm of common speech; but much of the plays, and particularly the utterance of the chorus, consists of lyric verse whose meters vary greatly. One element in the poetry of tragedy is spare and dry …