Just two years ago, Robert Fagles, shortly before his death, set the bar very high for translating Vergil’s Aeneid. Yet already the scholar-poet Sarah Ruden has soared over the bar. She does this despite submission to a trying discipline. She decides to translate one-line-per-one-line, and she uses the iambic pentameter. This means not only that she gives herself less space overall (Vergil’s own 756 lines for Book One of the poem, for instance, to Fagles’s 908), but less space in any single line. She has ten or eleven syllables to a verse, where Vergil and Fagles have up to seventeen syllables. Lines beyond the five beats of iambic pentameter tend to sprawl in English, but Vergil’s hexameter is very disciplined. The wonder of his poem is that it has a melancholy melodiousness while retaining a tight aphoristic ring. Fagles often achieved the former, but rarely the latter. Ruden gets both.
She has to achieve her effects economically. At times, of course, she must sacrifice something. For instance, when a crazed Aeneas is seeking for his lost wife through the falling city of Troy, he relates:
I even dared to shout across the shadows,
Uselessly filling up the roads with grief,
Ceaselessly calling out Creusa’s name.
She does not have room in that last line for the echo-effects Vergil creates:
Nequiquam-ingeminans iterumque-iterumque vocavi.
But Fagles, with greater room for maneuver, cannot equal the original either:
“Creusa!” Nothing, no reply, and again “Creusa!”
One service that translation of a masterpiece provides is reminding us how unreachable the original remains.
Ruden does open up her line a bit by adding an extra syllable at the end of the first line above. It is normal with English pentameter to have the extra unstressed syllable of the “feminine ending,” as with “shadows” above. But Ruden often adds a stressed syllable, a monosyllable following an equally stressed monosyllable (a spondee). At first I found this a little disturbing, as slowing down the run of lines. But Ruden finds many uses for that final spondee. To describe a wasting sickness, for instance, she writes:
We gave our sweet breath up or dragged our lives out.
Three lines show her metrical effects. Two stresses ending the first two lines, and the feminine ending to the third, give a sense of straining to see Dido in the underworld. Aeneas
Encountered her and recognized her dim form
Through shadows, as a person sees the new moon
Through clouds—or thinks he sees it—as it rises.
That last line, its disjointed rhythmic wispiness, almost makes Dido fade again before our eyes. Ruden may be borrowing this effect from the great Dryden:
Doubtful as he who sees through dusky night,
Or thinks he sees, the moon’s uncertain light.
Ruden is good at varying the iambic flow with trochaic words (in which a stressed syllable precedes one that is unstressed):
He fainted into death, like a poppy bending
Its weary neck when rain weighs down …