Translating the Latin of Virgil's Aeneid into English verse requires first a Trojan war of interpretation, and then an odyssey of re-encryption. The density of meaning in the poem is prodigious: ambiguities, allusions and many-faced images are built into the original with the free word order and syllabic economy of an inflected language that can't be recreated in English. Doing justice to what Tennyson called the "stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man" - the rhythm of the Virgilian hexameters - is another challenge. These are lines of six feet and between 13 and 17 syllables, in a metre based on syllable length, which produces, in interplay with the stress accents, effects that are alien to English.
All of this clearly didn't seem like enough of a challenge for Sarah Ruden, who - in flagrant contravention of clause c) of Vladimir Nabokov's rules for translators - has this year become the first woman to translate the most macho of epic poems. She has rejected the common and commonsense approach of using a long line that evokes the hexameter and, more importantly, provides space for all the content that comes expanding out of the Latin. Her choice of iambic pentameter is not unusual in itself, but coupled with her commitment to line-for-line translation, it results in extreme space restriction. It is an ambitious choice: many translations limit neither the syllables nor the number of lines.
Fortune favours the brave, apparently. All translations leave out elements of the original and add some of their own; Ruden's has its share of missing pieces but is refreshingly free of additions. She simply has no room in her short, over-subscribed lines for the frills - an extra adjective here, an adverb there - that other translators add, and the line-for-line discipline that keeps the space tight is itself an act of loyalty to the pace of the original. The translation has a lean, unadulterated feel to it: Ruden's poetic energy has gone into finding words that work overtime rather than her own flourishes. The pentameter, as well as making for an easier, more natural read than a longer line, conveys the regularity of the Latin verse, an effect that freer translations (like that of Robert Fagles) forfeit.