A review article in the Times Literary Supplement discusses the art of translating poetry with particular reference to Ted Hughes.
When [Ezra Pound] translated a passage from Homer in the first of his Cantos, he turned the Greek hexameters – by way of a Latin translation in lineated prose – into something like the metre of Beowulf. In this case the metre was chosen as appropriate to his meaning: one that evoked an aspect of Homer which he shares with the author of Beowulf, a sort of barbaric fatalism. The classical hexameter, as innumerable attempts at it have shown, has no real equivalent in English. In this respect, Pound’s choice of alliterative verse might be compared to Pope’s of heroic couplets. In both cases the metre was adopted for what it signified to an English reader, not as an equivalent to the Greek. …
On balance, the engagements with classical poets – from Aeschylus and Euripides to Ovid and Seneca – are more convincing than those with Hughes’s contemporaries, though the omissions are also striking: Seneca’s but not Sophocles’ Oedipus, Homer but not Virgil. Could this be because neither Sophocles nor Virgil would prove responsive to the view of human nature Hughes ascribes to the Roman dramatist?
The figures in Seneca’s Oedipus are Greek only by convention; by nature they are more primitive than aboriginals. They are a spider people, scuttling among hot stones.
There is something in the serenity of Oedipus at Colonus that, like the formal perfection of Mozart or Racine, is outside Hughes’s range.
His triumph as a translator, though, if we exclude the fragmentary Sir Gawain, is surely the very popular Tales from Ovid. It is easy to see why Hughes looked to Ovid as his model of the shaman poet in a civilized society, yet it is possible to understand the success of these versions without recourse to mystical ideas. No doubt like any inspired poem – and Tales from Ovid really is inspired – it arises from engagements in Hughes’s inner life that are beyond comprehension, much as the Juhasz does. Unlike the Juhasz and much else in this fascinating book, however, it takes off from evident sources in English literature – from the fabulous Elizabethan translation by Arthur Golding and from Golding’s most resplendent beneficiary, William Shakespeare. Hughes was obsessed throughout his life with Venus and Adonis, and the Ovid is aptly represented here by the two sections Shakespeare drew his plot from. Reading the book through consecutively, one is struck on arriving at the Ovid by the ghost of Jacobean blank verse pervading the rhythm, much as it does in The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal. If I am right that the versions of Ovid and Sir Gawain are the star turns of the book, I am pointing to poems with deep roots in Hughes’s own language and culture, and hardly at all in whatever it was we lost at the Tower of Babel.