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Robert Fagles

By C. K. Williams

It’s rather astonishing to realize that Bob Fagles was the most successful translator of poetry who ever lived. Alexander Pope probably would come in second, with his Iliad and Odyssey; Pope made enough on his translations to live pretty well the rest of his life, but his work was done with a team of lackeys, first-drafters. Bob labored by himself, hard and long and meticulously, and if the books he brought forth have been acquired and enjoyed and revered by literally hundreds of thousands of readers, were recorded by great actors to be heard aloud by nearly as many, it may have been a little surprising to him, but perhaps not completely.

Translating is an odd occupation, not least because it’s so difficult to come to any definitive judgment about whether one translation is better than another. A translation of a work may be more accurate than another of the same work, but have none of the verbal energy of the original.  One version may be more musical than another, but have sacrificed so much of the essential meaning that the original is violated. In a sense, translating involves a kind of juggling of compromises, and all too often the resulting text can give a feeling of hesitation, or on the hand of willfulness, or over-aggressiveness, or heedlessness, haste; or a basic incomprehension of what the original is up to. It’s easy enough to say all this, but when we’re confronted with competent versions of the same work, it often will remain a mystery why one seems an appropriate representation of the original, why that one will be the version that we take unto ourselves as the right one, as ours.

Bob had this happen with a really quite surprising portion of his translations. The reasons are difficult to specify, but there’s much that’s quite evident. There’s a spaciousness in his versions, a clarity, a light, that has none of the murk of dutifulness found too often in renderings of classics.  And there’s also something in the movement of mind in Bob’s versions, a poetic attentiveness, that manages to situate them precisely between our own literary-cultural cosmos, and the vision we have of the way those ancient language psyches inhabited their so distant yet still so telling reality. One could go on trying to figure out what all the reasons are that make the work satisfying, but whatever the particular virtues his versions embodied, the clear fact of the matter is that they’re the ones we most love.

And to speak of the person Robert Fagles, love is certainly the most apt word with which to begin. Was there ever anyone who loved so many people, and who was loved by so many in return? Bob had an incredible number of good friends, what are usually called “best friends,” that is, people who had a special, unique, profoundly intimate relationship with him. Sometimes it could seem unbelievable how many people Bob felt affection for, admired, esteemed, loved; people from every field, from poets to opera singers to mathematicians, to art historians. I remember thinking when I first came to know him that it was unreasonable for anyone to speak so enthusiastically about so many others, and so negatively about so few… Only a few semi-monsters who had hurt or insulted one or another of Bob’s real friends.

There could be something self-consciously old-fashioned in the expression of his affections. He liked to use locutions like, “Dear Friend,” to address people: I can’t think of anyone else who could say that and not only get away with it, but convey by it the real closeness he felt to you. Well, not anyone: his beloved wife, Lynne, could, can, also say things like that. Lynne and Bob were one of those rare couples whose passion for each other made them very much alike, yet there was never the sense with them that either was suppressing or sacrificing any virtue of their own in their beautiful union.

Bob began his writing career with poetry, and in the most profound sense he always remained a poet. Sensitive, inquisitive, and alert; he was always processing—the world, what he’d read, what he was working on, the people he knew, his life, your life. It made talking with him continually gratifying. He took nothing for granted, intellectually or emotionally, except that encompassing tenderness which infused his being in the world. And there was of course, his love of language, which was a poet’s love: his sense of words, in his work and in conversation, was sensual, almost voluptuous, but at the same time precise, judicious, clear-eyed.

That word love again: I’ve sometimes wondered whether the love that informed so much of Bob’s life may also have been what suffused his work with whatever mysterious quality it was that made his translations seem so much more engrossing, more satisfying than others. Might it be that Bob simply loved both the reality of his originals, and our own, in a way that other translators, and in fact most poets and writers, don’t? Might he have felt about Homer and Virgil and Sophocles the way he felt about people he knew, that they had a quality of responsiveness in them he was able to intuit and incorporate in his translations, and so bring the spirit of the voices in those works from their culture, their community of souls, to ours? That’s what translation is, finally: an enlarging of human communities. It was the good fortune of our own community to have had a person with as large a soul as Bob’s as our emissary from those others.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 5, 2008.

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