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Classics translator Robert Fagles dies

PostPosted: Tue Apr 01, 2008 5:53 am
by Aldus Marius
Classics translator Robert Fagles dies

By HILLEL ITALIE, AP National Writer
Fri Mar 28, 8:02 PM ET

Robert Fagles, a professor emeritus at Princeton University whose bold, flowing translations of Homer and Virgil made him an esteemed and best-selling classical scholar, has died. He was 74.

Fagles died Wednesday in Princeton of prostate cancer, the university said Friday.

"He was a quiet man, diligent and decorous, yet one who was unexpectedly equal to the swagger and savagery of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey in a way no one had managed before him," Princeton humanities professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon said in a statement.

According to Fagles' publisher, Viking, his translations have sold more than 4 million copies worldwide and he was the rare scholar who enjoyed both an academic and popular audience. He received numerous awards, including the National Humanities Medal, the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the PEN/Ralph Manheim prize for lifetime achievement. His editions were staged all over the world and the audiobooks attracted such acclaimed actors as Derek Jacobi, who narrates the Iliad, and Simon Callow for the Aeneid.

One fan even wrote to Fagles, saying he wanted to name his cat after him.

"I suggested 'Bob-Cat,'" Fagles recalled in a 2006 interview with The Associated Press.

Two years ago, his long-awaited edition of the Aeneid was released, a decade-long project for which Fagles — whose specialty was Greek — had to refresh himself on the Latin he learned in college, using grammar books, and the works of Catullus and Horace and other Roman writers. He was first diagnosed with cancer while working on the Aeneid and suffered from Parkinson's disease.

The Aeneid, Virgil's immortal tale of the warrior Aeneas and the founding of Rome, capped a trilogy of critically and commercially successful translations of the classical world's greatest epics, starting with the Iliad and the Odyssey. All were praised for honoring the translator's highest calling: Respecting the original text, while making it fresh and relevant for the contemporary reader.

Fagles' art was apparent in his interpretation of Virgil's most famous words from the Aeneid, the first line, Arma virumque cano, immortalized in the 17th century by John Dryden as "Of Arms and the Man I Sing," a title George Bernard Shaw lifted for his anti-war comedy, Arms and the Man.

For Dryden, and for some of Virgil's contemporaries, "Arms and the Man" was Virgil's boast that he would combine the qualities of Homer's two works (the Iliad being a story of arms, the Odyssey of a man, the soldier Odysseus) into a single story. Fagles' interpretation, "Wars and a man I sing," is more somber, emphasizing the contrast between the plurality of battles (wars) and the singularity of Aeneas (a man).

"I wanted to convey something about the modern understanding of war, and then about a man, an exile, a common soldier left terribly alone in the field of battle," he told the AP in 2006. "Aeneas is like Clint Eastwood, like Gary Cooper, a warrior and a worrier. He changes into the heroic tragic man, duty and endure, endure and duty."

In the Aeneid, Fagles made other changes. He ignored meter and rhyme. While other translators told the Aeneid in the past tense, Fagles used the present, believing that the story demanded immediacy and tension.

Born in Philadelphia and himself a published poet, Fagles came to classical literature and translation relatively late, or late for his chosen field. He was a junior at Amherst College when he read the Iliad and the Odyssey and longed to learn them in their original language.

Fagles' first published translation, of the lyric poet Bacchilydes, came out in 1961, around the same time he joined the Princeton University faculty. He translated several Greek tragedies, including works by Aeschylus and Sophocles, and took on the Iliad in the 1970s.

"I was younger then," Fagles said with a laugh in 2006, "younger and more foolish.

"It was a question of going back to the source, where did the tragedies come from? One of the great surprises and pleasures in translating the Iliad is that so much of it was dramatic discourse, people talking to other people," he says. "It was quite dramatic, not all that far from the plays I worked on."

Speaking in 2006, he was grateful just to see the Aeneid published. Virgil, who lived in the first century b.c.e, worked on his masterpiece near the end of his life and died without completing it, urging that the text be destroyed. Fagles, too, wondered if he would finish his work.

"I know that even when I started on the Iliad, I thought I was pressing my luck. I didn't know if I would live through it; it's a question on anybody's mind when you take on a 10-year project," he said.

"In a sense, all translations are unfinished. One thing I have learned is that no one will have the final say, that each generation needs its own translation. Some translators, like (John) Dryden, hoped that their work would last longer than a generation. That may be a vain hope."

Fagles, who was not working on any project at the time of his death, retired from the Princeton faculty in 2002. Last year, the school awarded him an honorary doctor of humane letters for "four decades of feats on behalf of Princeton, as the founding father of comparative literature, as a gracious and wise colleague and as an inspiring mentor and teacher."

He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Lynne, and their two grown daughters.