RIP Robert Fagles

Emily recently alerted me to the fact that Robert Fagles passed away on March 26 (see NY Times). It is a sad day in the world of classical translation.

Fagles is the translator-poet who first brought me the joys of Homer. In the summer before my final year of high school, I read his translation of The Odyssey in preparation for my Advanced Placement English class. Appropriately, I read most of it whilst on a road trip that ranged from Thunder Bay to Hamilton to St. John, NB, and back again. Whenever we stopped somewhere, I would ask my parents, “Let us see what kind of peoples these are, whether they fear God or not . . .” or some other appropriately odysseian statement.

His translation of The Odyssey brought out the vivid, living poetry of Homer far more effectively than either of my prose editions, and its pace is far quicker than that of Lattimore. I enjoyed reading Homer in Fagles’ translation. It was that translation, the fun and delight of reading Homer as rendered by Fagles, that prompted me to apply for Classics rather than History or Mediaeval Studies for university–coupled, of course, with a burning desire to study Latin and a deep-seated enjoyment of Roman history.

As I enjoyed The Odyssey so much, in my 12/OAC year (I fast-tracked, so it was Grade 12 full of OAC courses) I purchased Fagles’ Iliad. It was while reading The Iliad on a dump-truck the summer before university that I realised that Homer was more than just the story (I mean, I cognitively knew it, but it hadn’t struck me). Homer is true poetry, and the beauty of the words captivated me, as rosy-fingered Dawn rose and as various heroes were slain in equally-varied manners.

Today, if you were to talk to me about translation of the Classics, I would generally tell you that the more literal, the better. I would say that the translator’s job is simply to find voice for the words of the ancient writers and present them in a well-ordered fashion to the modern reader; that the translator is not to have a voice of his own. I would point in disfavour to instances where there is an ambiguity in the Greek but where modern translators have unnecessarily removed said ambiguity and thrust their own interpretation of a passage upon their readers.

But I think that, outside of when they do silly things like remove ambiguities, translators of poetry do not always have to be as rigorous as all that. Fagles was not rigorously literal, but instead sought to capture the meaning of a phrase, line, sentence, to bring to life the beauty, imagery, and poetics of the Greek. And I think that if you are setting out to read Homer and enjoy Homer, this is an acceptable practice. I would argue that a rigorous translation of philosophical and religious texts, on the other hand, is essential for properly setting out the arguments of the author in a comprehensible manner.

However, Fagles did not translate philosophy, he translated poetry, including the three great epics, a feat not achieved by anyone else, to my knowledge. So when you find yourself selecting a translation of Homer or Virgil,* I would not say to avoid Rieu or Jackson Knight (who had the advantage of being a spiritist and consulted Virgil himself in translating), but to consider Fagles, who brings the ancients back to life for the modern reader without compromising their art.

*Or Bacchylides (quite nice), The Oresteia by Agamemnon, or Sophocles’ Theban plays (Oedipus the King, Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus).


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