National Humanities Medal
"Every translation is different," says classicist Robert Fagles. "It has to do with the tone of voice of the translator. Each has a distinctive badge, each comes with its own vocal DNA," he says. "I very much hope my translation sounds like me. I wanted it to be in my voice, for better or worse."
Fagles's translations are known for their emphasis on contemporary English phrasing while being faithful to the original. His translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey were both bestsellers. Now, he has tackled the Roman epic, Virgil's Aeneid; his translation of Virgil has just been published.
Fagles found the success of these works unexpected. "I was very surprised," he said in a recent New York Times interview. "Because I'm an academic, a lot of hand wringing goes on in the academy about the illiteracy of the public. The great job of this work was to discover that there is in fact a great number of very intelligent, hardworking readers out there."
As a comparative literature professor at Princeton University for more than forty years, Fagles was always involved with the classics. "I shuttled between teaching the epics of Homer and the tragedies of Aeschylus. That was my daily diet," he says. "Translation is an ongoing field of endeavor throughout all of English letters. Finally, there came a time when I wanted to try my hand at it myself."
Fagles translated The Iliad in 1990 and The Odyssey in 1996. "I wanted to bring the epic poem to life. I had done my dissertation on Pope's translation, and I wanted to make it new."
In an interview with playwright Gideon Lester, Fagles described the job of a translator: "It is forever a tightrope act. You look back to the great original behind you, trying to be as faithful to it as possible, trying to convey as much of what it says as possible, but the conveyance takes place in a modern medium that has both limitations and opportunities for a kind of expansiveness. It's a balancing act between the ancient and the modern."
He says his knowledge of modern American poetry helps his translations. "I try to keep in mind what the great poets of our day have found permissible, possible, and helpful in the use of our own idioms," he said.
Fagles believes The Odyssey still offers lessons to today's reader. "I think we learn fortitude is an important virtue. We learn from Homer that adventure and being alive to experience are very important virtues," says Fagles. He quotes the writer Virginia Woolf, who described Homer "as alive to every tremor and gleam of existence."
Fagles won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award of the Academy of American Poets in 1991 for his translation of The Iliad and in 1996 received an Academy Award in Literature for his translation of The Odyssey. He also received the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for lifetime achievement in translation. Fagles has translated Sophocles's Three Theban Plays and Aeschylus's vOresteia. He has published a book of his own poems titled I, Vincent: Poems from the Pictures of Van Gogh.
For students tackling Homer for the first time, Fagles says the best way to appreciate the ancient epics is to act them out. "Sit in groups and read aloud, and don't stop reading aloud. Find the voice of Achilles, the voice of beautiful Helen. Poetry is meant to be heard, it is meant to be acted out by reading."