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OBITUARIES / Robert Fagles, 1933 - 2008

Professor wrote popular translations of early poets

March 30, 2008|From the Associated Press

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, N.J., of prostate cancer, the university said.

"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 a 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 translations were staged all over the world and the audio books attracted such acclaimed actors as Derek Jacobi, who narrated "The Iliad," Ian McKellan for "The Odyssey" and Simon Callow for "The Aeneid."

Two years ago, the long-awaited edition of "The Aeneid" was released, a decadelong 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 he also had Parkinson's disease.

"The Aeneid," Virgil's 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 antiwar 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 Greek 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 Associated Press 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 Sept. 11, 1933, in Philadelphia, Fagles, a published poet, 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. After earning his bachelor's in English literature from Amherst in 1955, he earned a doctorate in English literature at Yale and taught there for a year.

Fagles' first published translation, of the lyric poet Bacchylides, came out in 1961, a year after he joined Princeton's English department. He later became the founding chairman of the comparative literature department at Princeton. He translated several Greek tragedies, including works by Aeschylus and Sophocles, and took on "The Iliad" in the 1970s.

Fagles retired from the Princeton faculty in 2002.

He is survived by his wife of 51 years, Lynne; two daughters; and three grandchildren.

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