November 4, 2016

Translation and Robert Fitzgerald

Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse (1891)

“I think that one poet is lending himself to the other poet, that the obligation is to the other poet, and that one is taking on for the time being the spirit and impulse and intent of the other poet, and so the wish is to make all that clear in one’s own language rather than express oneself, so to speak.” - Robert Fitzgerald

Robert Fitzgerald is best known for his English translations of Homer’s The Odyssey (1961) and The Iliad  which are pretty much the standard works used in schools.

I recently read about when he was a student at Harvard University. He read T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land" and said that it changed his life. He began to write poetry. He got published in Poetry magazine.

While still a student, he got to met Eliot while in London and gave him one of his poems. Eliot studied the poem for several minutes and then looked up and said, “Is this the best you can do?” I can imagine such a remark having a devastating effect on a young writer.

He graduated in 1933 and worked as a reporter, but kept writing poetry. He published Poems (1935) and A Wreath for the Sea (1943).

He served in the Navy during World War II, including time in Guam and Pearl Harbor. He had with him the works of Virgil and a Latin dictionary and, though he had no training in translation, he would translate Virgil a line at a time into a notebook.

Fitzgerald teaching at Harvard
After the war, married and with a family, he began teaching, first at at Sarah Lawrence College and later at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Washington, Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University and Harvard. He also served as poetry editor of the New Republic.

He went back to his wartime translations and convinced an editor to advance him money for five years to translate Homer’s The Odyssey. With that and a Guggenheim award, he took his family to live in Italy for a time.

He was very much a formalist in his poetry, something certainly influenced by the classics. His own influence on his students helped drive the New Formalism of the late 20th century in American poetry. That approach promoted a return to metrical and rhymed verse.

His verse translations of Homer’s The Iliad (1974) and The Odyssey (1961) and Virgil’s The Aeneid (1983), as well as other classics and his own poetry brought him many honors.

From 1984 to 1985, he was the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (the position now known as Poet Laureate).

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