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Translator Robert Fagles
“Fits on His Greaves and Swordbelt”
to Do Battle with the “Odyssey”
by Ann VValdron
Y SEVEN O,CLOCK EACH WEEKDAY MORN
ing, Robert Fagles is in his office on the
third floor of East Pyne Hall. By seven
thirty, he is hard at work, a victim ofwhat
he calls his merciless internal clock. For the last
three years, he has been translating Homer’s Odys
sey. One morning last August, he sat down to work
on the passage that describes Odysseus’ return to
Ithaca and his reunion with his faithful dog, Argus,
the sole creature, man or beast, who recognizes the
He starts by opening his well-worn copy of the
Oxford Classical Text of the Odyssey. After reading
the forty-four lines of the selected passage in Greek
several times, he Focuses on the ten lines he will
commit to paper this morning. He reads them over
and over, out loud, until he has them “in my head,”
then looks up several words in two standard refer
ences, Cunliffe’s Lexicon ofthe Homeric Dialect and
what he calls the “O.E.D. of Greek," the Greek
English Lexicon, by Liddell, Scott, and Jones. He
also reads scholarly critiques of the passage in two
authoritative references, William Bedell Stanford’s
The Odyssey of Homer and the weighty, three-vol
ume Oxford Commentary on Homers Odyssey (These
sources can be helpful, for example, in pointing
out passages that might have been added to the
poem after Homer.) To make sure that he trans
lates consistently certain often-repeated phrases—
“wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn” are the
best-known examples, but there are many such “ech
oes" in Homer—he checks the passage against an
Odyssey concordance, an index to every word ap
pearing in the epic.
This preparation may take an hour, but at last
Fagles is ready to begin translating. For the cru
cial leap into English, he turns to his word pro
cessor. He taps at the keyboard, words march
across the screen, and slowly the passage builds,
although not without a lot of backtracking and
recasting. Often he stops, and steps from behind
PHOYO O MARY CROSS
his desk and into the hallway. It helps, he says,
to prowl the still-empty corridors of East Pyne,
turning Homet’s lines over in his head. Three
hours after starting, Fagles finishes a draft of the
passage, then prints it out.
The difficulty of translating, Fagles says, is two
fold: he must understand as well as humanly pos
sible the Greek text, then he must put Homer's
words into English blank verse. It’s an ongoing
process. Tomorrow he will tackle the next passage,
and the following morning the next after that. The
Odyssey comprises twenty-four books, and for the
sake of continuity he works on them one at a time.
Once he has completed a draft of a book, he takes
a pencil to the printout, revising and printing out
new versions many times.
Having put Homer aside for another day, he
turns his attention to students and colleagues. “I
couldn’t work on translations all day long,” he says.
But during the summer, he sometimes gets back to
Homer in the afternoon.
The result of his early-morning discipline is an
extraordinary body of work for Fagles, the Arthur
W. Marks ’l9 Professor of Comparative Literature
and chairman of the Department of Comparative
Literature. More than thirty years ago, as a young
instructor in Princeton’s English department, he trans
lated the poems of Bacchylides, a poet of the fifth
century B.C. In 1975, he published his translations
of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the tragic trilogy that includes
Agamemnon, The Lihation Bearers, and The Eumenides.
In 1982 came the three Theban Plays of Sophocles:
Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus.
But all this work, he says, was just “limbering up for
Homer." His translation of Homer’s Iliad appeared
in I990, the same year he began work on the Od
yssey, which he hopes to complete by 1996.
ROBERT FAGLES,S OWN ODYSSEY BEGAN IN PHILA
delphia, where he was born sixty years ago. His
mother came from a Russian jewish family of in
January 26, 1994 ~ 1.
tellectuals, engineers, doctors, and at least one
banker—his great-grandmother, who sponsored hun
dreds of emigrants fleeing czarist and soviet Rus
sia. His father was a lawyer whose parents came
from the Pale of ]ewish settlement, in a region of
Poland annexed by Russia. “My father’s parents,
Orthodox ]ews, did not speak English,” says Fagles.
“He was the darling of a tribe of six children, who
put himself through college and law school.”
His mother, although one of the ﬁrst women to
attend Cornell’s school of architecture, turned to
social work after graduating. She met her future
husband while assigned to the Orphans’ Court, in
Philadelphia. “I was their only child, the chosen,
the cosseted,” says Fagles, “and so, I’m afraid, the
one of whom everything was demanded.” In one
respect, he wishes his parents had demanded more.
Fagles claims to feel ignorant of the language and
Duchovnay, a Bryn Mawr graduate whom he had
known since she was fourteen and he fifteen (they
now have two grown daughters). Under Maynard
Mack, he wrote his dissertation on Alexander Pope’s
eighteenth-century translations of the Iliad and the
Odyssey. He wanted to answer questions such as,
What happens to the texture of a poem when it's
translated? What was Pope’s idea of the epic poem?
liturgy of his heritage, and regrets they didn’t send
him to Hebrew school. At Lower Merion High
School (where Fred Hargadon, Princeton’s dean of
admission, was in his homeroom), the only lan
guage he studied was German. He liked science,
and decided that he wanted to be a doctor, per
haps a psychiatrist. His other interest was athlet
ics, especially tennis, football, and baseball, although
he never played at the varsity level. He liked liter
ature well enough, but it had yet to fire his imag
ination. “I really wasn't an avid reader in high school,"
Fagles enrolled at Amherst College as a premed
ical student with vague plans of majoring in En
glish. The plans hardened thanks to “some awfully
good teachers,” who whetted his appetite for po
etry and fiction. He took more literature classes,
and deferred his premed requirements. The sum
mer after his sophomore year, to fulfill a science
requirement, he tried studying quantitative analy
sis at the University of Pennsylvania. But he found
the subject so tedious that he dropped the course
for one in Russian, a language that drew him “be
cause of my ancestry on my mother’s side, and
because I wanted to read Pushkin and Tolstoy in
the original." Medicines loss proved literature’s gain.
Back at Amherst for his junior year, he devoured
courses in the nineteenth-century English novel
and seventeenth-century poetry. He also enrolled
in beginning French, Latin, and Greek. In what is
surely an understatement, Fagles says he “took a
shine to Greek literature.” But because he came so
late to studying it, “I feel like I’m forever playing
In 1955, Fagles graduated summa cum laude from
Amherst and, supported in part by a Woodrow
Wilson Fellowship, moved on to Yale for a doctor
ate in English. He continued to take Greek, which
the English department let him substitute for one
of the two years of required Anglo-Saxon. After
his first year of graduate school, he married Lynne
14 ~ Princeton Alumni Weekly
The ﬁillowing draft, ﬁom Book X1 ofRobert Fagles} transla
tion-in-progress ofthe Odyssey, describes Odysseus’ meeting his
mother in the underworld The narrative voice is Odysseus’.
But I kept watch there, steadfast till my mother
approached and drank the dark, clouding blood,
and she, she knew me at once and wailed out
and her words went winging toward me, flying home—
“Oh my son—what brings you down to the world
of death and darkness? You are still alive!
So hard for the living to catch a glimpse of this . . .
DRAWING BY STACY M WSZOLA
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And how did Virgil's Aeneid, especially Dryden’s
translation of it, and Milton’s Paradise Lost influ
ence Pope? The dissertation introduced Fagles to
the problems and possibilities, the “complexities
and pleasures,” of translation. “When you begin
to translate I-Iomer or one of the great tragedians,”
he says, “you experience what Robert Fitzgerald
felt on reading Yeats: ‘the mind endures fracture.’ "
He began to see how translation was done, and
now he wanted to try it himself. In I959, after
receiving his Ph.D., he stayed on at Yale to teach
English and began translating the poems of Bac
chylides, a poet Fagles felt had been neglected—
there was no complete translation of his works,
even though scholars ranked him second to Pindar
for his choral lyrics. “There was a lot of liveliness
Great rivers flow between us, terrible waters,
the Ocean first of all—no one could ever ford
that stream on foot, only aboard some sturdy craft.
Have you just come from Troy, wandering long years
with your men and ship? I-Iaven’t you been to Ithaca yet?
I-Iaven’t you seen your wife in your own halls?”
“Mother,” I replied, “I had no choice.
I had to venture down to the House of Death—
to consult the shade of Tiresias, seer of Thebes.
Never yet have I neared Achaea, never once
set foot on our own country. . .
always wandering—endless hardship from that day
I ﬁrst set sail with King Agamemnon bound for Troy,
the land of horsemen, to ﬁght the Trojans there.
in the ashes by the ﬁre, his body wrapped in rags.
But when summer comes and the bumper crops of harvest,
any spot on the rising ground of his vineyard rows
he makes his bed, heaped high with fallen leaves,
and there he lies in anguish . . .
with his old age bearing hard upon him, too,
and his grief grows as he longs for your return.
And I, with the same grief, I died and met my fate.
No keen-eyed I-Iuntress showering arrows through the halls
approached and brought me down with painless shafts,
nor did some hateful illness attack me, that so often
wastes away the body, drains our limbs of power. . .
No, it was my longing for you——my shining Odysseus—
you and your cunning, you and your gentle ways——
that tore away my life that had been sweet!”
But tell me about yourself, and spare me nothing—
what form of death overcatne you, laid you low. . .
some long slow illness? Or did Artemis showering arrows
come with her painless shafts and bring you down?
Tell me of father, tell of the son I left behind—
do my royal rights still rest in their safekeeping?
Or does some stranger hold the throne by now,
And I, my mind in turmoil, how I longed
to embrace my mother’s spirit, dead as she was!
Three times I rushed toward her, desperate to hold her,
three times she fluttered through my ﬁngers, sifting away
like a shadow, dissolving like a dream, and each time
the grief stabbed to the heart, sharper, yes, and I,
her mind—still standing fast beside our son,
I cried out to her, words winging into the darkness—
"Mother!—why not wait for me?—-how I long to hold you!
So even here, in the I-louse of Death, we can ﬂing
still guarding our great estates, secure as ever?
our loving arms around each other, take some joy
Or has she wed some other countryman at last,
in the tears that numb the heart! Or is this just
some wraith that great Persephone sends my way
to make me ache with sorrow all the more?”
because men think that I’ll return no more?
Tell me about my wedded wife . . . her mood,
the finest prince among them?”
my noble mother replied at once, “she’s waiting
still in your halls, that long-enduring spirit,
her life an endless hardship . . .
wasting away the nights, weeping away the days.
No one has taken over your wealthy kingdom, not yet—
My noble mother reassured me at once,
“My son, my son—the unluckiest man alive!
This is no deception sent by Queen Persephone,
Telemachus manages all your great estates in peace,
no, it is just the way of mortals when we die . . .
Sinews no longer bind the flesh and bones together-—
he attends the public banquets shared with all,
the feasts a man of justice should enjoy,
once life slips from the white bones and the spirit,
for all the lords invite him. As for your father,
rustling, flutters away. . . flown like a dream.
he keeps to his farm, alone—he never goes to town—
with no beds for him there, no blankets, glossy sheets.
All winter long he sleeps in the lodge with servants,
But you must hunger from sunlight—go, quickly!
Remember all these things
so one day you can tell them to your wife."
the ﬁre in all its fury burns the body down to ashes
in his poems, and I wanted to see if that could be
JUST AS EAGLES HAS INSPIRED OTHERS, SO HAS HE
brought over into English," says Fagles. By now,
he believed that translation, more than conven
tional scholarship, was for him the key to under
standing a work in a foreign language. When Prince
ton offered him a job in its English department
for the fall of 1960, he and Lynne decided it would
give him freedom to combine writing and scholar
ship. He was also pleased that the university's pres
ident, Robert F. Goheen '40 ‘48, was a classicist.
benefited from the encouragement of friends and
peers. These have included Adam M. Parry, a clas
sicist at Amherst and Yale, who wrote the intro
duction to Fagles’s Bacchylides; and Bernard M. W.
Knox, director emeritus of Harvard’s Center for
Hellenic Studies, who “goes over my translations
with a ﬁne-toothed comb” and contributed the
notes and introduction to his Sophocles and Iliad.
Another influence was the late William A. Arrow
smith ’45 '54, a classicist at the University ofTexas.
FAGLES RECALLS HIS FIRST YEARS AT PRINCETON AS
In the mid-1960s, Arrowsmith was an editor of
“a banquet." He precepted in Maurice W. Kelley
*34’s Milton class and in courses in English lit
erature and the classics taught by Francis R. B.
Godolphin ’24 ‘Z9 and Edmund “Mike" Keeley
’48. Comparative literature didn’t yet exist as either
a program or a department, “but we were free to
use Latin and Greek in connection with English
courses. Frisco Godolphin taught Absalom, Absa
lom! with the Oresteia. There's a great kinship of
themes between Faulkner and the House of Atreus,
just as there is between James Joyce’s Ulysses and
the Odyssey.” (Asked which modern writers might
have Homer's power to thrill future generations,
Fagles names both Faulkner and Joyce, who he
believes possessed the necessary “mythic imagi
nation.” To these he adds Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy,
and “perhaps even Hemingway, for his clarity and
Arion, a journal that published Fagles’s translations
of Pindar’s lyric poems, and he urged him to try
his hand at the longer and more complex poetry
of the Oresteia. “The suggestion was irresistible,"
says Fagles. “I might still have tried it, even if he
In 1966, a year after Fagles received tenure, he
was asked to direct the new Program in Compar
ative Literature. Nine years later, the program became
a department, with Fagles as its chairman, a posi
tion he has held ever since. Under his leadership,
the department has achieved national distinction.
Of its current faculty of twenty-one scholars, four
teen hold joint appointments with a wide range of
other departments, including classics, East Asian
studies, English, and philosophy; and Germanic,
Romance, and Slavic languages and literatures.
Fagles, who plans to step down this spring after
twenty-eight years at the helm of comparative lit
erature (the new chairman will be Robert Hol
lander '55), has balanced his administrative duties
with teaching, which he evenly splits between un
dergraduate and graduate courses. Last fall, he taught
a graduate seminar on the classical tradition; this
spring, he will teach an undergraduate course on
tragedy, with readings that range from Aeschylus
to T. S. Eliot. Students whom he has taught rarely
forget the experience. As a sophomore, David R.
Lenson ’67 "71, now a comparative-literature pro
fessor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst,
took Fagles’s course on classics and modern liter
ature. “It changed my life,” he says. “It made me
start learning Greek in my junior year. As a teach
er he's extraordinary—such a mixture of erudition
and passionate commitment."
16 Q Princeton Alumni Weekly
hadn't suggested it, but his invitation came to me
early in my career and was invaluable.”
Starting in 1963, Fagles worked on the Aeschylus
trilogy for ten years. He began with Agamemnon,
which he calls the best of the Greek plays—“tur
bulent and magniﬁcent,” he told a reporter in 1966,
when his translation of it was produced at McCarter
Theatre. He tried to make Aeschylus intelligible to
a modern audience and suggestive “of the terrible
beauty of the Greek,” portraying the characters "in
all their frenzy and grandeur," yet without psy
chologizing them. His goal is the same for the
characters in Homer: “You don’t need to supply
motives; they’re there, but not in a simplistic way.
The relationship between Penelope and Odysseus
is deeply mysterious.” Nor does he try to rational
ize the gods or “understand" them. He simply makes
them “love us with a vengeance, so that we, as
Aeschylus suggests, may suffer into truth."
Published in 1975, Fagles's Oresteia was a ﬁnal
ist for a National Book Award, and his versions of
the three plays have often been performed. When
the City Stage Company produced them in 1984,
The New York Times reviewer called the translation
“felicitous as well as idiomatic” and “the most im
pressive aspect of the production.” Joyce Carol Oates,
Princeton’s Roger S. Berlind '52 Professor in the
Humanities, dedicated her novel Angel of Lig/It,
which draws from the Oresteia, to Fagles, “in hon
or of his service in the House of Atreus."
After Aeschylus, Fagles wanted to tackle Sophocles
but hesitated, concerned about invading the turf
of his friend Robert S. Fitzgerald, who had trans
lated the Theban Plays in the 1940s. Fitzgerald, a
member of the Harvard faculty, encouraged Fagles
to proceed. ln his preface to the translation, Fagles
thanked Fitzgerald for having “left the gates of
Thebes ajar" for him.
Fagles's translations of both Aeschylus and Soph
ocles have reached a wider audience than he had
dared hope. The Theban Plays were heard on BBC
radio (featuring Tim Pigott-Smith, star of T/Jejewel
“<4 <4 at
in the Crown), and they’ve been anthologized in many
collections, including The Norton Anthology of1%rld
cause idioms and outlook shift, every generation
needs its own translation of Homer. He notes that
Masterpieces. His tragedies (as well as the Iliad) are
Homer, who lived in the late eighth century B.C.,
was not a writer but a performer, each of whose
all published in paperback by Penguin Classics, and
the Theban Plays are that series’s current bestseller.
When his Iliad appeared, the Book-of-the-Month
Club made it an alternate selection. It’s a “great
reward," says Fagles, “to know that people are read
ing you—that you’re not writing for the drawer.”
THE YEAR HE COMPLETED THE THEBAN PLAYS, FAGLBS
began translating the Iliad, the grandmother of all
Western literature. “For Sophocles and Aeschylus,
Homer was the great original, so I felt 1 was mounting
back to the source,” he says. Fitzgerald had also
translated Homer’s epic of the Trojan War and the
rage of Achilles, and his version had appeared in
1974, only eight years earlier. Would a new trans
lation be an affront to Fitzgerald? Once again, Fagles
wrote to his old friend. As Fagles later noted in
the preface to the Iliad, he owes the most to Fitzgerald
(who died in 1985), “both for the power of his
example” and because Fitzgerald urged him at his
moment of indecision to “fit on your greaves and
swordbelt and face the moil or the mélée." (The
line, says Fagles, was “pure Fitzgerald. He really
did talk that way.”)
When working on the project, Fagles was some
times asked if a new translation of the Iliad—"the
world's first and best war story," as one reviewer
later put it—was necessary. Fagles replies that be
recitations differed. Fagles sees his own transla
tion, in a sense, as a “performance" of Homer. No
one, he adds, will have the last say. “I don’t feel
competitive. I'm grateful for the translators who
came before me, and I only hope the ones who
follow may feel the same of me.”
Twice during the eight years it took to complete
his translation of the Iliad, Fagles visited Greece on
a Stanley]. Seeger ['52 *56] Fellowship in Hellenic
Studies. He finished the poem on Greek soil. His
friend and fellow Hellenophile Mike Keeley, who
was with him at Delphi, remembers Fagles’s excite
ment at seeing eagles swooping over the site of the
oracle of Apollo, a god whose actions are pivotal to
the Iliad’s plot. The scene recalled the Greek myth
in which two eagles, sent by Zeus to ﬁnd the center
of the earth, locate it at Delphi, on the slopes of
Mount Parnassus, sacred to poets. Fagles’s spirit soared
with the eagles; to Keeley, the scene seemed “a liv
Published in 1990, Fagles's Iliad won the Harold
Morton Landon Translation Award from the Acad
emy of American Poets, an award first won by
Fitzgerald for his Iliad; an award from the Trans
lation Center of Columbia University; and the New
jersey Humanities Book Award. Among reviewers’
laurels was this one in The Wall Streetjournal: “Pope
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remains the greatest translator, but Mr. Fagles can
claim to be the 20th-century champion.”
In The New }’ork Times, critic Oliver Taplin com
pared the same passage as translated by Alexander
Pope in 1720, Richmond Lattimore in 1951, Rob
ert Fitzgerald in 1974, and Fagles. In that passage,
Hector realizes he is facing certain death and pre
pares to charge Achilles.
"Then welcome fate!
’Tis true I perish, yet I perish great:
Yet in a mighty deed I shall expire,
Let future ages hear it, and admire!”
"Let me at least not die without a struggle,
hut do some hig thing ﬁrst, that men to come
shall /enow of it. "
"Still, I would not die without delivering a stroke,
or die ingloriously, hut in some action
memorable to men in days to tome. "
"W/ell let me die—
hut not without struggle, not without glory, no,
in some great clash of arms that even men
will hear of down the years! "
Taplin noted Fagles’s use of “spoken language"
that is “not colloquial. . . [but] plain and direct,
noble, above all rapid," and concluded that he was
“on the whole more readable than Lattimore or
Fitzgerald, and more performable.” Recalling the
old saw that Pope’s translation is “a pretty poem,
but you must not call it Homer,” Taplin wrote
that Fagles’s version might not be “such a pretty
poem, but you might well call it Homer."
Fagles’s Iliad has attracted Fans as divergent as
the poet Robert Bly (author of Iron john and en
thusiast of male bonding) and President Shapiro,
who listened to a recording of it while en route to
his summer home, in Michigan. “I warned him
not to listen to it while driving,” Fagles quips.
Presumably, the Odyssey will make for safer listen
ing, since it’s not as violent as the Iliad. A cliché
as old as antiquity says that the Iliad is a young
man's book and the Odyssey a book for older age,
but Fagles points out that there are reﬂective pas
sages in the former and violent ones in the latter:
“I’m working on a violent passage now, where Odys
seus massacres Penelope’s suitors, though Homer
Fully justifies its outcome."
Translation, says Fagles, “has formed a kind of
halfway house for me between the rigors of schol
arship and the sensations of original writing—a
bridge between more orthodox academic work and
the work of creating something of my own.” (He
does, in fact, write his own poetry. I, Vincent, a
book of his poems inspired by the paintings of van
Gogh, was published in 1978 by Princeton Uni
versity Press.) “I’m not expressing myself as I would
with my own poetry, and it's true there are many
areas of experience you don’t encounter. Transla
tion is not a substitute for your own verse, but I’m
lucky to be working on Homer. Homer is about
everything. There was nobody else like him.”
There are times, he adds, when he has to pinch
himself—he can't believe he's translating poetry ﬁrst
uttered 2,700 years ago. "It seems, as Edward Lear
and Bernard Knox might say, like the middle of
Ann Waldron, a writer living in Princeton, is afre
quent contributor to PAW.
Princeton Alumni W89kly
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