The late Robert Fagles, a master translator who made the ancient Greek and Roman classics his artist’s canvas, used to spend three hours early each morning shuttered in his Princeton University office translating and writing. Often, at the end of that routine, he would walk out with his head cocked to one side as if listening to the voices of the ancient poets, recalled Sandra Bermann, a friend and former colleague. He gave new life to those poet’s voices through his bold and powerful English translations of works that included Homer’s “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” and Virgil’s “The Aeneid.”
“It’s hard to speak of Bob Fagles without something akin to wonder,” Bermann said yesterday to a gathering of several hundred people who attended a memorial service for Fagles in the Princeton University Chapel. In addition to Fagles’ family, among those attending the service were other literary luminaries who had been Princeton faculty colleagues of his, including poet Paul Muldoon and author Toni Morrison. Fagles, who died of prostate cancer at age 74 on March 26 in Princeton, left behind a legacy not only of his acclaimed translations, but also of a humanity, generosity and kind humor that made him a beloved colleague, mentor, friend, father and husband to the people whose lives he touched, his colleagues said.
“Bob had the courage to translate so much and so beautifully, I think, because he himself was so much,” said Bermann, chairwoman of Princeton’s department of comparative literature, which Fagles helped establish and oversaw for almost 20 years. “He cared deeply about each faculty member, about his staff and students,” Bermann said. But above all, his wife of 51 years, Lynne Fagles, was the light of his life — his muse, friends and relatives said. And he was a good listener, as well as a wellspring of information who was fascinating to talk to, his daughter, Nina Fagles Hartley said.
“No matter how busy, you never had the impression that he was bored or distracted” during conversations, Hartley said. That’s the kind of characteristic that made him a model father and an effective teacher, she said. Fagles’ translations have sold more than 4 million copies worldwide, drawing a wide-ranging audience that included both an academic and general readership.
He received numerous awards in his career, 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. Muldoon, chairman of the university’s Lewis Center for the Arts, said Fagles’ vivid and attentive translations had an “extraordinary delicacy” about them.
“Losing him,” Muldoon said, “we’ve lost part of our grounding and part of our groundedness.”