Interview: Robert Fitzgerald
Edwin Honig conducted the following interview with Robert Fitzgerald, which originally appeared in The Poet's Other Voice (University of Massachusetts Press, 1985).
EH: I suppose the justification for this conversation is that we speak together as poets who translate and not as translators who happen to be poets. What ensues here is what we will discover by talking about the subject of your work as a double agent. To begin: What motivated you to do translation? Did you start in a more or less deliberate way to be a translator?
RF: I think there are perhaps two ways in which one can begin. One would be by taking up a purely literary challenge--as at Harvard, when I was approaching the end of my senior year and needed money, and became aware of a prize given every year for the translation of one of the odes of Horace. This was an assigned ode, which I would not have chosen to translate and had no particular feeling for. I did it because I wanted two hundred dollars. That's the crude and simple example I think of as one of the ways it comes about. I did not win the prize either.
EH: That's an anticlimax!
RF: Of course the other and more serious way in which it all happens is that one finds in poems and language some quality one appropriates for oneself and wishes to reproduce. So, for years I had in my head certain lines of François Villon, which I first came across in 1931 when I was a student here at Harvard. I found the lines turning into a ballade in English in 1940, after nine years of knocking around in my head, of being heard there in French. Words began to appear in English and to make some kind of equivalent. For what satisfaction it is hard to say, except that something seems unusually piercing, living, handsome, in another language, and since English is yours, you wish it to be there too.
EH: In that case there was a gestation period of nine years.
RF: Yes, and almost no deliberate effort involved--just the tune beginning to play itself in English rather than in French.
EH: The special sense for another language is important too. As you know, there are poets, particularly nowadays, who translate without knowing another language--the original, that is--but do it through informants. Maybe that sort of thing has always happened in some sense, but not as frequently or so much a matter of course as today.
RF: I don't see how it's done, really, and wouldn't like it myself. The heart of the matter seems to me to be the direct interaction between one's making a poem in English and a poem in the language that one understands and values. I don't see how you can do it otherwise. Of course anything can happen, and as we know there are a great many examples of the other way of doing it, but I myself don't think I would enjoy it.
EH: Do you suppose that's because you happen to be a man who's gifted as a speaker and reader of several languages and therefore that languages are a part of your natural background and education as a poet?
RF: Well, maybe so, although I don't think I am particularly gifted in languages. In fact, oddly enough, it may have something to do with my being slow at languages. Having been rather especially slow at getting any grip on Greek, I think my wish to keep on with the struggle accounted for my doing, every few years, with Dudley Fitts to begin with, a translation of a Greek play. After leaving college and while working on a newspaper and then on a magazine in New York, I wanted not to lose what Greek I had acquired. I wanted to keep that alive in my field of vision, and so I welcomed the chance every two or three years, with Dudley, to recover the Greek, because that was necessary in each case; one loses it. That helped me to keep in touch with myself and to keep in touch with this really quite extraordinary language and literature into which I had pushed a little way.
EH: I'd like to go into two of the things you mentioned. You said that you worked with Dudley Fitts to keep your Greek alive, and then that you evidently translated from French . . . . I don't want to call one language living and the other one dead, because anything you translate is living, as you yourself have said somewhere. Let's say, from a modern language as opposed to an ancient language. You translated out of both during those years before coming to the university to teach. Evidently, then, you were a translator out of two very different cultures.
RF: Oh, yes. Well, with the French language, which I understood and spoke, however imperfectly, and read in great quantities, at certain times, the matter I suppose was slightly different from either Latin or Greek. One had in one's head spoken cadences. One could relate the language to something heard in France during the brief times one was there, but that was not the case with Greek. On the other hand, I was very fortunate, I believe, in this: that when I was a senior at Harvard the Classical Club put on a production of a play of Sophocles' in Greek. For this production I had to memorize six or seven hundred lines of Greek--very good Sophoclean Greek. The play was the Philoctetes. And if ever there was a chance to hear the language spoken I could be said to have had it then. Because there were matters of memorizing the part, of rehearsals, and finally of the production itself, which I think was repeated twice. This involved not only the dialogue in Greek iambic trimeter but the passages of Kommos, that is, exchanges between the protagonist and the chorus in choral meters. Some of that, indeed, had to be sung. All this was really a great advantage in making the language come nearer, at least to being a living one for me, than it might otherwise have been.
EH: That must have been an extraordinary experience. There used to be a tradition at Harvard of putting on classical plays in the Houses. I believe everyone has heard about the Philoctetes performance. Do I understand that Harry Levin was in it?
RF: Harry Levin was indeed in it although he had no Greek and memorized his part phonetically. Henry Hatfield was in it. Milman Parry was the director. Mason Hammond was on hand, and John Finley helped to coach the chorus in the choral meters. The music for it was extremely impressive: it was done by Elliott Carter, who had been here a year or two before and was at that point in Paris studying with Nadia Boulanger. He was induced to make quite beautiful music for the chorus.
EH: A very unusual occasion and cast--and production probably.
RF: I think that everyone who took part has always been grateful for it.
EH: Well, there may be something in this related to my other question about your working with Dudley Fitts. That is, in your experience as a translator, your basic sense of the languages and the fact of participating with others helped in sort of bringing it all forth and in keeping it going.
RF: Yes, sure.
EH: Translation is not done simply in the way that one writes poetry oneself--at a desk in a closed room, with the traffic of the world shut out. Is there anything here that would interest you to comment on?
RF: Well, what it was like. I think it was the summer after I left Harvard. Dudley and I stopped at a performance--somewhere at a girls' school in New England--one of Euripides' plays in a version by Gilbert Murray. We were dissatisfied, to say the least, with what we heard and saw, and I guess on talking it over afterward we more or less lightly said to one another, "Why couldn't we try it?" From this there came the first collaboration, on the Alcestis of Euripides. We worked of course separately, sending drafts back and forth and occasionally getting together to talk it over. I don't remember in detail how it all worked out. But after it was done, and likewise just for fun, we showed it to someone we knew who was working at Harcourt Brace. And Harcourt Brace published it. Edith Hamilton remarked it was the best translation of a Greek play she'd ever read. That was very heartening and very surprising, and there we were. It had been a pleasant experience and we tried it again, with the Antigone of Sophocles, a few years later. Then, when I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1940, I did a translation of the Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles. I had been moved by the play when I first read it as an undergraduate. And I had always thought possibly of trying to handle it and others in English, being really intensely dissatisfied with the English versions of these things that existed. That was part of it: the overpowering sense that justice had not been done to the poetry of Sophocles and that something approaching justice might not be so difficult in view of the abysmal quality to our ears of what existed.
EH: In both cases, as an actor in a play and as a translator, you were propelled by a sense of the dramatic elements in the work. I mean, it was not lyric poetry or, as later, narrative and epic poetry, but rather these dramatic plays. . . involving voices, the voices of characters.
RF: Yes, living voices in a living language, so it seemed to us.
EH: In speaking to Richard Wilbur about how he came to do Molière and about those excellent translations of his that resulted, I asked whether he had to become a dramatist in spite of himself. He thought that that was exactly true. He had first tried writing poetic plays but had given that up as a bad job. Then, during the Poets Theatre period in Cambridge in the fifties, it was his being forced by the exigencies of making Molière come alive in English, especially in working out those couplets, which seemed to be the secret of his becoming a good dramatist-translator.
RF: Of course, of all living rhymers Dick is the most accomplished; he has a genius for rhyme and meter. I love what he said in the foreword to his version of Tartuffe--that as translator he could claim as his main virtue patience, the patience of waiting until the lines are right--this beautiful virtue of a good poet.
EH: It seems, perhaps in some other way, that poets find another voice, or the possibility of another voice, when they translate, more vividly, even more spectacularly than when they're doing their own poems. This too is a dramatic thing.
RF: Yes, I suppose that's part of the interest and excitement of doing translation, that it does give you personae, as they say, and takes you out of your lyric self.
EH: What does occur when you become aware of what is happening? These are tricky questions and I'm not sure I know how to ask them. Obviously a relationship exists between the impulse to translate and the impulse to do one's own poems, and, in each instance, also, between lyric poetry that's translated and the translation of poetic drama. Now, is there also a way in which the activity of translating extends the range of one's poetic voice as a poet? Does it affect your own poetry? Did you notice that?
RF: I don't know how to answer that. There must of course be a relationship between translating and making poems of your own, but what it is I just don't know. I guess I tend to think of the two activities not as they are often referred to, as closely allied, but rather as very distinct. If you are a poet or aspire to be one, the inference is that when you translate you are embodying that kind of effort simply in another form. I wonder. I don't think it's quite so simple, and I feel very hesitant to commit myself to what I think one does hear often as the version of what happens--that is, that a poet is always doing the same thing, or a disguised form of it, in translation. I don't think that's true. 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.
EH: What you say sounds very like a statement Dick Wilbur made. His view is that the translator serves the poet being translated, and the service done is exclusively to bring the foreign work across into the other language.
RF: That I think I agree with.
EH: There are many sides to this matter. As you say, one involves the idea of persona. A persona both masks and amplifies, in the sense of giving focus and range to, the actor; it both reveals and disguises him. I think that double function can be applied to poetic translation too.
RF: Well, maybe so. Of course in taking on, as I put it, the poetic being that is out there, one is perhaps acquiring another personage for oneself. But the sense one has of it is not so much that one is appropriating something as that one is suiting another and putting one's gifts, whatever they are, at his disposal in order that what he did shall become an English thing.
EH: Isn't that related to the other impulse you mentioned before when with Dudley Fitts you saw a production of that Euripides play? You were both dissatisfied and sensed that a disservice had been done by the translation.
RF: Right. We were dissatisfied on his behalf, so to speak.
EH: One tries, then, in some way, to correct a mistaken impression by retranslating something that has been done imperfectly or poorly.
RF: In a way you can feel that the poet actually is looking over your shoulder, and you say to yourself, now, how would this go for him? Would this do or not? And that, I think, is leading us pretty close to the heart of the matter. I have an example that I'm very fond of, in one of Richard Wilbur's translations of Villon. It is "The Ballade of the Dead Ladies." It begins,
Dites-moi où, n'en quel pays, Est Flora, la belle Romaine, Archipiades ni Thäis, Qui fut sa cousine germaine . . . .
Oh, "Tell me where, on lands or seas, / Flora the Roman belle has strayed, / Archipiades or Thäis, / Who put each other in the shade." Now, the French says of the second of these dead lovelies--two courtesans, as he understood them--that she was the cousine germaine of the first. In what respect was she a first cousin? She was first cousin in respect to her beauty. Now Wilbur found in English idiom a lovely phrase for what one beauty does to another beauty. She puts her in the shade, if she can, and he translates that line, "who put each other in the shade"--literally utterly remote from the French. But, my point is that had Villon been using our language, and had he found that idiom, that same phrase, he would have been delighted to use it in that place.
EH: Yes, indeed.
RF: His job being to make a ballade, a rhymed composition, with lines that would of course make sense, that was the nature of what he was doing, and Wilbur, to my mind perfectly, exemplifies one of the principles of good translation.
EH: That's a fine example having to do with the nature of lyric poetry. You can extend the principle to any poetry that rhymes and is not necessarily lyric but dramatic: that the right conjunction of words must be sought and found, words in perhaps a more extended form, as in narrative poetry. This isn't the main point of such poetry, but then you're the authority on narrative poetry--Homer, in this regard.
RF: Well, I would then go on to say that Homer, as we now know, was working in what they call an oral tradition. Now the performer--because that's what he was--had at his disposal a great repertory of themes, narrative and dramatic situations, and he had at his disposal a great repertory of formulae, of lines, half lines, phrases, all metrical, let it be observed, that could be modified or used in many contexts during his performance, which was always to some extent extemporary. Now, as he went along with his tale, he could and did invent new ways of handling episodes and passages that made each performance, in some way, a new thing. Do you see how this fact liberates, to a certain extent, the translator?
RF: If his obligation as I have thought is always to the originator, to the original imagination, then he knows that for that imagination no text, no text sacred or otherwise, existed, that free improvisation was part of the essence of each performance. Therefore, what is known as freedom in translation would be nearer to what the original performer expected of a translator than it might be in the case of someone who had, like say Paul Valéry, labored over every line and for whom the final text in every detail had more importance than for the Homeric singer.
EH: Your emphasis makes me understand the term "poetic license" in an entirely different way. The slightly pejorative sense of the phrase suddenly seems to have another meaning.
RF: Yes, one sees by virtue of this slight liberation that in fact all works of imagination are improvisation at some stage, at the beginning certainly. And one sees how precious this sheer invention is in the making of a work of art. I remember at a certain point in working on the Odyssey that Rudyard Kipling's stories, which I was reading, as it happened, to my children in Italian versions, reminded me of the possibilities of sheer invention. In one of the stories there is a seal, who is the hero, and his life is spent in the oceans of the world. He has as part of his private language phrases and exclamations that refer to his life as a seal in the great cold South Atlantic waters, like swearing "by the foaming straits of Magellan." I can't recall now--I wish I could--some of the language that Kipling invented for his seal, but all of this is important, it seems to me, in the imaginative field of someone working on something so tremendously inventive as the Homeric poems. If you think that someone was able to invent those actions and sustain them and elaborate them over such a span with such constant resources of surprise, dramatic scene-making, and dramatic language, then I think the interest that this kind of consideration has will not seem too remote.
EH: That may relate to something I was thinking in reading your translations. It's the supposition that in being aware of the oral tradition behind the compositions, the kind of performance-invention you just described, you become the first translator of Homer who consciously used it in working out a variety of possibilities in voice and characterization.
RF: Well, to some extent maybe that's true, but one may imagine that in the future, as this understanding deepens and widens, more appropriate forms may be found for it. I'd say I made a beginning.
EH: A very important one. But you seem also to bring with it as a principle something that belies the idea that there are only two possibilities in writing poetry: writing in closed and writing in open forms--that is, free verse as against metered and rhymed verse--by indicating that with a consciousness of all traditions, one's sense of the techniques of verse, meter, and sound becomes indeed a tool by which one finds the freedom to write or to perform and invent through translation.
RF: Let's bring our talk back to earth a little and remember that what the translator--myself in particular--does is not comparable to what the Homeric performer was doing. His art was comparable to the art of the great musical virtuoso who can improvise, who can sit at the piano and by his mastery, both of the performing technique and of the musical background, can make music. The translator--and I now think of my own sweating days and nights--does one draft after another; he's a sedentary craftsman trying through repeated trials and failures to arrive at a readable English page. I did it by writing out the Greek of each book in a ledger-type notebook: each Greek line followed by two blank lines. While I did this, I would use the dictionary and what scholarship I could find to clear up puzzles in the text. When I went to work I had nothing but my own Greek in my own hand before me to try to match with English in the blank lines underneath the Greek. Then the typewritten drafts began, and every evening I would destroy half of what I had done every morning, and often a day's work would be only a few lines. I had from the beginning a sense that I didn't care how long it took and if I had to wait a week for a suitable version of one exclamation I would wait a week and, you know--no hurry. Patience. Patience. Dick Wilbur's quality.
EH: Yes. We have been brought down to earth. What I had in mind was perhaps this: that whatever we discover that's useful--as you did, presumably, through Milman Parry--about the oral tradition of Homeric performance-invention, our task is still not analogous but rather, because we're literate and writing people, our consciousness is wider, say, than the consciousness of Pope in his renditions of Homer. I would imagine that that's one difference.
RF: One mustn't underrate Pope. His notes to his translations are extraordinarily perceptive and sharp. One should indeed read Pope with his notes available, in the Twickenham edition possibly, to see what a vast amount he did understand about Homer. Given the scholarship of his time, it's extraordinary how penetrating and sensitive a good deal of his understanding was. In his case one does again have the sense that of course for him it was a text, and it was a text that he came to through Latin. The Roman or Latin tradition was very strong in his interpretation of Homer, so that one can find passages in his Iliad that are directly indebted to Dryden's Aeneis, for example; that was his immediate exemplar. He greatly admired what Dryden had done and in his way was doing the same thing. So the Vergilian tinge and the Roman tinge in English Augustan understanding of Greek is very perceptible in Pope.
EH: As Ben Brower put it, Pope's Iliad will probably never go unread; that is, it will always be read as a permanent work. But as for relying on one's precursors--as Pope on Dryden--does anything like it apply to your translation? Did you have a sense of dependence on other efforts?
RF: Not at all. I'd say that there was a conscious attempt to take the Greek unmediated by Latin and, even in such minor matters as the transliteration of proper names, to insist upon the Hellenistic quality of the poem and to avoid Latinizations. The question has another aspect, however, and that is that our own language has its Latin component: it's impossible to avoid Latinism in English. In fact, eloquence in English will inevitably make use of the Latin element in our vocabulary. At the same time, I feel--and I guess this has been noticed about the translations I've done--that the strength of our language comes largely from the Anglo-Saxon and the Old English (Old Germanic parts of it), and I think there was a conscious effort to make use of those simplicities and that force in the work.
EH: So when we speak of relying on precursors--wasn't it Borges who said that every poet invents his own precursors?--I wonder if we couldn't add to the idea of the text the fact of others working at the same text--and by extension, also, of the landscape or seascape, as with Homer you apparently did, according to your notes referring to Ithaca, the search for Ithaca and the islands--all being part of the total effort and research to establish the text.
RF: Yes, well there again, the work of the imagination originally came out of a particular air that blew over a particular body of water.
EH: Wind puffs, you called them.
RF: Yes, and there were changes of light on landscapes and changes of direction of the wind and the force of the wind and weather. That whole scene is too important in Homer to neglect. I think it was lucky that during most of the work on the Odyssey I lived on Homer's sea in houses that were, in one case, shaken by the impact of the Mediterranean winter storms on the rocks below, and the constant visual presence of those seascapes may have had something to do with the way in which that poem came to be.
EH: I'm very impressed by the relation between place and poetic invention. I was conscious of it in my own work and, similar to your experience, remember that, for example, when I was doing some translations of Cervantes, I was reading newspapers in Mallorca--I was doing the entremeses, and I think there's a reference in them--though I may be wrong because the reference may really be in the Novelas ejemplares--to the flood that annually overflows the banks of the Guadalquivir in Seville. So, while working on Cervantes there in Mallorca I was reading an account in the paper of the same flood happening then, in 1958. There was a certain sense in which my being there--say, the livingness of the moment of my job--made a bridge between Cervantes' text and my bringing his words over into English.
RF: That's wonderful.
EH: This being in touch with various sources--and the more the better--also applies in your case to the extremely close reading you gave the Homeric poems and all the scholarship on them, which becomes part of your effort. Now, in connection with the language you use there's something I want to ask, and that is, about the very convention of formulaic and epithetical phrases, which is based on repetition and, like rhyme, intended to ring a bell in the listener's ear. But this convention is also antithetical nowadays, let's say to modern ears or in modern poetry where one avoids repeating sounds. How do you cope with that problem in your translations?
RF: Yes, the question is a very large one because it involves the relationship, not between one style and another but between one whole language and another: Homer's whole language, the language in which he lived, the language that he breathed, because he never saw it, or certainly those who formed his tradition never saw it, in characters on the pages. It was all on the tongue and in the ear. This was all formulaic, by its very nature. The phrase was the unit, you could say, rather than the word. There were no dictionaries and no sense of vocabulary such as we have. Now, the language that had grown up and formed itself on those principles is what one is dealing with, and the problem is to bring a work of art in that medium into another medium formed on different principles and heard and understood in a different way. So it's really a larger question than merely the question of whether one is to reproduce in some standard form formulaic expressions in Greek by formulaic expressions in English. The question is how to bring a work of imagination out of one language that was just as taken-for-granted by the persons who used it as our language is by ourselves. Nothing strange about it. So to make something that is strange to our ears would not be doing justice to the work that was not strange to theirs.
EH: I think you put that very vividly. What seems almost impossible is the task of bringing the effect of the original work, a work intended for oral performance, into another language where the tradition is literary--or somehow to preserve the amenities of both kinds of language, oral and written, together.
RF: I suppose one hopes--you know, as I hoped and hope--that these would be readable to people who would only read them. But I have also--and repeatedly in reading them aloud--made the point that they were originally meant to be heard and were heard, and I happily, not too long ago, made two recordings: one of passages from the Odyssey and one of the two books of the Iliad, and both are now being produced and marketed in the Yale Series of Recorded Poets, so that my readings of these things, at any rate, are hearable as well as readable.
EH: Yes, that's very valuable and very good that you have put it on records. Projecting it by voice is what makes the poem come alive. In your notes, your reference to the instrument that the performing poet used as an accompanying sound, or as part of the performance to go along with the voice, made me think that such a convention would not be strange to a guitar-playing Bob Dylan, mainly in the sense that the two things go together.
RF: Right, right. The invention of Bob Dylan with his guitar belongs in its way to the same kind of tradition of something meant to be heard, as the songs of Homer.
EH: The difference, one has to say--or let me just say it for myself--is that one is so often disappointed with what it looks like on the page after one has heard it with one's ears.
RF: That's right.