Posted on June 29, 2015
This conversation between Robert Fagles and Patricia Storace, part of a collaboration between 92Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and The Paris Review, was recorded live at 92Y on November 4, 1997. We are able to share the recording thanks to a generous gift in memory of Christopher Lightfoot Walker, longtime friend of the Poetry Center and The Paris Review. Here is an excerpt from the full interview that ran in The Paris Review as The Art of Translation No. 2 in the summer of 1999.
Can you take us through a sample working day on one of these translations?
I have a merciless internal clock that wakes me up rather early and gets me to my desk by seven-thirty or so and puts me to work on Homer. The work itself? The easiest thing to say is here, on one side, I’d have the Homeric texts and commentaries and lexicons, and on the other, as much as I could manage of English and American poetry, in my head or in an open book—say, Derek Walcott’s Omeros. There are about twenty-seven hundred years that separate the two traditions, and the trick (and the hard labor) is somehow to bring the two together. What I always do is read the Greek aloud until I begin to feel or find some English lurking between the Greek words, between the Greek lines, and I keep on mumbling like a maniac: Andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polutropon, hos mala polla / plangthê, epei Troiês hieron ptoliethron eperse. “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns / driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy.” The two passages are hardly equal, obviously—Homer’s infinitely greater—but trying to work from the Greek lines some English cadence of my own, trying over and over, would consume about three hours every morning. I once drove Robert Fitzgerald back to the Newark airport after he gave a reading in Princeton, and I said (fatuously, when he was halfway through his Iliad), It’s an awfully long poem, isn’t it, Robert? And he replied, Yes, Bob, but I wake up every morning with Homer as my companion. That’s the privilege. I know exactly how that feels now. It’s quite a privilege, and one you hate to leave.