Robert Fagles always makes me think of one of those guys who live in caves, feeding on roasted bat, until they come forth blinking and bewildered into the blaze of the TV lights.
Okay, a weird image for so gentle and civilized a man. But grant me this: Fagles translated Homer and then Virgil--how could he possibly have expected to become a kind of celebrity with sales (as the NY Times reports) in the millions? Not George Clooney, exactly, but who would have guessed?’
I met Fagles exactly once—at a reading/signing of his then-new translation of Homer’s Odyssey, at Barnes & Nobel on
Fagles’ Homer translations were not the most distinctive of his generation (I’ve never read the Virgil). For the Odyssey, you still can’t beat the somewhat offbeat weirdness of the Walter Sherwing prose translation for Oxford Classics. For the Iliad, no straight translation quite matches Christopher Logue’s various efforts at homage. And Fagles was not—but maybe this is a compliment—the best student trot; for faithfulness to the text, one still looks to Richmond Lattimore (for a more general comparison, there is still the wonderful Penguin reader, Homer in English (G. Steiner, ed. 1996), with dozens of samples from many translators).
What Fagles did have was a style of a piece with his character; graceful, tactful, tasteful, unassuming. He may not have made Homer distinctively Homeric, but he made him hospitable and accessible. A generation of readers is in his debt.
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts the new bud
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.