Robert Fagles, the Arthur Marks ’19 professor of comparative literature emeritus, passed away in Princeton last Wednesday after a battle with prostate cancer. Fagles was best known for his translations of Greek epic poems and other widely read classic texts. He was 74.
Fagles’ translations of Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were both popularly and critically acclaimed. In 1991, the Academy of American Poets awarded Fagles the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for his translation of “The Iliad.” His work on “The Odyssey” won him an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1996. He was also a winner of the National Humanities Medal.
“No one [else], to my knowledge, has ever translated the first three major Western epics,” Robert Hollander ’55, professor of European literature and French and Italian emeritus, said in an e-mail.
After his retirement in 2002, Fagles completed his translation of Virgil’s “The Aeneid.” The translation was released in stores in 2006.
Fagles, who received his undergraduate degree from Amherst College and his doctorate from Yale, joined the Princeton faculty in 1960. He became an assistant professor of English two years later and in 1966 became the director of the Program in Comparative Literature.
Under Fagles’ leadership, the program expanded into a full department in 1975. He chaired the department until 1994.
Current comparative literature department chair Sandra Bermann noted Fagles’ hand in giving the department an interdisciplinary and international approach to learning and a connection to the arts.“The department really grew out of [his] insights,” she said.
Bermann also noted Fagles’ abilities as an adviser to undergraduate and graduate students.“He asked students to do their very best work; nothing less would do,” she explained.
Despite having known of his friend’s illness, classics department chair Denis Feeney called Fagles’ death a “shock.” He noted that Fagles’ passing was a “great loss to the republic of letters.”
Feeney said that Fagles’ translation of the “The Aeneid” was “the best thing he ever did.” He added that it “may be the ‘Aeneid’ for our century.”
“It’s incredibly satisfying that he was able to get the book published,” Feeney said, explaining that Fagles’ health continued to deteriorate as he finished the translation.
Fagles was respected not only by his colleagues, but also by his students.
Richard Volz ’01 took one of Fagles’ courses while studying at the University.
“I always remember mostly his voice,” Volz said. “He had a very soft and calm voice, but it was just a kind of voice that everybody in the room paid attention to.”
“He was an amazing teacher,” he added.
Ezra Fitz ’00, who now works as a translator, called Fagles “the king of kings.”
“[Fagles] treated his students [just as] he treated the text he would translate,” Fitz said. He said the professor “was very kind, loving, attentive [and] generous with his time.”
Fitz credits Fagles, his senior thesis adviser, with inspiring him to make a career of translation. “[Fagles] gave me the confidence to do just a little of bit of what he did so much of,” he said.
Current students also lauded Fagles’ works.
Miranda Sachs ’11 used Fagles’ version of “The Odyssey” in high school. “His was the best because it captured the spirit of ‘The Odyssey,’” she said, citing the translation’s adherence to the “poetic elements” of the original text.
“I think he has done an excellent job of bringing classical culture to modern America,” Mackenzie Bushy ’08, a classics major, said of Fagles’ works.
“His translations have made works in Greek and Latin, which only a small percentage of the population can read, accessible and understandable to those who are not educated in the classics,” she said.
Rebecca Katz ’09, a classics concentrator, cited meeting Fagles as a reason she came to Princeton.“He’s a role model that I look up to,” she said.
Fagles is survived by his wife of more than fifty years, Lynne, two daughters and three grandchildren. A private funeral has been planned, and a memorial service at the University Chapel will be held in May.