Burton Raffel, translator and writer, died at 87

  Dead Famous

Burton Nathan Raffel, born on April 27, 1928 and died September 29, 2015, he was a translator, a poet and a teacher.

Burton translated many poems, including the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, poems by Horace, and Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais.

In 1964, Burton recorded an album along with Robert P. Creed, on Folkways Records entitled Lyrics from the Old English.

In 1996, he published his translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which has been acclaimed for making Cervantes more accessible to the modern generation.

In 2006, Yale University Press published his new translation of the Nibelungenlied.

Among his many edited and translated publications are Poems and Prose from the Old English, and Chrétien de Troyes’ Cligès, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, Erec and Enide, and Yvain, the Knight of the Lion.

Burton was also a poet in his own right; over the years he published numerous volumes of it; however, only one remains in print: Beethoven in Denver.

Beethoven describes what happens when the dead composer visits Denver, Colorado in the late 1970s.

Also set in Colorado was the Raffel-scripted film, The Legend of Alfred Packer, the first film version of the story of Alferd Packer.

Burton was born in New York City in 1928. An alumnus of James Madison High School in Brooklyn, New York (1944), Burton was educated at Brooklyn College (B.A., 1948), Ohio State University (M.A., 1949), and Yale Law School (LL.B., 1958).

As a Ford Foundation fellow, Burton taught English in Makassar, Indonesia from 1953 to 1955; from 1958 to 1960, Burton was employed as an associate by Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy.

Since 2003, he has been Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities and professor emeritus of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he has taught since 1989.

Previously, he taught at Brooklyn College (lecturer in English, 195051), Stony Brook University (instructor, 1964 to 1965; assistant professor of English, 1965 to 1966), the University at Buffalo (associate professor of English, 1966–1968), the University of Texas at Austin (visiting professor, 1969 to 1970; professor of English and classics and chairperson of the graduate program in comparative literature, 1970 to 1971), the Ontario College of Art (senior tutor, 1971–72), York University (visiting professor of humanities, 1972–1975), and the University of Denver (professor of English, 1975–89).

Burton worked with Yale Press and Harold Bloom on a series of 14 annotated Shakespeare plays.

In 2008 the Modern Library published his new translation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Burton’s main contribution to translation theory was the principle of “syntactic tracking”, which he championed in a monograph published in 1994.

According to this theory, a good translation of a prose literary text should track the syntax of the original element-by-element, never joining sentences where the original separated them, never splitting a long sentence, never rearranging the order of ideas.

The accuracy of tracking is measured syntactically by counting punctuation marks: the best translation will be the one which comes closest to the original in a statistical analysis of commas, colons and full stops.

Burton claimed that those translators who heed the syntax also make the best lexical choices, so that tracking becomes a measure not only syntactic accuracy but of translating skills per se.

This principle has since been applied in scholarly studies of translations of classical and modern works.

Burton Raffel died on September 29, 2015 at the age of 87.