Remembering William Weaver (1923 – 2013)

William Weaver, one of the greatest translators of all time – and also my teacher, mentor and friend – died this week at the age of 90. It was a privilege and also a pleasure to know him. He was one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met, both with his students – on whom he lavished seemingly infinite quantities of attention – and with his friends. He liked to sit with his guests on the broad front porch of his house on the Bard College campus, enjoying the pre-dinner hour, very much the Southern gentleman with his seersucker jackets, his exuberant hospitality and his love of storytelling. He liked to reminisce about his childhood in Virginia, often including the anecdote of how, when his Princeton classmates teased him for not knowing how to ride a bicycle, since he hadn’t had one growing up, he had responded (using a mock-sad voice for the first bit): “It’s true I didn’t have a bicycle. But I had a pony!”

William Weaver, photographed
in 1984 © Mariana Cook

It was always a treat to be invited for supper at Bill’s house – usually an Italian-style repast – whether it was for one of the big dinner parties he loved to throw or just family dinner, which he referred to as “just us chickens.” Both he and his long-time partner, Japanese architect Kazuo Nakajima, were excellent cooks. Neither one of them seemed to drive, though, and so sometimes I would pick them up for a trip to the grocery store or the movies. Only later did it occur to me to wonder about Bill’s lack of a driver’s license, given that he had spent World War II driving an ambulance around Africa and then Italy for the British Army. I guess his driving skills had gotten rusty during the many post-war years he spent in Rome, and then in New York and Rome, and then in Annandale-on-Hudson, where he lived in a house whose previous occupant had been his dear friend Mary McCarthy, and taught courses on translation, literature and (perhaps his greatest love) opera.

If you have read any of Bill Weaver’s translations, you don’t need me to tell you what a virtuoso he was, a master of English in all its most playful and most somber registers. I grew up reading volume after volume of his translations of Italo Calvino. Bill then hit the translation jackpot with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which became an international bestseller and then a blockbuster movie. He liked to quip that the success of that book made it possible for him to add on a room to the country house he owned outside Arezzo. His translation of Italo Svevo’s classic masterpiece about quitting smoking boldly recasts the title as Zeno’s Conscience. Bill also translated works by Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Giorgio Bassani, Roberto Calasso, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Primo Levi and many others. I think it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that for a period of several decades pretty much every novelist in Italy wanted to be translated by him. And he turned out a staggering quantity of books, which I find particularly astonishing given the fact that I never saw him working, nor displaying even the faintest hint of stress over an impending deadline. He would just disappear into his basement office for a given number of hours each day and, with genteel savoir-faire (or so I imagine it), work through knotty passage after knotty passage until they flowed as smoothly as a length of silk.

If you’d like to hear Bill’s own account of how he became a translator (an excellent story), I recommend the interview Willard Spiegelman did with him for The Paris Review in Spring 2002. If you’d like to know how he worked, I recommend his essay “The Process of Translation” (published in the anthology The Craft of Translation edited by Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet), in which he walks the reader through several drafts of a translation of a particularly thorny paragraph by Gadda, who is notoriously difficult to translate. Bill makes it look – not easy, perhaps, but at least possible, and that’s somehow reassuring. He was reassuring with his students too. He taught the only translation workshop I ever took, at Princeton University, where I enrolled in his undergraduate translation workshop as a grad student because the chance to study with such a master was too great an opportunity to pass up. He taught us patience and to revise our work with meticulous attention to detail. He was a brilliant, incisive editor. I hope that somewhere in my papers I still have these early translations of mine with his penciled corrections.

In the summer of 2002, near the end of a sabbatical year spent in Berlin, I received a distressing phone call from the dean at Bard College asking if I would step in and teach Bill’s translation workshop that fall because he was too ill to return to the classroom. It turned out he had suffered a stroke while summering in Italy, and it had done terrible damage. His right side was paralyzed, he was able to speak only with extreme difficulty, and his brain had lost the ability to retain new memories, such that he remembered only the most recent 20 minutes – along with everything from before his stroke. At first the various therapists who came to the house every day (I was one of two friends involved with arranging his care when he first came home from the hospital, and met most of them) were optimistic about his chances of making at least a partial recovery. But then he spent months doing physical, speech and occupational therapy without his condition improving. It was so hard to see Bill – who had an incredibly rich vocabulary – struggling to speak. He obviously knew exactly what he meant to say, but somehow half the words couldn’t find their way from his brain to his lips. And since reading and writing are more or less impossible without a functioning short-term memory, this was the end of his translating, writing and teaching career.

Bill hung on for more than eleven years after the stroke. I think his maimed memory must have helped him. He was always cruelly aware of his physical limitations, but I believe he didn’t always understand – I hope not, in any case – how long he had been in this impaired state. Without a memory, he couldn’t make new friends (or even learn to recognize the nurses who cared for him during his final years), and about a year ago I realized that my visits were becoming confusing to him because I no longer looked the way he remembered me looking eleven years before. I took to beginning each visit by asking what he thought of my new glasses and claiming to have run into someone on the way over who hadn’t recognized me because of them. That seemed to help. Still, I must have seemed uncanny to him, a visitor from the future.

Here’s Bill as a visitor from the past, singing the praises of a colleague:

He leaves behind a rich legacy: dozens of truly glorious books and crowds of grateful former students. I don’t know who his opera friends were, but I’m sure he was as loved in that world as in the translation community. He will be sorely missed.

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