5 January 2014

Daniel Weissbort RIP

A delay in putting up my new website makes this a little later than I would wish, but I'd like to mark the death of my good friend and fellow translator, Daniel Weissbort, in London on November 18. Danny and I met in London a couple of years after I had returned from graduate school in the USA in 1963. We were both translating from Russian, he mainly poetry and I prose (I had just finished Nabokov's The Defense and had moved on to Crime and Punishment - by one of Nabokov's least loved authors). Danny introduced me to Ted Hughes and they told me about the new magazine that he and Ted were founding, Modern Poetry in Translation. Although Ted was a keen and prolific translator himself (Danny later edited a collection of his translations for publication) he was really the magazine's figurehead and chief fundraiser, and it was Danny who did all the spade work - to magnificent effect, for Modern Poetry in Translation soon established itself as essential reading for anyone interested in what was happening internationally. Over the next several decades it published many of the world's leading poets rendered into English by some of the leading translators in England and America. As its editor, Danny was eclectic in the true meaning of that over-used word, publishing established masters and talented novices, classicists and modernists, traditional realists and avant-garde experimentalists. The magazine has continued to flourish under later editors and has become almost venerable given the width and breadth of its achievements, but it owes its success to Danny's pioneering tenacity and, for the time, revolutionary devotion to translation as an important part of literature and vehicle of change.

I knew him best from about 1965 until 1973, when he moved to the University of Iowa to head up the translation program there. When we met, he was living with his young family in a cavernous house in Hampstead, then one of the trendiest neighborhoods in London, and I and my wife and our toddler were living farther down the hill, in Belsize Park, in a two-bedroom apartment that stank of the rotting fish scraps that our doddering landlady fed her cats every day one floor below. Danny's large house was a legacy of his father's successful clothing business, which Danny had worked in for a while before turning to poetry. It was also an earnest, along with his excellent education at a public day school (British parlance for private in matters of education) of certain class privileges, and it seems his inheritance provided him with a a useful cushion for his literary pursuits. Danny had no use for class disinctions, however. He was one of the most modest and democratic people I have ever known. We used to meet at readings in Central London or for lunch or occasional family dinners, and always his talk was of Russia (still under Soviet rule in those days), East Europe, dissidents, and the power and importance of the writing that was emerging - against all odds - from that troubled part of the world.

We pretty much lost touch after he moved to Iowa, but twelve years later I followed him, not to Iowa, but to Cornell, via Washington and Boston, and eventually New York. Now we would meet in New York and London when he was passing through. Like most Europeans, including myself, Danny felt isolated away from the East coast, but throughout the years he continued to translate and edit steadily along with his teaching, and in the following years published a string of books related to the literature of his favorite region, including The Poetry of Survival, on postwar poetry in East and Central Europe, Postwar Russian Poetry, From Russian with Love: Joseph Brodsky in English, and, late in life, with Valentina Polukhina, his third wife, An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets. He also translated three outstanding poets from the Soviet period, Sergei Esenin, Nikolai Zabolotsky and Evgeny Vinokurov, and produced a handful of books on the theory and teaching of translation, along with two selections of his own poetry.

Predictably, like almost all translators (again I must include myself), his original desire had been to make his name as a creative writer, and to translate secondarily, but success eluded him, and he will be remembered more for what he translated and what he collected and published, rather than what he wrote. He will also be remembered for the human qualities that made him such an empathetic translator: openmindedness, generosity, sensitivity, modesty. They were the same qualities that made him such a congenial companion and loyal friend.

Correction: Valentina has reminded me that Danny published several chapbooks of his poetry toward the end of his life, so in reality there were more than the two books I mentioned in my obituary.