William Weaver, acclaimed translator, dies at 90

AP News
Posted: Nov 15, 2013 6:31 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — William Weaver, one of the world's most honored and widely read translators who helped introduce English-language readers to the works of Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino and many other Italian writers, has died.

His nephew John Paulson said Weaver died Tuesday at a retirement home in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He was 90 and had been in poor health for years since suffering a stroke.

An ambulance driver in Italy during World War II, Weaver went on to translate some of that country's popular and influential books, notably Eco's international best seller "The Name of the Rose" and Calvino's singular historical tale, "Invisible Cities." His remarkable range of other credits included Oriana Fallaci's "A Man," Primo Levi's "The Monkey's Wrench" and Pier Paolo Pasolini's "A Violent Life."

He also worked on books by Eugenio Montale, Luigi Pirandello, Italo Svevo and Roberto Calasso, was a longtime opera critic and wrote books about opera and the Italian actress Eleanora Duse.

His many prizes included a National Book Award in 1969 for his translation of Calvino's "Cosmicomics" and PEN translation prizes for "The Name of the Rose" and Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum." He was the rare member of the elite American Academy of Arts and Letters voted in for his achievements in translation.

"Bill was one of the great Italophiles of his generation, a tremendously engaged and knowledgeable lover of both Italian music and literature and a buoyant and expansive personality who became an essential part of the Italian scene of his day," said Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and himself an acclaimed translator of Italian poetry. "He was a pioneer in bringing many of the most significant post-war Italian voices into English, an amateur in the original and best sense of the word: He did it out of love."

Born in Virginia in 1923, the youngest of five siblings, Weaver would remember his father's fondness for books and word games and was encouraged by his family to pursue his dream of becoming a writer. Sent off to boarding school at age 12, his going-away present was a typewriter. He wrote poetry as a teenager and became fascinated with foreign cultures.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was determined to declare himself a conscientious objector, even if it meant going to prison. But he learned of an organization called the American Field Service, which allowed civilians to drive ambulances. He served in Africa, then Italy, absorbing Italian through movies, plays, conversations and a grammar book, which he used to teach himself the language.

After the war, he graduated from Princeton University and went on to graduate studies at the University of Rome. He would become friendly with Alberto Moravia, Else Morante and other Italian writers whom he would end up translating.

Along with dozens of literary classics he worked on, he reached the largest audience with "The Name of the Rose," published in Italy in 1980 and released in the U.S. three years later. Eco's cerebral thriller was set in an Italian monastery in the 14th century, and its title became a source of amusement for Weaver.

"At one point, I was translating his essay about writing 'The Name of the Rose,'" Weaver told The Paris Review in 2000. "He discusses the title and says, 'Anything with rose in it is a good title.' Then he lists a whole series of Italian and Latin things like 'Rosa Mistica' and so on. Of course, in the translation, I also used 'Rose, thou art sick' and 'Rose Aylmer' and all these other roses.

"I showed it to him and he said, 'That's great.' Then he said, 'What about "Too Many Rings Around Rosie"?' And I said, 'What's that?' He said, 'It's a great song. You want to hear it?' And I said, 'Well, actually, no.' He put it on immediately. And so 'Too Many Rings Around Rosie' went into the text."

Weaver found Calvino a challenge to translate for different reasons. Calvino's rhythms were so distinctive that Weaver worried even a single misplaced comma would spoil the narrative. He also endured the author's misplaced confidence in his understanding of English.

"Every now and then he would fiddle with a sentence in his English," Weaver said in the Review. "At one point, he fell madly in love with the word feedback, and he didn't realize that in America feedback is like closure or spinning out of control, something you hear constantly on television. It's jargon and cliché, and you can't use it anymore. The word is dead to literature, but to him it was new and fascinating."

Weaver divided much of his adult life between the United States and Italy, and taught literature for years at Bard College, near Rhinebeck. He is survived by four nephews.