An epic career: Renowned translator of world literature retiring from KU after 37 years
When classics professor Stanley Lombardo retires from Kansas University in a few days, finding a successor will be practically impossible.
“He is irreplaceable,” says professor Tara Welch, chairwoman of the KU classics department. “He is one of a kind.”
This is not merely something nice to say, although Welch has plenty of nice things to say about her colleague of 16 years. It’s simply the truth.
• is originally from New Orleans.
• has two children.
• plays a drum during poetic performances in the manner of ancient Greek poets who used instrumental accompaniment.
• enjoys Odysseus the most of Homer’s characters.
• performs women’s voices in lower, not higher, registers to convey their “power and dignity.”
• counts among his favorite contemporary writers Judy Roitman, Gary Snyder, Anne Carson, Ken Irby and the late Peter Matthiessen.
• says his favorite film about the ancient world is “Phaedra” with Melina Mercouri and Tony Perkins; also “a sucker for ‘Ben-Hur.'”
In the world of classics — in the world, period — Lombardo is an extreme rarity: a scholar who not only translates ancient epics but also a poet who performs them. The dual role bridges the chasm between Antiquity and the present in a way that tends to elicit responses like “extraordinary,” as Welch reacted the first time she heard Lombardo perform a work from Homer, and “just amazing,” as Erik Mortensen, a graduate student in classics, reacted.
“People respond to his work, from 10-year-olds to all walks of life,” Welch says. “He brings the classics to an audience that classicists don’t always talk to — in the way an ancient poet would have done.”
Lombardo, 70, grew up in New Orleans, a city whose “richness of voice,” he says, “was formative.” He always loved literature, noting a special fondness for listening to works like “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” read by Richard Burton.
“What a voice!” Lombardo says, recalling the Welsh actor’s famous baritone.
Lombardo’s immersion in the Ancients began in earnest when he enrolled at Loyola University in New Orleans and had to choose between a course in sociology and a course in Homeric Greek. He picked the latter, became hooked — “Reading Homer in Greek changed my life” — and set a course that earned him graduate degrees at Tulane University and the University of Texas. His first job after getting his doctorate in classics was at KU in 1976, and he’s been here ever since.
Shortly after arriving in Lawrence, he met and married Judy Roitman, a KU math professor and fellow poet — “my favorite poet,” he’ll tell you, without a trace of marital obligation. Besides a passion for literature, the two have shared a lifelong devotion to Zen Buddhism, and together they started the Kansas Zen Center, now in its 36th year.
At KU, Lombardo has mentored generations of students. He has spent 15 years of his career as chairman of the classics department and five years as director of the University Honors Program. A common refrain among students and colleagues — as well as book critics — is that he makes the ancient world come alive.
Elizabeth Boyles, who’s graduating with a degree in classics on Sunday, says Lombardo’s enthusiasm, knowledge and sense of humor have made classes in Greek and Latin that “would otherwise have been very difficult a pleasure.” She credits Lombardo for her desire to continue translating texts as she heads off to graduate school in classics. More basic than that, she credits him with having shown her “what translation is.”
Fluency in a tongue will only get you so far, and, as any classicist will tell you, translation, especially of poetry, is not an exercise in comparing dictionary entries but a deep process of absorption, of finding a coherence of tone and language that remains spiritually faithful to the original but resonates with a new audience — in the case of Homer, an audience that is nearly 3,000 years removed from the source.
“Translation is an intimate cooperation,” Lombardo says, describing the process of merging his own poetic voice with the original poet’s.
“It took me 20 years,” he says of the starts and stops, before he produced his first major translation: Homer’s “Iliad.” He followed that with Homer’s “Odyssey,” poems by Sappho, Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Dante’s “Inferno” and Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” among many other works that constitute the foundation of world literature. He has even co-translated the “Tao Te Ching” from ancient Chinese.
For most classicists, the process ends with the translation, a Herculean labor in itself — and in Lombardo’s case, a highly successful one; as Welch notes, Lombardo’s texts are widely used in classrooms all over the world.
But for Lombardo, the translation is just the beginning. What comes next is the real poetry: presenting the works as they were meant to be experienced — aloud and in public, creating for listeners a sense of involvement in a great and ongoing human past.
“A lot of people translate,” says Elizabeth Banks, KU professor emerita of classics. “But Stanley is a poet — with extraordinary depth and vision. He’s one of the most intellectually gifted people I have met at KU.”
As final-exam week of his last semester at KU gets underway, Lombardo says he has “translated everything I’ve wanted to translate.” But he still plans to do dramatic readings, whether for scholars or schoolchildren. He has been invited to Taiwan in the fall to do performances of Homer. Before that, he’ll visit South Korea on a Zen trip. And generally, he says, he plans to spend his retirement collecting his own poetry and “playing a lot of three-cushion billiards.”
As for the classics department, Welch says wistfully, “We are hoping someday we can find that wonderful combination of Homer and outreach. Homer is fundamental. And we need that person not to be a bookworm.”