Howard’s Way

Richard Howard is receiving a Paris Review lifetime-achievement award

In celebration of Richard Howard’s upcoming award, the Hadada, The Paris Review brought together the thoughts of fellow poets and past students:

American poetry has almost always been forward-looking. But Richard is looking, thinking backward. He made himself up under the European wing of American literature. — Mary Jo Bang (poet, former student)

I’ve been aware of Richard Howard solely as the de facto translator of philosopher and literature critic Roland Barthes, who has been hugely influential on my life and work for several years now. Howard’s updated translation of Mythologies was the voice with which I was introduced to Barthes. Soon after I read Camera Lucida and the self-titled Roland Barthes I could almost picture the author sitting next to me as he ruminates over flittering topics and small pleasures. There is a warmth in the voice, a sincere curl in the lips, and an all-inclusive introversion that gives so much muted emotion but never enough for someone to let go with full satisfaction.

I take for granted the role of the translator — that Barthes’ English voice may be completely alien to his French. Fundamentally, the near God-like power of Howard — perhaps more of a prophet than the deity itself — should mean that I have always had this poet-translator sitting next to me all the time, carefully and patiently detailing the efforts of Barthes, who had died nearly forty years ago. For all the distance that the philosopher had put into his writing, Howard was able to eek out an aura that is only accessed in the mythologies of warmhearted movies of bittersweet loss and narrated journaling.

The comments found in the Paris Review article move me in their nostalgia, but also in their outlining of Richard Howard’s “process” (at least in my eyes) — to translate words is one thing; to translate emotions is on a whole other level. My goal, for now, is to understand Howard’s written voice in his poetry and other translations, and discover which myth — the Philosopher or the Poet — I had really taken to heart.

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