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A Tribute to Theodore Margellos

John Donatich

The recent passing of Theodore Margellos sent me to my bookshelf to look at the Margellos World Republic of Letters volumes lined up side by side. Together, they form a considerable library, with Yale and Margellos imprints on their spines. These books are among my most prized possessions. I’ve tried several times to order them in a way that seemed meaningful and that would honor Ted: by original language, by author’s last name, by country of origin, by title, by genre. None of these arrangements felt exactly right, because the series is expertly cross-referenced in so many ways. What was immediately apparent was the extraordinary achievement of the Margellos series: a truly cosmopolitan, handsome, worldly, ambitious, tough-minded set of books.

Those qualities describe Ted, too. I remember fondly the first time I met Ted in New Haven. He had arrived after a business tour to visit his daughter Iliodora, an art student at Yale. Dressed in a well-tailored suit and his signature bowtie, he was coming fresh off a dinner with colleagues who gathered periodically to discuss literature and philosophy. He traded in futures of grains and pulses, things of the earth. 

He and Cecile were interested in starting a literary translation initiative at Yale. It had long been a personal goal for me and others at Yale University Press to be a part of an international literary community, one that would bring to light and promote neglected works of literary distinction from around the world to an English-speaking audience. 

Though things do appear to be changing for the better, the deficit of literary translation in the English-speaking world has long been a fact of some notoriety and not a little bit of shame. When we started the series nearly fifteen years ago, only three percent of books published in America were translations. To me, there was something deliberate about our ignorance, a willful naivete that could only read as a kind of arrogance. It is something we at Yale addressed in partnership with Cecile and Ted Margellos through our series, the Margellos World Republic of Letters.

We closed the previous century with a review of horror: wars, genocides, terror. We began a new century with a reprisal of the very same elements. We find ourselves misunderstood in a world we have taken precious little time to understand. Where can we turn for guidance and insight? Where can we learn the values of the cultures with whom we are in disagreement—or worse? What source can describe for us the terrible confusion of our times as well as clarify the kind of world we want to live in? What source but literature?

People of the word, those who would free language from corrupting ideologies, believe that we can still invent common values that appeal to the best in us. Put simply, we can read what the other is writing. We can try to understand and integrate this foreign element into our symbolic universe. We can tell more complex stories about ourselves by considering the vision of those who are different from ourselves. We can wake up from our “compassion fatigue” by meeting foreign people in their literature, confirming their humanity and correcting our ignorance.

The Margellos World Republic of Letters series launched in 2009. To date, we have signed over a hundred prestigious writers, novelists, and poets representing nearly twenty languages and have published books across genres and continents, including the career-spanning anthologies of major poets like Adonis, María Baranda, Charles Baudelaire, Yves Bonnefoy, Kiki Dimoula, Duo Duo, Seán Ó Ríordáin, Umberto Saba. The novelists: David Albahari, António Lobo Antunes, Sinan Antoon, Hoda Barakat, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Can Xue, Witold Gombrowicz, Claudio Magris, Norman Manea, Pierre Michon, Patrick Modiano, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, Zyranna Zateli, Serhiy Zhadan, and more. The essayists: László Földényi, Marc Fumaroli, François Jullien, Karl Kraus, Michel Leiris, Pascal Quignard, Joke Hermsen. And many, many more.

There are some people who think that translation is the impossible art. Our own Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” I would counter by saying that what constitutes poetry is exactly what survives in translation—what is unique about a specific human voice, in all its resistance against the pressure to be ordinary—that is exactly what can be heard in translation. 

Ted and Cecile made this series possible because they believe, as I do, that our distinguished translators are doing the work of angels. The word “translate” in theology means “to convey directly to heaven without death”—and that seems to me an apt description of the purest ambition of translation and the communion between the original writer, his or her interpreter, and most importantly, you and me—their reader.

We were friends. Ted and Cecile visited with my wife Betsy and me; they invited us to Athens and treated us royally, throwing a dinner party with the who’s who of Athens literary society, some of whom we went on to publish. Ted was a gourmet cook and oversaw the dinner that evening, which included the freshest fish I had ever tasted and ended with an exotic mustard-flower ice cream. 

The memory of which sent me back to reorganizing my books to honor Ted Margellos for funding our wonderful project, bringing our books to the world, and living with gusto in all that he did.

To Ted and to Cecile, from all of us at Yale University Press, and from all the readers of the Margellos World Republic of Letters around the world: Thank you.

Check out all of the Margellos World Republic of Letters titles here.

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