Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Barbara Reynolds

In 2002, I attended the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute in Oxford and Cambridge, a two-week conference honoring arguably the most successful Oxbridge don and professor of the twentieth century with lectures by philosophers, physicists, and cultural critics, academic papers by professors from around the world, and artistic presentations of the highest caliber. My OU colleague Michael Scaperlanda went as well that year, so we spent a lot of time together over the two weeks. Sometime in the first few days in Oxford, we casually met a friendly, elderly lady named Barbara and kept up a superficial acquaintance with her that involved smiling and saying "hello" whenever we saw her in passing.

One day after the conference had moved to Cambridge, Barbara came around a corner, walked quickly up to the two of us, laid her fingers lightly on my chest, and asked, "Have you two thought what your legacy will be?" I see her now (as David Copperfield would say), looking around in an unfocused way as if made blind to the material reality around her by the sudden importance of her question. Her very short body is topped by gently waving white hair, and she is dressed tastefully although perhaps a bit absent-mindedly. Michael and I look at each other, struck dumb but amused by the adventure. Before either of us can get even something like "What do you mean?" to our lips, Barbara places the same fingers on her own chest, sighs, and says, "I think the only legacy worth leaving is love, don't you?" She suddenly returns to the material world and fixes us each in turn with her penetrating gaze. Michael and I quickly agree with her. How could we not?

I will admit that I thought at that moment that Barbara was probably a kindly Christian widow, a little dim and perhaps a bit daft (I admit it to my shame), who went to the conference because she had the money and didn't know what else to do with it. She probably didn't understand the lectures if she went to them and smiled at the art without engaging it.

The truth out-Boyled Susan Boyle. Intrigued by her question and her unexpected need to mull it over briefly with us, Michael and I started asking around about her. We first learned her full name: Barbara Reynolds. We heard that she had done a little acting. One of the conference organizers told us she had been Dorothy Sayers's secretary. Following the Dorothy Sayers lead with an online search, I discovered that Barbara Reynolds completed Sayers's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy. I found one critic who said her completion improved on her mentor's work. So much for smiling blandly at poetry without understanding it.

As it turns out, Barbara Reynolds is a world-class scholar. She was a lecturer in Italian at Cambridge, wrote a biography of Dante as well as two books about Dorothy Sayers, and edited a five-volume collection of Sayers's letters. She also translated Dante's Vita Nuova and -- the reason I'm writing about her today -- Ariosto's Orlando Furioso.

In her introduction to Orlando, which I've been reading the last couple of days, Reynolds previews highlights of the poem, explains special challenges the translator of this particular work faces, tells about Ariosto's life, points out political meanings behind certain themes in the epic, traces Ariosto's influence through several of the most prominent English poets from Shakespeare to Byron, and gives a brief history of previous English translations of OF. And of course she does it all in impeccable prose that regularly grounds itself in deep, rich scholarship. I love reading these long translators' and editors' introductions to classic masterpieces. I know I won't remember all the details and that I will mostly enjoy the story, the language, and (in this case) the references to history and Christian doctrine that I catch on my own, without help. But I will catch a few allusions more because of the introduction, and the whole reading experience will be imbued by the historical context I now have a beginner's understanding of.

Barbara is still alive as far as I know. She was born in 1914, so she is almost one hundred years old. In that long life, she has taught hundreds at one of the world's greatest universities, and entertained and informed thousands -- perhaps hundreds of thousands -- with her biographies and translations of some of the greatest poetry ever written. Very few people could boast of such accomplishments, and yet she told me one afternoon in Robinson College, Cambridge, that she wanted her legacy to be love. I have no doubt she's been working on that legacy for many years and has turned countless strangers into friends, as she did Michael Scaperlanda and me, with a pleasant smile and candid friendliness.

No comments:

Post a Comment