Burton Raffel (born 1928) is a translator, a poet and a teacher. He has translated many poems, including the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, poems by Horace, and Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais. In 1964, Raffel recorded an album along with Robert P. Creed, on Folkways Records entitled Lyrics from the Old English. In 1996, he published his translation of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, which has been acclaimed for making Cervantes more accessible to the modern generation. In 2006, Yale University Press published his new translation of the Nibelungenlied.
Among his many edited and translated publications are Poems and Prose from the Old English, and Chrétien de Troyes' Cligès, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, Perceval, the Story of the Grail, Erec and Enide, and Yvain, the Knight of the Lion. Raffel is also a poet in his own right; over the years he has published numerous volumes of it; however, only one remains in print: Beethoven in Denver. Beethoven describes what happens when the dead composer visits Denver, Colorado in the late 1970s. Also set in Colorado was the Raffel-scripted film, The Legend of Alfred Packer, the first film version of the story of Alferd Packer.
An alumnus of James Madison High School in Brooklyn, New York (1944), Raffel was educated at Brooklyn College (B.A., 1948), Ohio State University (M.A., 1949), and Yale Law School (LL.B., 1958). As a Ford Foundation fellow, Raffel taught English in Makassar, Indonesia from 1953 to 1955; from 1958 to 1960, Raffel was employed as an associate by Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. Since 2003, he has been Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities and professor emeritus of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he has taught since 1989. Previously, he taught at Brooklyn College (lecturer in English, 1950-51), Stony Brook University (instructor, 1964-65; assistant professor of English, 1965-66), the University at Buffalo (associate professor of English, 1966-68), the University of Texas at Austin (visiting professor, 1969-70; professor of English and classics and chairperson of the graduate program in comparative literature, 1970-71), the Ontario College of Art (senior tutor, 1971-72), York University (visiting professor of humanities, 1972-75), and the University of Denver (professor of English, 1975-89).
Raffel's main contribution to translation theory was the principle of "syntactic trackiing", which he championed in a monograph published in 1994. According to this theory, a good translation of a prose literary text should track the syntax of the original element-by-element, never joining sentences where the original separated them, never splitting a long sentence, never rearranging the order of ideas. The accuracy of tracking is measured syntactically by counting punctuation marks: the best translation will be the one which comes closest to the original in a statistical analysis of commas, colons and full stops. Raffel claims that those translators who heed the syntax also make the best lexical choices, so that tracking becomes a measure not only syntactic accuracy but of translating skills per se. This principle has since been applied in scholarly studies of translations of classical and modern works.
- Beowulf: A New Translation with an Introduction by Burton Raffel, 1963, Mentor Books/New American Library
- Burton Raffel, The Art of Translating Prose, University Park PA: Penn State University Press, 1994.
- For example: Steven J. Willett, "Thucydides Domesticated and 'Foreignized'". In: Arion 7,2 (1999), 118-145; Graeme Dunphy, "Tracking Christa Wolf: Problembewältigung und syntaktische Präzision in der englischen und französischen Übersetzung von Kindheitsmuster", in Michael Neecke & Lu Jiang, Unübersetzbar? Zur Kritik der literarischen Übersetzung, Hamburg 2013, 35-60.
- "Burton Raffel". Penguin.ca. Retrieved October 25, 2004.
- Burton Raffel at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
- Lyrics from the Old English: A Reading by Burton Raffel and Robert P. Creed Album Details at Smithsonian Folkways