Burton Raffel

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Burton Raffel
Born(1928-04-27)April 27, 1928
New York City, New York
DiedSeptember 29, 2015(2015-09-29) (aged 87)
Lafayette, Louisiana
OccupationWriter, translator

Burton Nathan Raffel (April 27, 1928 – September 29, 2015) was an American translator, a poet and a teacher. He is best known for his translation of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote, as well as classic poetry like Beowulf, poems by Horace, or Gargantua and Pantagruel.


Raffel was born in New York City in 1928.[1] 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. Following the completion of his legal studies and admission to the New York State Bar in 1959, Raffel was briefly employed as an associate by Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy before deciding that he was not suited to practice law. Between 1960 and 1963, he served as founding editor of Foundation News, a trade journal published by the Council on Foundations.

From 1989 until his death, he served on the faculty of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, ultimately retiring from active service as distinguished professor emeritus of arts and humanities and professor emeritus of English in 2003. Previously, he taught at Brooklyn College (lecturer in English, 1950–51), Stony Brook University (instructor of English, 1964–65; assistant professor of English, 1965–66), the University at Buffalo (associate professor of English, 1966–68), the University of Haifa (visiting professor of English, 1968–69), the University of Texas at Austin (visiting professor of English, 1969–70; professor of English and classics and chair 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), Emory University (visiting professor, spring 1974) and the University of Denver (professor of English, 1975–89).

Raffel died on September 29, 2015 at the age of 87.[2][3]


He 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 worked with Yale University Press and Harold Bloom on a series of 14 annotated Shakespeare plays. In 2008 the Modern Library published his new translation of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

Raffel's main contribution to translation theory was the principle of "syntactic tracking", which he championed in a monograph published in 1994.[4] 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 claimed that those translators who heed the syntax also make the best lexical choices, so that tracking becomes a measure not only of syntactic accuracy but of translating skills per se. This principle has since been applied in scholarly studies of translations of classical and modern works.[5]

Literary production[edit]

Over the years he published numerous volumes of poetry; 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.


  • Beowulf: A New Translation with an Introduction by Burton Raffel, 1963, Mentor Books/New American Library
  • Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New York: New American Library [Signet Classics], 2009) ISBN 9780451531193. Translated with a preface by Burton Raffel.


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ http://www.mourning.com/obituaries/Burton-Nathan-Raffel/
  3. ^ http://www.theadvertiser.com/story/news/2015/09/30/author-professor-burton-raffel-dies/73085732/
  4. ^ Burton Raffel, The Art of Translating Prose, University Park PA: Penn State University Press, 1994.
  5. ^ 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.


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