Edwin Honig, at 91; was poet, translator, Brown professor

Edwin Honig taught at various colleges and founded the creative writing program at Brown. Edwin Honig taught at various colleges and founded the creative writing program at Brown. (Brown University)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / June 7, 2011

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On the cusp of adolescence, fresh from a childhood with relatives speaking a rich harmony of languages, Edwin Honig turned from Sherlock Holmes to his own kind of literary detective work that would lead to life as a poet, teacher, and translator.

“At 13 I gave up Conan Doyle for Hart Crane and T.S. Eliot, reading for the magic of their special language,’’ he wrote in the introduction to “The Poet’s Other Voice,’’ a 1985 collection of conversations he conducted with other translators. “The curiously evocative sounds and bizarre word pictures were what teachers called poems. In mouthing them I convinced myself I was mimicking still another foreign language.’’

Mr. Honig, a professor emeritus who founded the creative writing program at Brown University in Providence, wrote volumes of poetry, and created translations that helped put the work of the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa into the hands of those who read in English, died May 25 in his Providence home of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 91.

Service in the US Army and work in academia grounded Mr. Honig in languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Russian, some of which he had already encountered growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A child of 10 when his parents divorced, Mr. Honig “went to live with our paternal grandparents,’’ said his sister, Lila Putnam of Franktown, Colo. “They were very poor, but very happy people. My paternal grandmother spoke Spanish, and Edwin loved the sound of it.’’

Other languages swirled around the Honig children, too.

“On my mother’s side, Yiddish, Polish, and German were spoken; on my father’s, Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, Yiddish, some Italian, a bit of French,’’ Mr. Honig wrote. “As a child I kept listening to all the jabber.’’

These encounters with language, he said in “The Poet’s Other Voice,’’ seemed to be “part of the business of becoming a poet, a continuing self-renewing act.’’

He believed translation also was a creative endeavor, more than simply finding English equivalents for words penned in Portuguese or Spanish.

“A good translation could bring what was irreplaceable in the original together with what was missing from it,’’ he wrote, adding that “there seemed no use in doing a translation unless I were going to create a new work.’’

Mr. Honig did so most notably with Pessoa, who in the early 20th century wrote under multiple names. Mr. Honig also translated Spanish plays from the 16th and 17th century that were written by Miguel de Cervantes and Pedro Calderon de la Barca.

“The sinewy, quick-moving, bare quality of language was what had fascinated me in the Spanish,’’ Mr. Honig wrote, “and this was what I found missing in the general run of English translations.’’

During his “Other Voice’’ conversation with the Mexican poet Octavio Paz, Mr. Honig paraphrased Robert Frost’s suggestion that “translation is either impossible or it’s a fraud,’’ then offered his own observation in an afterword: “Translation discovers the text’s other voice.’’

Translators, he mused, might be living “the paradox: to know yourself, lose yourself in the other.’’

Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Honig graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and was drafted into the US Army during World War II.

He taught at various colleges before and after the war, including at Harvard University in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Mr. Honig also received a master’s from the University of Wisconsin, though he told interviewer Lori Baker for a piece posted online at that he did not intend to become a professor who taught writers.

“I never took a writing course,’’ he told Baker. “I always thought you could learn to write if you wrote, and that’s what I did.’’

Mr. Honig said in the interview that at Brown, where he taught from 1957 until the early 1980s, he “was hired to head up a new program in writing’’ and did so by hiring writers such as postmodern novelist John Hawkes to teach.

“There was some kind of literary tradition here,’’ Mr. Honig told Baker. “It was ‘the gentleman’s writing’ — they sort of looked at it as a club. But I decided we must have real writers teaching these courses.’’

Among the writers who came to teach at Brown were the poet C.D. Wright and the novelist Robert Coover.

“The making of literature,’’ Mr. Honig told Baker, “has been accepted as a vital part of the university.’’

Literary endeavors, meanwhile, remained an essential part of his life. His poetry was published in volumes beginning with “The Moral Circus’’ in 1955. He collected his work in “Time and Again: Poems, 1940-1997,’’ published in 2000.

He also wrote plays and translated poetry, prose, and drama by writers including Pessoa, Cervantes, Calderon de la Barca, and the Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca.

When Mr. Honig was diagnosed with dementia, a cousin, Alan Berliner, recorded his final years in a documentary, “Translating Edwin Honig: A Poet’s Alzheimer’s,’’ which premiered last year at the New York Film Festival.

Mr. Honig’s first wife, Charlotte, died of cancer in 1962. His second marriage, to Margot Dennes Honig of Brookline, ended in divorce.

“In my humble opinion, he was an artist, as well,’’ said his son Jeremy Shaw of South Dartmouth. “He did drawings and painting throughout his life, and they were very important to him and arguably very good, as well.’’

Shaw said his father also was curious about nature, an interest he saw reflected in some of Mr. Honig’s early poetry and in day-to-day life, when the professor trained his intellect and poet’s eye on everything from stones to seaweed.

“A walk on the beach with him was not your normal walk on the beach,’’ his son said.

Mr. Honig was modest about his accomplishments, his sister said, and “was very, very witty.’’

“He didn’t like talking about himself,’’ she said. “If you asked questions about him, he’d give you some witty answers to put you off. But he was a genius. Now, it sounds like I’m prejudiced, but let me tell you, that man was a genius. Think of all he did.’’

A service will be announced for Mr. Honig, who in addition to his son, sister, and former wife leaves another son, Daniel of San Francisco.

To titles such as poet, professor, and translator, Mr. Honig twice added knight. The governments of Portugal and Spain each knighted him for his efforts to bring writers from those countries to English-reading audiences.

Susan Brown, Thomas Epstein, and Henry Gould edited “A Glass of Green Tea — With Honig,’’ a 1994 collection of tributes to Mr. Honig written by friends and colleagues such as the poet Robert Bly.

“He is a giver,’’ Bly wrote, “who blessed all the poets of my generation with his alert heart, his exquisitely pertinent scholarship, and his daring ability to paint the landscapes that the modernists, despite their genius, did not recognize and honor.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at