Edwin Honig, a Poet, Professor and Translator, Dies at 91
Brown UniversityThe poet and critic Edwin Honig in an undated photograph.
By MARGALIT FOX
Edwin Honig, a poet, critic and translator known for his elegant English renditions of seminal works of Spanish and Portuguese literature, died on May 25 at his home in Providence, R.I. He was 91.The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said Barbara L. Estrin, a friend and former student.
At his death, Professor Honig was emeritus professor of English and comparative literature at Brown University, where he had taught from 1957 until his retirement in 1982.
As a translator, Professor Honig helped bring the work of Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese poet of the early 20th century, to an English-speaking readership.
He also translated the poetry of Federico García Lorca and wrote a critical study, published in 1944, that was among the earliest in English of the poet, who was murdered by Franco’s Nationalist forces in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.
In addition, Professor Honig translated many plays, including those of the 17th-century Spaniard Pedro Calderón de la Barca and those of his 16th-century countryman Miguel de Cervantes.
Published by New American Library in 1964, Professor Honig’s translation of Cervantes’s “Interludes” — short vignettes performed between acts of full-length plays — comprises earthy entertainments like “The Jealous Old Husband,” “The Divorce-Court Judge” and “Trampagos, the Pimp Who Lost His Moll.”
Professor Honig was knighted by the Spanish and Portuguese governments for his service to their national literatures.
As a critic, he was known in particular for “Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory,” published in 1959.
He was the subject of a short documentary, “Translating Edwin Honig: A Poet’s Alzheimer’s,” which had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival last year.
Made by Professor Honig’s cousin, the filmmaker Alan Berliner, the movie chronicles its subject’s changing relationship to language, memory and sense of self as his illness progresses.
Edwin Honig was born in Brooklyn on Sept. 3, 1919. He acquired his love of Spanish, he later said, from his paternal grandmother, a Sephardic Jew who spoke it fluently.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1941 and, after Army service in Europe during World War II, a master’s in English from Wisconsin.
Before joining the Brown faculty, Professor Honig taught at Harvard and elsewhere. At Brown, he founded the creative writing program, now the department of literary arts.
Professor Honig’s first wife, Charlotte, died in the early 1960s. His second marriage, to Margot Dennes, ended in divorce. His survivors include two sons from his marriage to Ms. Dennes, Daniel and Jeremy; and a sister, Lila Putnam.
His other translations include “Poems of Fernando Pessoa” (with Susan M. Brown); “Life Is a Dream,” a play by Calderón; and “Four Puppet Plays, Play Without a Title, the Divan Poems, and Other Poems, Prose Poems and Dramatic Pieces,” by García Lorca.
Professor Honig was the founder, in 1973, and the first editor of Copper Beech Press, a small press in Providence that specializes in poetry and translation.
His own poetry collections include “The Moral Circus,” “The Gazabos,” “Shake a Spear With Me, John Berryman” and “Time and Again: Poems, 1940-1997.”
As a poet, Professor Honig was praised for formal precision, masterly tonal control and sometimes biting wit. All are on display — the biting especially — in his poem “Anon,” here in its entirety:
At a literary tea
I once met the
who, denting cookies
on everybody’s plate,
let on to me
I didn’t rate.
“I love poetry
that’s got a bite!”
To which I cried:
one you missed —
I thought he had
only nibbled it
when he grabbed
his mouth and spat,
but on the ground
like a leftover sweet
lay a little mound
of broken teeth.