ABC of Willis Barnstone

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A. Willis, in his youth, wanted to be an ARTIST. But marriage to another artist, Elli, and fate, had other plans for that brilliant young man. Still, today his beautiful ink drawings of literary figures, as well as animals, appear in his books of poems and translations such as his ABC of Translation (Black Widow Press Modern Poetry).

B. Willis had a life-long literary friendship and partnership with Jorge Luis BORGES, and translated Borges’ sonnets into English in collaboration with the poet himself. Check out his interviews with Borges, Borges At 80, published by New Directions Press. As a side note: One day Willis and Borges were walking through Buenos Aires when a man rushed up to them and said: “Señor Borges, eres inmortal!” Borges quickly responded, “Hombre, no seas tan pesimista” (“Mr. Borges, you are immortal!” “Man, don’t be so pessimistic.”)

C. Willis was in CHINA in 1972 during the CULTURAL Revolution. He then spent a year (1984-1985) as a Fulbright Professor of American Literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University. He also translated, with one of his students, the poems of Mao Tse-tung and wanted to visit China. However during the Cultural Revolution it was almost impossible to obtain a visa. Willis, being Willis, sent a telegram to the Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, introducing himself as the translator of Mao’s poems and expressed his desire to visit China. Soon after, a telegram arrived from the Prime Minister’s office. It read: Go to Canada and pick up your visa.

D.  The man can DANCE. He can Salsa, Rumba and Cha-Cha. He can shake it to the rhythm of Big Band, the Beatles or Rolling Stones.  He can also twirl you without any intention to catch.  Believe me, I know.

E. Willis Barnstone is synonymous with boundless ENERGY in everything he does, especially talking. Like A Thousand and One Nights, when Willis tells you a story, it merges into another, then another, then another.

F. During 1950s Willis lived with his first wife, Elli Tzalopoulou, on the island of island of Spetses where he was the personal tutor to the young King Constantine II of Greece. In 1960 Bookman Press published Willis’ first book of poems FROM THIS WHITE ISLAND, which was a portrait of Greece after the revolution and the war.

G. Among Willis’ monumental biblical translations is the GNOSTIC BIBLE (edited with Marvin Meyer). It is an astounding collection of Gnostic sacred writings dating from the first to the thirteenth centuries, coming from Egypt, the Greco-Roman world, the Middle East, Syria, Iraq, China and France and includes sacred text from Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Hermetic, Mandaean, Manichaean, Islamic, and Cathar traditions.

H. Willis’ life-work is a contribution to the advancement of our HUMAN CIVILIZATION. His translations and scholarly work bring the great world traditions into English. Whether religious, poetic or theatrical, Willis translates them into English as art and as mystical texts. As a result, the ancients speak to us today and different traditions blend together despite the Babel of languages that splits apart our one world.

I. I am claiming the letter I for how I feel about this great man to whom I bow in love, respect and gratitude. To me Willis is IRREPLACABLE.  A translator/scholar/poet of his depth and caliber comes along perhaps only once every few generations.

J. Willis is a non-practicing Jew but still has a strong JEWISH identity. Indeed in many ways his masterwork was his translation of the New Testament as a Jewish book; that is to say, he restored the book’s Jewish roots to Christianity which had been cut off by centuries of antisemitism. For example, we know all the major figures in the Bible by their Greek names because the original was lost and we only have the Greek translation, and yet in translation their true names have been robbed from us: Jesus’ real name was probably Yeshua, Mary was Miriam, Jerusalem was Yerushalayim, and so on. Another example is the deletion of the word “rabbi.” Almost every translator of Bible translates that title as “teacher,” “master,” etc., stripping Jesus of his Jewish heritage. However, Willis restores that word to the modern reader. Finally, Willis translates Jesus’s words as poetry and hence reveals the Bible as a poetic and literary text.

K. Willis translated the Kabalah, a mystical interpretation of the bible.  Just as in his translation of the Bible, the text is treated with the sensitivity of a poet.

L. Willis was born on November 13, 1927, in LEWISTON, Maine to a Jewish family who in 1917 had changed the family name from Bornstein to Barnstone in order to escape the prevalent antisemitism of the era.

M. A MULTI-LINGUAL genius, Willis has published numerous translations from Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin, ancient and modern Greek, and biblical Hebrew. But wait, there is more. He also writes original poetry in Spanish, French and Italian, which then he translates back into English.

N. Willis worked for many years as a photographer and travel writer for Holiday Magazine as a semi-professional photographer. In 1972 he published NEW FACES OF CHINA, a book of poetry and photographs of Chinese children based on his trip to China during the Cultural Revolution.

O. Perhaps the secret to Willis’ health, sharp mind and longevity is OATMEAL. He eats it every morning, without fail.  Just saying.

P. He is a POET whose own poetry is influenced by those he translates. In his own words: “My writing has been influenced by the Greek lyric poets, by Sappho in particular, by Antonio Machado, Pedro Salinas, Saint John of the Cross, Fray Luis de Leon, Mao Tse-tung, by Physiologus (Bishop Theobaldi, author of a medieval Latin bestiary.)”

Q. Willis’ life-work has been a spiritual QUEST.  He is a secular Jew who nonetheless has a spiritual impulse and is therefore always translating various bibles and other philosophical and spiritual texts by poets and thinkers such as Mirabai, Heraclitus, Wang Wei and the Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs).

R. Willis is poet/scholar whose range and depth of RELIGIOUS translation is unrivaled. His seven monumental works to date include a diverse range:  Jewish Pseudepigrapha, Christian Apocrypha, Gnostic Scriptures, Kabbalah, Dead Sea Scrolls, The Four Gospels and Apocalypse, The New Testament and The Gnostic Bible.

S. Willis loves both writing and translating SONNETS.  He published  The Secret Reader: 501 Sonnets in 1996, a translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus  in 2004, and won the PEN American Center / Book of the Month Club Translation Award for Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet,  a collection of brilliantly translated sonnets by Francisco de Quevedo, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Antonio Machado, Federico García Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges, and Miguel Hernández.

T. A celebrated TRANSLATOR, THEORETICIAN and a critic of translation, Willis’ poetic and scholarly translations will undoubtedly connect and enlighten many generations to come. His book The Poetics of Translation is a classic in the field.

U. Having taught at universities and institutions globally, Willis finally settled down in 1960s in Bloomington with his then wife, Elli, and three children, two of whom, Aliki and Tony, have since become important poets and translators.  Rob is an architect, sculptor and professor in Sydney, AU. There, at Indiana UNIVERISTY, Willis not only served as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Spanish but he also started Film Studies and courses in International Popular Songs and Lyrics and Asian and Western Poetry.

V. Willis is a VISIONARY who has dedicated his life to connecting cultures and people through translation.

W. A poem by WILLIS on Willis.

I see him clearly now, the one you call Willis. You know him as slow mercury in glass. He fades like mud Prince on a hall or vanishes in the Sudan. And he is your good friend (not mine), kind like hot foam on morning beards, courageous, never cool like rain leaking into the catacomb of passions where he hides, shading the fool from public light. Obsessed? Yes, with the word, soul mask. He’ll talk you crazy and spend whole centuries as my scribe. I follow him along the street. His mind is idly blurred with café dreams of the texts. In that black, slim folder, I am the one he can’t control.

X. His book Poetics of Ecstasy is an examination of the Greek word ekstasis (κστασις) which means standing outside yourself, in stillness. It names that moment the senses collapse together and you step outside of the brain, experiencing a kind of spiritual joining and ecstasy, like this poem from the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (translated by Willis):


The room was cheap and sordid, hidden above the suspect tavern. From the window you could see the alley filthy and narrow. From below came the voices of some workers who were playing cards, having a good time.

And there on the plain, ordinary bed I had love’s body, I had the lips, voluptuous and rosy lips of drunken ecstasy— rosy lips of such ecstasy that now as I write, after so many years in my lonely house, I am drunk again.

Y. After a round of scholarly studies at the University of Mexico (1947), the Sorbonne (1948–49) and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London (1952–53), Willis came back to the United States and earned his Ph.D. from Yale University (1960).

Z. Willis’ interest in artistic and poetic ZOOLOGY, led to his work in progress: African Bestiary: Poems and Drawings for All Ages, which contains illustrations and poems about animals. The book was inspired by his trip to Africa in 2005 with his son, poet Tony Barnstone.