William Weaver, acclaimed translator of contemporary Italian literature, dies at 90


William Weaver, a celebrated translator of Italian literature, died Nov. 12 at 90. (Photo by Doug Baz/Bard College)
November 18, 2013

William Weaver, a Virginian who landed in Italy as an ambulance driver during World War II, learned Italian on the streets and became the preeminent translator of the country’s contemporary literature, died Nov. 12 in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He was 90.

His death was announced by Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., where Mr. Weaver had spent the final years of his career, after living and working for decades in a Tuscan farmhouse. The cause was complications from a stroke, said a nephew, John Poulton.

Mr. Weaver belonged to an often invisible caste of creative artists — the translators who spin literary wool of one language into the yarns of another. He taught himself Italian during and after the war, internalizing all the beauty and grit, metaphors and obscenities that would fill the pages of his work.

He was perhaps most widely known for his 1983 translation of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” a medieval mystery that was first published in Italian in 1980 and went on to sell millions of copies worldwide.

Eco, according to the London Guardian, called Mr. Weaver’s translation “much better than the original.” In 1986, the novel was adapted into the film starring Sean Connery.

In literary circles, Mr. Weaver was renowned for his obsessive dedication to finding the perfect word to convey in English the exact meaning intended by an Italian author. He once told a reporter that he could “spend whole minutes trying to decide whether to say ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps.’ ”

Among his translations was a shelf full of works by Italo Calvino, including the highly scientific and equally imaginative “Cosmicomics,” for which Mr. Weaver received the 1969 National Book Award for translation.

He translated “If Not Now, When?” and “The Monkey’s Wrench,” both by Primo Levi, the Italian chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor.

Also among Mr. Weaver’s translations were “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” Giorgio Bassani’s novel about the rise of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini; “History,” Elsa Morante’s epic account of World War II; several works by Alberto Moravia; and a long list of works by writers whose lives spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, including Italo Svevo, Luigi Pirandello, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Eugenio Montale, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Oriana Fallaci.

At times, Mr. Weaver spoke despairingly about the difficulty of making a living as a translator. His earnings from “The Name of the Rose” did allow him to enlarge his Tuscan home with a room he called “the Eco chamber,” but most members of his profession were not so fortunate.

Opera buffs may have known Mr. Weaver for his frequent commentaries on the long-running Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, including during the popular Texaco Opera Quiz.

He wrote, edited and compiled numerous books on Italian opera, including “Puccini: The Man and His Music” (1977), “The Verdi Companion” (1979) and “The Golden Century of Italian Opera from Rossini to Puccini” (1980). He also translated and compiled several volumes of opera librettos, and he wrote a biography of Eleonora Duse, a beguiling Italian actress who lived from 1858 to 1924.

“Of all Duse’s biographers I have consulted,” poet and translator Richard Howard wrote in The Washington Post after the book’s release in 1984, Mr. Weaver “is the first to have been scrupulous about facts which must have some relation to the myth of Total Humanity she incarnated.”

William Fense Weaver was born on July 24, 1923, in Washington. His father was the official recorder of debates for the Congressional Record. Mr. Weaver grew up in the District, where his family lived when Congress was in session, and in Front Royal, Va., where they lived during recesses.

Mr. Weaver was studying history at Princeton University when the United States entered World War II in 1941. He planned to be a conscientious objector but joined the American Field Service as an ambulance driver, serving first in Africa and then in Italy.

After the war, Mr. Weaver completed his degree at Princeton before returning to Italy shortly thereafter.

He lived for a period in Naples, trading American and Italian literary works with his friends. He did not have an Italian-English dictionary, he once told the Paris Review, and made some of his early translations circuitously — by searching for a word in an Italian-German dictionary and then locating it in a German-English volume.

In addition to his translation, he worked over the years as an Italian correspondent and book reviewer for the Financial Times and as a music and opera critic for the International Herald Tribune.

His partner of many years, Kazuo Nakajima, died in May. Mr. Weaver had no immediate survivors.

Mr. Weaver considered himself not an expatriate, but a “bipatriot,” as he once told the Northern Virginia Daily, and he traveled frequently to the United States to keep up his English. He said he also found “trashy American literature” particularly useful in that regard.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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