Most Transformative Translator

Willis Barnstone

He’s as fluid with a bit of the old zhongguohua as he is with español and Greek and more, and speaks even his native English with a special silky something extra: Distinguished and wildly prolific Berkeley poet and translator Willis Barnstone attended a Quaker boarding school as a boy, then volunteered to labor in Quaker work camps in Nahuatl-speaking Mexican villages. Studying languages a few years later at the University of Mexico, he lived in an orphanage for Spanish Civil War refugee children. Later still, he visited China during the Cultural Revolution and for many years was a close friend of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, whose work he has translated. Barnstone’s other translations include collections of poems by Sappho and Mao Tse-tung. He has rendered into lissome English the Gospels, the Apocalypse, the Song of Songs, and works by Saint John of the Cross — and while Barnstone calls himself “a godless person,” he has made these writings accessible to eager readers who aren’t.

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