Among hanging ivy, Asian sculptures and dozens of model ships, thousands of books fill wooden shelves at Burton Raffel’s home, where the renowned literary scholar and retired University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor died in his sleep on Tuesday at 87 years old.
“He lived immersed in the things he loved,” said his wife of 41 years, Elizabeth, as she showcased her husband’s vast collection of at least 15,000 books — some of which he authored.
Most recognized for his 1963 translation of “Beowulf,” the Brooklyn, New York, native published more than 100 books in his lifetime, including works of poetry and fiction, annotated literature, literary theory and other translations spanning at least a dozen languages.
In a teaching career that brought him to Indonesia, Israel, Austin, Ontario and Denver, Raffel in 1989 accepted a position as distinguished professor of arts and humanities in Lafayette, where he taught until his 2003 retirement and where Raffel’s family is now establishing a scholarship in his name.
While working at the university, Raffel, who earned a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School, published a translation of François Rabelais’ “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” earning him the 1991 French-American Foundation Translation Award, along with a modernized translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quijote” in 1996.
“He brought a certain prestige and dignity to our department,” former English department head Marcia Gaudet recalled.
“He was a brilliant scholar. He was certainly someone who the university was lucky to have here and to keep here, but he was also a very good colleague and someone who made many friends.”
Retired UL-Lafayette professor Darrell Bourque remembered his former colleague as popular among students, regardless of his demanding nature.
“He always seemed to push people somewhere outside their comfort area, which is a really important part of what we’re supposed to be doing in the arenas of developing our thinking capabilities and production capabilities and our research capabilities,” Bourque said.
His passion for teaching extended into the home, where Kezia Raffel Pride on Wednesday remembered her father as the type who would excitedly jump from the dinner table and return with books relevant to that evening’s supper discussion.
Now working as an editor in Jerusalem, Pride said she developed even greater appreciations for her father’s writings, especially his translations.
“He was really an artist,” she said.
That’s evident in the 60 years Raffel spent contemplating how to translate the “terza rima” style of Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy” — speaking of the three-line rhyme scheme first used by the author — before he published a translation of which he was “most proud” in 2010, his wife said.
It was his final work.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.