Translation is an art form worthy of academic criticism, Donald S. Carne-Ross argued in literary essays, but as a reader he preferred a writer’s own words, even if they were written in ancient Greek.
“To get really close to a poem is possible only if one is reading it in the original,’’ he wrote in the preface to his 1985 book, “Pindar.’’
Such intimacy is possible for multilingual scholars such as Mr. Carne-Ross, who could read in Latin, Greek, Italian, and French. For those fluent only in English, however, translation opens the door, and he wrote exacting critiques of how effectively different writers coaxed poetry from one language to another.
A professor emeritus at Boston University, where he taught in the classical studies department for about three decades, Mr. Carne-Ross died Jan. 9 in the Newton and Wellesley Alzheimer Center in Wellesley of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88 and had lived in Byfield for many years.
“He was an absolutely brilliant classicist and his range was really extraordinary,’’ said John Silber, a former president of Boston University. Silber was a professor at the University of Texas in the 1960s when he recruited Mr. Carne-Ross to teach in Austin, and Silber later persuaded him to join the BU faculty.
Best known for his essays, Mr. Carne-Ross was also a translator. He rendered into English works by Pindar, a lyric poet in ancient Greece, and more contemporary writings such as short stories by the Italian author Italo Calvino.
“Pindar is regarded by many to be untranslatable,’’ Silber said of the poet’s work, composed about 2,500 years ago. “Well, it was when Donald Carne-Ross got his hands on it.’’
While Mr. Carne-Ross wrote criticism that was aimed at scholars, his writing could be accessible to those for whom reading poetry is just a pastime.
“He never spoke narrowly for academics, even though he was working on academic topics,’’ said Kenneth Haynes, an associate professor of comparative literature and classics at Brown University. Haynes was a student of Mr. Carne-Ross, and then became a publishing colleague.
“He always envisioned a general reader,’’ Haynes said, adding with a laugh, “one who knew six or seven languages, of course.’’
In a postscript to Christopher Logue’s translation of “Patrocleia of Homer,’’ published in 1963, Mr. Carne-Ross discussed the challenges translators face.
“The point about good translation . . . is not that it ‘gives you the original,’ ’’ he wrote. “It doesn’t and can’t and shouldn’t try to. . . . What a translation does is to turn the original into something else.’’
Nevertheless, he argued, translators should be faithful to the century in which the original text was written.
A British citizen, Donald Selwyn Carne-Ross was born in Havana and his family returned to England when he was a child. Accomplished at languages and literature as a young student, he liked to tell the story of how future Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot invited him to tea once when Mr. Carne-Ross was only 18.
He attended Magdalen College at Oxford University, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English, and he served as a translator with the Royal Air Force during World War II.
After the war, he helped found a literary journal and was a producer for the Third Programme on BBC radio, arranging readings by poets such as W.H. Auden and Ted Hughes.
A marriage in England when he was young ended in divorce, according to Teresa Iverson, his longtime companion. A subsequent marriage to Luna Wolf, a book editor, also ended in divorce.
Mr. Carne-Ross immigrated to the United States in the late 1950s. He taught at New York University, then moved to the University of Texas at Austin. There, he helped William Arrowsmith, a classicist and translator, launch Arion, a humanities and classics journal now published by Boston University. While in Texas, Mr. Carne-Ross also helped found the National Translation Center and its journal, Delos.
When Silber brought him to Boston University in the early 1970s, Mr. Carne-Ross was a founding member of an interdepartmental studies program. He became a professor emeritus in 2002.
Haynes edited about a dozen essays by Mr. Carne-Ross and collected them in the book “Classics and Translation,’’ which is to be published this summer.
The past, near and distant, held an enduring allure for Mr. Carne-Ross. He never switched from typewriters to computers, never owned a television, and in the preface to “Instaurations,’’ a 1979 collection of his essays, he made clear his affection for Ancient Greek poetry and stories.
“More than any other language, to my ears, it says what is: what has been, is now, will be,’’ he wrote.
“Unlike other animals, man is born to no world and must constantly build a world in which he feels at home,’’ Mr. Carne-Ross wrote in “The Scandal of Necessity,’’ the book’s final essay. “Literature is one of the means by which he builds his world. . . . Greek poetry peoples the empty spaces of earth and sea and air with a company of sacred beings, so that every aspect of the natural world is embodied and named.’’
A memorial service will be held at 5:30 p.m. on April 22 in The Castle on the Boston University campus.