Some professors have chairs named after them, but Norman R. Shapiro ’51 has been dedicated an entire table. He can often be found in the Adams House Dining Hall at this particular table—which a couple of students have affectionately named after him—working on his translations of French poetry. It is at this very table that Shapiro translated many of the works which earned him the title of Officer in the French Order of Arts and Letters, which he was awarded last Tuesday by Christophe Guilhou, Consul General of France in Boston, in a ceremony in Adams House Junior Common Room.
Shapiro, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Wesleyan University, has translated fables, farces, and poems by eminent French writers from all eras. Shapiro views literary translation as the ideal form of creativity. “Within the rigid framework of the original, one is totally free to translate as one sees fit while maintaining the message and the tone of the original,” he says.
Now, after decades of doing what he loves, Shapiro has been awarded one of the highest honors that the French government bestows upon artists. At the award ceremony, Guilhou spoke of Shapiro’s impressive achievements; he presented him the award “for a life dedicated to French literature and culture in all of its diversity, and for touching so many students and people.” The Order of Arts and Letters, part of the French National Order of Merit, was established in 1957 for the recognition of achievement in or propagation of art and literature. Recipients of the award are divided into three grades: chevalier (knight), officier (officer), and commandeur (commander). Shapiro’s award is of the officer degree, which is only awarded to fewer than 60 people each year. Other well-known American members of the order include T.S. Eliot ’08, Bob Dylan, Ray Bradbury, Patti Smith, and—Shapiro’s personal favorite—Jerry Lewis.
“It feels a little silly, but I feel it is a wonderful honor and I never expected it,” says Shapiro. His cousin-in-law, Allan Kliman ’54, was not so surprised. “I’ve been saying for years that the French government should recognize Norman,” he says. Kliman continued that Shapiro’s translation and popularization of the works of Jean de la Fontaine, whose fables have been read by most French school children, made the honor “long overdue.”
Shapiro’s work is not limited to translation. “Adams House has been a very important part of my life academically and socially,” he says, and he has had a great impact on the house in both respects. Shapiro officially serves as the Adams House Advisor in Writing and Theater, and also participates in weekly French language discussion tables with students. “He is very available to students and very sociable, always telling jokes,” says Catherine L. Goode ’12. He has also helped her with her poetry, some of which she writes in French. “His constructive criticism is invaluable and really helps me improve as an artist,” she continues.
Shapiro also regularly organizes performances or dramatic readings of his own translations of farces by Georges Feydeau and recruits performers in the Adams House community. “His translations are funny—a little bawdy. [He] brings the wording up to date but doesn’t lose any of the original meanings or situations,” says Adams House Master John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’67, who has known Shapiro for 13 years. “I have acted in them almost every year.”
Shapiro’s impact extends beyond Adams House and the world of French literature. Yon Lee, the Tai Chi Master in charge of Harvard’s Tai Chi Tiger Crane Club, recalls an incident in 2005 when club members were debating whether or not to visit the Shaolin Temple in China. Shapiro urged them to go “in the name of cultural exchange.” Since then Lee he has sent three groups there to study, and says that both he and Shapiro were appointed as Songshan Scholars by the Chinese government.
According to his longtime friends Alan Hartford, a tutor in Adams House from 1986 to 1998, and Ariana Vora, a current medical school faculty member, Shapiro is “cultured, lovable, erudite, modest, charming, and a man about town.” They say that he is the kind of character that every professor should aspire to be.