Louis John Felstiner, Jr.


John  was a translator, literary critic, teacher, poet, and ardent environmentalist. He and his wife Mary Lowenthal Felstiner were married for over fifty years, with two children, Sarah and Alek, and two grandchildren, Brayden and Asa.

John was born in Mount Vernon, New York, in 1936. He attended Exeter Academy and Harvard University, then served for three years as a naval officer on the USS Forrestal before returning to Harvard to earn a PhD. He taught at Stanford University, in English, Jewish Studies, and Comparative Literature, from 1965 until his retirement in 2009.

Through translations of poets such as Paul Celan and Pablo Neruda, John pioneered a critical approach to literary translation that incorporates history, poetics, and self-reflection. His books Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu and Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew fused literary criticism and biography, while exposing readers to the art and mechanics of translation.

John augmented his scholarly pursuits with political activism. He organized support for oppressed poets and academics abroad, and in later years devoted himself to environmentalism and the nexus of poetry and ecological recognition. His other works include Can Poetry Save the Earth?Selected Poems and Prose of Paul CelanThe Lies of ArtThe Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature (co-ed.), this dust of words (now a documentary by Bill Rose), and numerous essays on literature and translation, as well as his own poetry. In 2010 he established the Save the Earth Poetry Prize, an annual high school poetry competition for poems that “evoke humankind’s awareness of the natural world.”

In addition to teaching at Stanford, John taught at the University of Chile, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yale University, and Stanford’s programs in Oxford and Paris. He received the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, as well as honors from the Modern Languages Association, PEN West, the National Book Critics Circle, and the Commonwealth Club of California, among others. Professor Felstiner held Guggenheim, Rockefeller, NEA, and NEH fellowships. He became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005.

John was a lifelong athlete and music lover. He played varsity soccer and lacrosse at Harvard, and continued to swim every day until shortly before he died. He also performed in amateur singing groups from high school through college, and up until retirement. John and Mary were devoted patrons and fixtures in attendance at Stanford's Lively Arts programs. He often brought musicians and recordings into his classrooms to draw connections between music and poetry. 

As an active and committed Jew, John served on the Board of Stanford Hillel, participated in services, offered courses in Jewish Studies, and helped organize events and bring speakers to campus.

John passed away on February 24th, after suffering from cognitive illness for six years. Despite his disease he continued to swim every day until his final weeks. He went on expeditions with his caregivers, continued to enjoy music and poetry as best he could, and looked forward to visits from his children and grandchildren. Losing language and cognition frustrated him terribly, and he struggled against it to the last. Fortunately, he was surrounded by his family and in a state of peace and rest as he died. His generous and loving caregivers, Sabrina Gonzaga and Tom Shim, were with him throughout the last months. John's family is grateful for their dedication and support.

If you would like to make a donation in John's name, please visit the Donations page.

Stanford Report Obituary

The Unforgotten: A Tribute to John Felstiner from The Center for the Art of Translation

Watch this dust of words (KQED)

Watch John on A Company of Authors panel, titled "Poetry Rules"

[More links to come]