Rigoberto writes here of encountering Cavafy in his high school library, and the sense of discovery and liberation Cavafy's frank evocation of homosexual eroticism gave him as a young poet. Reginald writes in the comment box that:
All the translations I've read make Cavafy sound like prose broken into lines--well-written, sensitive, insightful prose, but prose nonetheless. Reading the introductions to the translations and other work about Cavafy, I understand that Cavafy was an obsessive poetic craftsman, obsessively revising and refining each line. . . . None of this comes across in any of the translations I have read. This absence, combined with the relative paucity of figurative language--as I recall, Cavafy has vivid imagery, but few metaphors and similes--contributes to the prosaic feel of his poetry in the translations I've read.
Cavafy is without doubt the most translated and retranslated of modern Greek poets--perhaps among the most translated of foreign poets into English period. What are these translations not bringing to the table? What are we missing when we aren't reading Cavafy in Greek?

I'm actually working on a review of some translations of the Nobel-prize winning poet George Seferis' journals for a Certain Poetry Magazine as we speak. In it, Seferis himself wrestles with his mixed feelings about the greatest figure in modern Greek letters. In 1941, stationed in Cavafy's home town of Alexandria in Egypt, Seferis has a sudden insight from the landscape:
"I think of Cavafy, as I inspect this low-lying land. His poetry is like that too; as prosaic as the endless plain before us. It has no rise and fall; it goes at a walking pace. I understand Cavafy better now and I respect him for what he did."
(Seferis' literary circle had been very dismissive of Cavafy.)
What does he mean by prosaic, by a walking pace? (A pun in Greek, by the way, since prose and pedestrian are the same word.) There is a flatness--not in terms of music, in which Cavafy's poetry is quite rich, but in terms of tone. His vehicle is often irony, which carries across into English remarkably well no matter how indifferent the translator is to the sounds and rhythms of the poetry itself.
Rigoberto mentions "The City", perhaps Cavafy's most famous poem after "Ithaka" (you can hear "Ithaka" in Greek here). It is a powerful poem in Rae Dalven's or Keeley and Sherrard's or almost anyone's translation. (I have mentioned earlier I think on how much I love poems that end in negation, and this one is a whopper.) But how startled I was when I first tackled it in Greek. One of the things I had never been fully aware of before were its elegant parallelisms and chiasmus (land/shore; ship/road). I was surprised to find the poem rhymes, and not only does it rhyme, but it has a curious rhyme scheme (which I have since stolen for one of my own poems about leaving a city):
Some of the rhymes are actually denser than full rhyme--they are rime riche, homophones--so that "tha menei" ("shall remain") almost magically turns into "thameni" ("buried"); some are more like full consonantal rhymes-"tha gurnas" ("you will wander") turns into "tha gernas" ("you will grow old").
The rhyme scheme that appears to go somewhere only to end up where it started is not decoration--it is central to the theme of the poem. Here is a version that carries off the effect of the rhyme scheme, by David Mason, from Arrivals:
The City
after the Greek of C.P. Cavafy

You said: "I'll go away to another shore,
find another city better than this.
In all I attempt, something remains amiss
and my heart--like a dead thing--lies buried.
How long will my mind stew in all its worry?
Wherever I cast my eye, wherever I look,
I see the ruins of my life turn black
here where I wasted and wrecked many a year."
You won't find a new land or another shore.
This city will follow you, you'll molder
in these streets, in these neighborhoods grow older,
and turn gray among familiar houses.
You'll always end here--don't hope for other places--
there is no ship, there is no road for you.
Now that you have decided you are through
with this place, you've wrecked your life everywhere.

One of the curiousities on my bookshelf is a volume of translations of Cavafy by his brother, J.C. Cavafy. Sometimes slightly Victorian in flavor, they are nonetheless fascinating--one wonders if Cavafy himself had any hand in them. And they always make an effort to get across the formal elements. Here is "Interruption":

We it is who interrupt the gods' effectual power,
we the hasty, the inexperienced, beings of the hour.
At Eleusis and at Phthia, in the regal halls,
when Demeter and when Thetis by their magic arts provoke
and pursue works beneficial amid mighty flames and smoke:
Metaneira, half distracted as it e'er befalls,
rushes from the king's apartment and cries out her fears,
and there's always Peleus who suspects and interferes.

Rhymed poems represent only a significant minority of Cavafy's work, however. Most poems are in unrhymed iambics--a sort of Greek blank verse. One of Cavafy's central tenets is an almost Epicurean primacy of pleasure, in Greek, "hedone" (from which we get "hedonism"). It is one of the central words in his work. Yet somehow it is always difficult to translate. "Pleasure" in English is more fraught with guilt somehow, whereas "hedone" bypasses Christianity and comes straight from the ancient philosophers.
Cavafy's homosexual poems are always seen through the eyes of nostalgia. They are frank and confessional, but looking across the years lends them a distance and melancholy. Have I mentioned before how much I admire Don Paterson? (Um, yes, about a million times...) Here is his rendering of "One Night" from Landing Light:

The room above the bar
was the cheapest we could find.
We could see the filthy alley
from the window, hear the shouts
of the workmen at their card-games.
Yet there on that narrow bed
I had love's body, knew its red lips;
those lips so full, so bloody with desire
that now as I write, after so many years,
in this lonely house . . . I'm drunk with them again.

There's much I like about this lean and clean version (not a translation). But one thing that to me is a disaster! In Greek, Love is a HE, not an IT. The word for sensual love, eros, is male in gender (Greek is a gendered language), but Eros is also the name of the Greek god of Love--identified with the Roman Cupid if you like, but he is no chubby little pink Cherub. He is a beautiful young man--a "hottie" in Rigoberto's phrase. The poem is at once ambiguous (the gender of the lover isn't actually specified) and unequivocally clear. I had Love's body, his body. The body of a god.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the finest translators of Cavafy to date is the sophisticated, dextrous and openly homosexual James Merrill. Alas, he only did a handful of poems. But he was alive to the wordplay, the repetition, the sounds, register shifts, and where he cannot get something across from the Greek, balances with an English equivalent. More on that perhaps later.

Originally Published: January 30th, 2008

A.E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics at the University of Georgia and Oxford University. She has published three books of poetry: Archaic Smile (1999), winner of the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012), which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Stallings’s poetry is known for its ingenuity...

  1. January 30, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Sorry if I missed it somewhere, but Alicia, does this mean you are translating Cavafy? If so, maybe you could give us a sample? Maybe while you're at it, you could do a little Sappho translation? Thanks for this post - amazing how much formalism we're missing in translations.

  2. February 2, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    Oh, no... I am not planning to translate Cavafy. I mean, I do translate the odd poem, mostly to understand it better myself. I've done versions of The City, The Horses of Achilles, Walls & The Souls of Old Men. As far as translating goes, I'm pretty exclusively interested in the rhyming poems, as I feel the unrhymed ones have already been very well served by translators.
    I don't know whether this sounds crazy or not, but I actually turned down an opportunity to translate Sappho for a publisher... again, I guess I feel she is pretty well served and I didn't feel I had much to add there. Though I have done a loose version of the Anaktoria ode. I'll e-mail it to you!