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Poems, C.P. Cavafy
(New York: Knopf, 2009) translated, with an introduction and commentary
by Daniel Mendelsohn
(Surrey, B.C.: Libros Libertad, 2008, translated and introduced
by Manolis, edited by George Amabile)
Given that the last new English translation of Cavafy’s
work, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s C.P. Cavafy: Collected
Poems appeared as long ago as 1975, these present offerings, coming
as they do from very different sources, are a bonanza.
a background: Cavafy, an Alexandrian Greek, was one of the great
international poets whose life straddled the 19th-20th centuries.
Like W.B. Yeats, Cavafy lived from the 1860s to the 1930s, but
whereas Yeats was already famous in his twenties, Cavafy remained
relatively obscure until late in life. English was Cavafy’s
second language, his family had a strong business connection with
England, and the poet himself lived there seven years from the
age of nine. It is perhaps pertinent to mention that his mother
longed for a daughter (he had a clutch of brothers) and in his
infancy Cavafy (like Hemingway) was kept in long curly hair and
poetry was first published in English by E.M.Forster in a 1922
anthology. It was Forster who said that Cavafy, ‘lived at
a slight angle to the universe’. That Forster was a friend,
coupled with the fact that Rae Dalven’s The Complete Poems
of Cavafy (1961, expanded edition 1976) is introduced by W.H.
Auden, may signpost a central aspect of Cavafy’s life. A
middling bureaucrat with modest (or no) income, he was a deeply
discreet homosexual, which accounts for much of the flavour of
his work. Like Forster’s Dr.Aziz, a central character in
A Passage to India, Cavafy wrote a poetry of pathos and nostalgia,
in Cavafy’s case often of haunted memories of passion, freqently
embedded in classical history.
I discovered Cavafy’s poetry in the 1950s, most likely source
being the poet’s ‘presence’ in Lawrence Durrell’s
Alexandria Quartet, a gift from my wife in 1958. The first edition
of Dalven (1961) has been a standby for nearly fifty years. I
should also mention the very first English translation, John Mavrogordato’s
The Poems of C.P. Cavafy (London: Hogarth Press, 1951), but I’ve
not seen that one for many years.
For me then,
in a sense, the ‘default’ translation is Dalven’s,
but now we come to the question of translation itself, particularly
translation of poetry. On this there are two schools of thought,
with nuanced positions between. Loosely speaking, these may be
dubbed ‘literalist’ and ‘Poundian’. A
literal translation is one in which as nearly as possible, the
English version should be an exact transfer from the original
language; in contrast, the idea of Pound and others was (and is)
that a translation first and foremost tryto capture the ‘spirit’
of the original and transform it into poetry in English. Pound
himself, and Robert Bly, are two notable exponents of this method,
the method I favour because I am more interested in poetry than
in literal accuracy. This can lead to problems, though, and it
is common for one poet to provide ‘versions’ of poems
from half a dozen different languages only some of which he speaks!
(Pound and Bly each did this).
Cavafy’s poems, I have no knowledge of their original language,
Alexandrian Greek, but have been in their (English) company for
near half a century. What I can do is read the new books, Mendelson
and Manolis as poetry (I am not sure of the extent and nature
of Amabile’s editing of Manolis, but he is a fine poet in
his own right.) My first thought was to compare, poem for poem,
these new texts with the ones provided by Dalven and Keeley. I
have not the space to do that, but will try to give some indication.
Otherwise, it is a pleasure in store for the reader.
Some points should be made. Cavafy’s poetry is close to
prose. He makes little use of figurative language. He had a strong
sense of history, but took little or no interest in the twentieth-century.
As the critic and memoirist Timos Malanos said that the past was
the atmosphere of Cavafy’s imagination. Any number of the
poems, many featuring classical Greece, manifest this. The distinctive,
indeed unique, character of his poetry is in his tone of voice
and, in looking at several translations one valid and useful criterion
is to figure out which best captures that tone of voice.
Mendelsohn sets out to explore Cavafy’s technical abilities.He
provides two hundred pages of contextual, historical and technical
notes, including 18 pages on technique, plus a sketch of the life.
Thus his text is valuable for scholarly approaches. It does not
follow that his translations are always the best available as
poetry. As a print job, his book has the textual elegance of Knopf’s
Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, published over fifty years
ago, plus some of the distinction of British Nonesuch and Reynard
books published back then.
A book on
the same scale as Mendelsohn’s is the Keeley/Sherrard Collected
Poems (Princeton, 1975.) These translators, with their editor
George Savidis, aimed at working from a reliable text to present
an English-language one, presenting the poems in proper chronological
sequence. This work appears to have maintained status as the ‘go
to’ text for at least three decades. That said, there is
no need in my view to choose among available texts, though perhaps
Mendelsohn will take precedence with scholars, but rather to make
use of all of them as far as the poetry is concerned. The fact
that I have clung to Dalven is more or less accidental.
homosexuality began to come to public notice when he was around
twenty. This, combined with his family’s loss of wealth
and position, made him and his brothers feel declasse even when
they returned from Constantinople, where their family business
had shifted from London, to Alexandria in 1885 (Cavafy was 22).
For one reason or another Cavafy’s psyche embedded a sense
of loss, as expressed in ‘Voices’. This short poem
(nine lines) ends, in Dalven:
return from the first poetry of our lives –
like music that extinguishes the far-off night.
sounds from our life’s first poetry
like distant music fading away at night.
sounds from the first poetry of our life –
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.
return from the first poetry of our lives –
like distant music, at night, that slowly fades away.
begin to show how differently the same text can be translated.
Manolis’ ‘slowly’ seems gratuitous. In a deft
move, Dalven shifts the fade-out from the music to the night itself.
Both Mendelsohn and Manolis use commas in the final line. In Mendelsohn’s
case this seems to be done with a purpose as the commas chime
in with the rhythm to create a hesitancy opposite in effect to
Dalven’s extinguishing. Such consideration may be applied
to every poem in all four translations. As I’ve experienced
them, no one translator stands out as superior to the others.
Matters vary from poem to poem. One point worth making is that
our local translator, a Greek-Canadian in background, does not
suffer from the comparison.
forward, however, takes us right back to the ‘CanLit’
question: ‘The moment you translate something as a Canadian,
because you are interpreting it into English as spoken in Canada,
and it is informed by the imagery and culture of the target language,
it becomes a work of Canadian literature.’ This is quoted
in Manolis from Quill and Quire, May 2008. Well, yes, maybe, well,
uh sure, but does it matter? That business about, ‘informed
by the imagery and culture of the target language’, seems
highly dubious, especially in the present context where presumably
the translator undertook the task because he is ‘informed
by the imagery and culture’ of the Greek language?
Let us shift
nimbly away from that one! It has been said of Cavafy that he
was not a ‘born’ poet, but developed slowly. This
point has also been firmly denied, by none other than Cavafy’s
great successor, George Seferis. On the other hand, Dalven followed
by Keeley and Sherrard divide their collections into ‘before
1911’ (the date from which the poet, age 48, felt he had
fully become ‘Cavafy’) and after. Our two new volumes,
on the other hand (is there research behind this?) follow a strictly
Back in the
seventies, as if supporting Seferis, Robert Liddell, in Cavafy:
A Critical Biography, wrote: ‘in Cavafy’s work from
first to last there is a unity of mood, of mental climate, of
Weltanschauung – and it would be hard to deny this’.
Seferis wrote: ‘at about 1910 [the very year in which Modernist
novelist Virginia Woolf claimed ‘human nature changed’!]
– the work of Cavafy should be read and judged not as a
series of separated poems but as one and the same poem, a “work
in progress”’ (Seferis, On Greek Style, UK trans,
1966) which seems right, though it compromises Seferis’
own claim about the unity of Cavafy’s work. It chimes in
with the approaches of such writers as Joyce, Eliot, Pound and
Williams, and in and of itself marks Cavafy as a Modernist
and Mendelsohn translations are welcome additions in making the
work of a great poet more accessible.
Doyle is a poet, critic, biographer and editor. He is the author
of Paper Trombones: notes on poetics, a journal of his life as
a poet in Canada.