For National Poetry Month, I am going to gush about Cavafy. I’m going to do this instead of reviewing books. I am a rotten blogger. I swear I will get back to the business of reviewing books really soon. I’ve written several reviews of ARCs, but I can’t post them yet. They exist though! Regular programming will commence shortly, I hope to God. In the meantime, you’ll have to get by with guilt-fueled excuses for my bad posting habits, and gushy posts full of my new favorite poet, Constantine Cavafy.

I discovered Cavafy via the Poetry Foundation, a glorious resource for all!, during National Poetry Month last year, but I only truly fell in love with him this year (thereby fulfilling my New Year’s Resolution to read more translated modern poetry and find a translated modern poet to love). Since January, I’ve acquired three different translations of Cavafy, and it would have been four had I not accidentally talked someone else into buying the fourth one, and then I felt like I’d talked her into it and could not, at that late hour, demand she let me buy the book for myself instead. Later this week I’m going to a talk by one of my Cavafy translators; updates as warranted.

Having three translations is interesting. I like to lie in bed and read three translations of the same poem, and investigate what the differences are. It’s like doing a miniature language excavation, and I instantly refer myself to the Greek text, Greek being a language I don’t read even in the ancient, let alone the modern, to try and figure out which word means candles (it has been a while since I knew the Greek alphabet, so this is tricky all on its own), and then whether Cavafy has actually used candles the four times Dalven claims, or only three as Sherrard and Keeley would have it. I find that I read much more closely and carefully this way. I have three different shots at feeling the emotion Cavafy was trying to evoke. In honor of National Poetry Month, here are three translations of a poem about the Trojans. I like to pretend to myself that Cavafy, though Greek, was nevertheless #teamtrojans. I shall disregard any evidence I may discover to the contrary.

(If, like a normal person, you are not interested in the minor differences in translation, feel free not to read all of these translations. To me they are fascinating.)

trans. Evangelos Sachperoglou

Our efforts are those of ill-fated men;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We succeed a little, we regain
our strength a little, and we start
to have courage and high hopes.

But always something comes along to stop us.
Achilles at the moat before us
comes forth and shouting violently scares us.–

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We believe that with resolve and bravery
we’ll alter our fate’s malevolence,
and we stand outside ready to fight.

But when the great crisis comes,
our bravery and our resolve vanish;
our soul is troubled, paralysed;
and around the walls we run,
seeking to save ourselves in flight.

Yet our fall is certain. Already, up on
the walls the lamentation has started.
Memories and feelings of our days are weeping.
Bitterly for us Priam and Hecuba wail.

trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Our efforts are those of men prone to disaster;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We just begin to get somewhere,
gain a little confidence,
grow almost bold and hopeful,

when something always comes up to stop us.
Achilles leaps out of the trench in front of us
and terrifies us with his violent shouting.

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We think we’ll change our luck
by being resolute and daring,
so we move outside ready to fight.

But when the great crisis comes,
our boldness and resolution vanish;
our spirit falters, paralyzed,
and we scurry around the walls
trying to save ourselves by running away.

Yet we’re sure to fail. Up there,
high on the walls, the dirge has already begun.
They’re mourning the memory, the aura of our days.
Priam and Hecuba mourn for us bitterly.

The Trojans
trans. Rae Dalven

Our efforts are the efforts of the unfortunate;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We succeed somewhat; we regain confidence
somewhat; and we start once more
to have courage and high hopes.

But something always happens and stops us.
Achilles in the trench emerges before us
and with loud cries dismays us.–

Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We think that with resolution and daring,
we will alter the downdrag of destiny,
and we stand outside ready for battle.

But when the great crisis comes,
our daring and our resolution vanish;
our soul is agitated, paralyzed;
and we run all around the walls
seeking to save ourselves in flight.

However, our fall is certain. Above,
on the walls, the dirge has already begun.
The memories and the feelings of our own days weep.
Priam and Hecuba weep bitterly for us.

Of particular interest to my dorky self is that Dalven and Sachperoglou make “memories and days” the subject of “weep”, whereas Keeley and Sherrard imply that the subject is Priam and Hecuba. I am so curious about the Greek on this. I can picture how a Latin sentence would allow for either translation, but I don’t know Greek. Are Keeley and Sherrard taking unwarranted liberties because they don’t like the image of memories and days weeping? Or is it an ambiguous noun-verb structure in the Greek?

In general, Sachperoglou and Dalven seem to be more like each other than they are like Keeley and Sherrard. The line about altering fate is “we’ll alter our fate’s malevolence” in Sachperoglou, “we will alter the downdrag of destiny” in Dalven, and, rather more blandly, “we’ll change our luck” in Keeley and Sherrard. The curious thing is that in places like this, or the memories and days line, where Keeley and Sherrard are noticeably different from the other two translators, the altered line isn’t better in any noticeable way. It’s just different.

Does anyone here know anything about translation, proper translation for publication, not the kind of translation I did in my high school Latin classes? How do you deal with the examples set by your predecessors? How much do you worry about using the identical words that another translator has used before? Keeley and Sherrard say “the dirge has already begun,” the exact phrase Dalven uses — is that just inevitable? Or should you slightly alter the phrasing? I am hoping that these and other mysteries will be solved after I go to a talk about translating modern Greek, but I would value your input first. Then I will have clever questions to ask at the talk.

30 thoughts on “CAVAFY

  1. Pingback: New Year’s Resolutions: A Manifesto « Jenny's Books

  2. I’m still feeling my way around poetry, so I haven’t much experience with translations, but DAMN do I ever want to explore them after this! I can see myself doing just what you’re doing, only in a slightly less directed manner on account of the whole “still feeling my way around” thing. I wonder if I could find a multi-translated French or Spanish poet to poke away at? I can read enough of either language that I could take a stab at the original as well as the translations.

    • I’m sure there must be tons. Oh, Rilke! He wrote a bunch of stuff in French and he’s fantastically popular so I bet you could find a bunch of different translations of him.

  3. The problem with translating Greek – whether Modern, New Testament, or Ancient – is that it has so many words which can only be translated with full phrases in English. So “unfortunate men” and all the derivation thereof in the three translations – is only one word.

    But yes, Cavafy is beautiful. Did you notice how he’s just obsessed with walls and boundaries in all his poems? He talks about them all the time. Poor man.

    • I have noticed that! I really like that about him, that he writes about cities and walls, rather than open fields. I identify much more with city imagery.

  4. Translation questions are fascinating. I’m remembering a similar question about Madame Bovary, where the French is unclear about whether Charles or Emma brushes away the eraser fragments after he leans over her shoulder to watch her draw. But there’s really no way to duplicate that ambiguity in English—which I suppose would be the best solution were it possible.

    Also very curious about to what extent translators consult the work of their predecessors. Lydia Davis wrote that she consulted other translations on the second round of revisions, which doesn’t explicitly mean that the didn’t consult them prior to the second round. But I would imagine that you would want to start with a fairly clean slate (e.g. no consulting) until you at least had a first draft. That way you would feel more secure in your own phrases if they happened to coincide with someone else’s.

    • The question about borrowing from your predecessors is possibly the most interesting one to me, because I always translated proper Latin texts (in high school this was, I’m no Latin scholar by any means) with a crib nearby, to check I was doing it right. I can imagine as a translator you’d want to have read the other translations (in case an alternate sense occurred to some other translator), but not rely on them too heavily.

  5. That’s a really interesting comparison – to my mind the first (and possibly the third) has more poetry in it. The other two feel more like word-for-word translations.

    I’d never heard of Cavafy before reading about him on your blog, and was rather pleased to see a poem dedicated to him in Seamus Heaney’s ‘District and Circle’ which I read recently.

    • I discovered there is another translator who did a tricky thing with Cavafy where he used Latinate words when Cavafy was using one particular kind of Greek, and non-Latinate words for another kind of Greek. I am curious to see if that would be able to retain the poetry of the original. I have yet to make a definite decision about my favorite translator of Cavafy.

  6. Have you read George Seferis? I think you might like him, too. And William Gass wrote a very good book about the difficulties of translating Rilke. Naturally I cannot recall its title, but it should be easy to track down. I’ve taught translation in university classes but never actually published a translation myself – it’s such a difficult thing to do really well.

    • No, but suddenly I am hearing about Seferis everywhere! I want to give him a try too. Soon I will be a modern Greek poetry expert! 🙂

      I’ll have a look around for the book. I am intrigued by the process of translation.

  7. It’s funny how different reactions are. Now, I actually liked the arrow-straightness of the second translation (Keeley and Sherrard) but wished I could just toss in a few of the better phrases from the other two – I liked the “downdrag of destiny”, for example. And without knowing Greek, it’s hard to know if Cavafy writes with the conversational simplicity of #2, or the fancier tone of #1 and #3. Both of which, btw, seemed a bit stilted to me – is that just me?


    • Yes, exactly! “Downdrag of destiny” was my favorite rendering of that phrase, and I definitely wanted to keep that. When I’ve sent Cavafy poems to tim, I mix the translations up together. I’m sure the translators would all really appreciate me playing fast and loose with their translations in this fashion. :p

  8. It’s been so long since I have read any poetry that I feel like I am just totally rusty, which is weird, because when I was younger you couldn’t get me to stop reading and writing it. I loved that you shared all three translations with us, and have to say that you’ve inspired me to give poetry another chance. Thanks for sharing this with us, Jenny!

    • You’re welcome! I hope you find lots of poetry you love! I like pulling up random poems from the Poetry Foundation website, and seeing where that gets me. Some I can’t be bothered with, but some (like Cavafy) are amazing. If you’re after new poems, that website’s a great resource!

  9. Thanks for this post, Jenny. To second LitLove, I think you would enjoy Seferis. Poetry in translation, like literature in translation, is a fascinating subject and I appreciated Basil’s comment on translating from Greek. I have always had a fantasy about learning Greek so I could read some of the classics in their original language! And now I want to find these different translations of Cavafy’s work!

    • I am absolutely giving Seferis a try soon!

      Yes, I think it would be amazing to learn enough Greek to be able to read Homer, and I’ve heard from several people that classical Greek is a pretty easy language to learn. I think I could do it! (Wouldn’t help me much with Cavafy though…)

  10. I enjoy comparing translations, too. I’ve also found that sometimes if I read and fall in love with something, then read other translations (possibly better), my preference will still be for my first love.

    Thanks for the heads-up on Cavafy; I found several of his poems online and enjoyed them very much!

    I’m still reading Hafiz with translation by Daniel Landinsky and have another book of his poems with a different translator to examine.

    I used to collect translations of Beowulf, such major/minor changes making such a difference in my emotional response.

    • Oh, I know what you mean. I used C. Day Lewis’s translation of the Aeneid as my crib when I was translating the Aeneid in high school, and even though I’ve found better translations, Lewis still has a special place in my heart.

      Hafiz is on my list. I will be interested to know what translation you end up liking best. 🙂

  11. Like Mumsy, I like the second one best. When I’ve heard poets talk about translating poetry, they’ve talked a lot about how important it is not to translate poetry literally. I think the biggest point is that a poem should be translated in a way that preserves as many possible meanings of a word as possible. So if a word has three meanings in Greek and three in English, that’s a better translation than one in which the word has only two meanings in English.

    • I just feel like I wouldn’t be able to think of all the possible synonyms. Do they have thesauruses sitting right next to them all the time, is that what they do?

  12. This poem is gorgeous in each translation, but I think I like the first one best…”we’ll alter fate’s malevolence” gives me shivers. I can see why you like Cafavy!

    In my efforts to learn French, I sometimes like to look at translated lyrics to French pop songs. You would be amazed at how many interpretations there are to the simplest, most bubblegummy songs. And a truly weird song, like Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca Plan Pour Moi” will sometimes come with a note like: “In the chorus, the writer might be referring to drug use, food, or sexual relations…it’s hard to say which, in the context.”

    • Yes, isn’t he lovely? I have such a man-crush on him.

      That is a good scheme for learning French. If I ever get back to learning French (and tire of watching Buffy with French subtitles), I will employ that as one of my strategies. :p

  13. One of my bookish My New Year’s Resolution’s last year was to read more poetry, and I’ve continued it into this year – but I tend to read more of the older, classic poetry rather than modern, though I do have a collection of 20th Century women’s poetry and a book of Simon Armitage poems – I ought to try more modern poetry, though, and it’s fascinating how the different translations of this same poem subtly alter it.

    • I want to read more poetry in general. I think I wrote poetry off a little bit when I was in school, and never got properly back into it. I’m just the opposite to you, I tend to prefer modern poetry to, say, Romantic poets, who are just too gushy for me. Where’s your cutoff date? 1900ish?

      • The only poetry we did at school was by the war poets, which I never had a problem with, though I think poetry is something most people only fully-appreciate when they’re older.

        I don’t have a cutoff date as such, I’m just conscious that there are so many poets and so much poetry I’m not familiar with, most of it, yes, by ‘the Romantics’ but by no means all. So my poetry-reading is really a catch-up exercise.

    • Glad you liked it! I was afraid it was way too, you know, too many translations of the same damn poem, and I was afraid that wasn’t actually interesting.

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