CAVAFY

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.)

Trojans
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.

Trojans
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.