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.

Review: The War that Killed Achilles, Caroline Alexander

What was I reading recentlyish that talked about the Dark Ages being defined by the lack of Homer and Ovid? Was it The Secret History? Or The Fall of Rome maybe? Probably it was Tom Stoppard, Arcadia or The Invention of Love. It sounds like the kind of thing Tom Stoppard would say. Anyway, whatever character it was, they said something about how the Dark Ages were Dark because we didn’t have the classics around, in all their universal brilliance, to explain us to ourselves. When the West got them back again (thanks, Arabia!), it was like being reborn, a Renaissance.

Caroline Alexander, author of The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War, seems to be of this mind. As I understand it, the book began as a series of lectures on the Iliad, which she eventually expanded and wrote down in bookish form, and lo, they are now a book. I kind of like it that a book about one of the world’s most utterly magnificent oral traditions, the Iliad, started out as lectures. That seems fitting.

The book is mainly an explication of what’s going on throughout the Iliad, from start to finish, with many admiring asides and fun trivia facts. Alexander goes through the poem and explores why people are doing the things they are doing, and what it says about them, and what crafty tricks of the trade Homer is using to make his poem the enduring masterpiece of genius that it is. She writes about the boring bits and why Homer would have included them and what audiences of the time would have thought;and she talks about the various strands of mythic and poetic tradition and when scholars think they got added into the Iliad. It was so great. I kept stopping reading it and reading other books instead, just to make it last longer.

It has occurred to me that I need to add a new category to my categories of talking about books. Sometimes I read a book, and I have a response of overwhelming joy, but the joy is coming from a place in my heart that is unrelated to my critical faculties. Every time this happens, I think that if you read the book I’m talking about, and you hate it, you won’t know that I know that my response has been colored by, for instance, my passionate love of the classics and desire to snuddle Homer and Ovid and Virgil. And then you’ll go away and think, That Jenny, she thinks books are fantastic that we know are only sort of okay. What an idiot. Accordingly I have added a new category and I have called it “Sparkly Snuggle Hearts”. Hereafter, if you see that I have put a post in this category, you will know that my ability to be critical of a certain book has been overthrown by desperate, protective love for some aspect of it. Then you won’t think I have bad taste ever again.

Glad I’ve solved that problem.

You know the one problem with this book, which is otherwise really cool? Caroline Alexander is using Lattimore’s translation. What? Why would you? When Fagles is around, being obviously better and only using enjambment when it’s called for and not every single damn line. FAGLES. FAGLES. FAGLES. I have never actually read Fagles’s Iliad but I’ve read his Odyssey, and I know the man translates Greek like a champion. Lattimore? I think not.

By the way, here is another bit of Old School that I liked a lot and sort of pertains to this because it’s about classical poetry:

Augustus Caesar had sent our Latin master’s beloved Ovid into exile…Yet the effect of all these stories was to make me feel not Caesar’s power, but his fear of Ovid. And why would Caesar fear Ovid, except for knowing that neither his divinity nor all his legions could protect him from a good line of poetry.

CLASSICS. I LOVE THEM SO HARD.

Fagles’s Odyssey: Divided loyalties in the first quarter

Fagles’s translation of the Odyssey is so great it hurts my brain. Granted, I am a sucker for epic poetry. I took eight years of Latin when I was in school, and I never loved anything we translated like I loved the Aeneid. It is epic. Plus I love the Greek and Roman gods. So I am reading the Odyssey right now, in the Fagles translation, which I have to say appears to be the best translation in all the land. Fagles. (Not Lattimore, Capt. Hammer). Check this out:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove–
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will – sing for our time too.

“Man of twists and turns” – Fagles, you sexy bastard.

My only problem is that I took Latin for eight years, Latin I took, not Greek. My visceral reactions are not perhaps along the exact lines that Homer intends. So when Athena says “I will send [Telemachus] off to Sparta and sandy Pylos”, I’m all, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Telemachus, no! Run! Don’t go where she sends you! Menelaus is in Sparta! Menelaus is the bad guy! Run away, run away! You can’t trust Athena! Don’t you remember how she made the snakes come out of her temple and eat up poor Laocoon and his two sons, all because he feared the Greeks et dona ferentes?”

And then Athena is all, “Hi, Telemachus. Here is a helpful sign from the gods. Here are some ideas for you of how to find your father again,” and Menelaus is all, “Hi, Telemachus. You have grown up so handsome. Your father was such a great guy. Can I interest you in some free stuff for your journey?”

I am #teamtrojans and have always been #teamtrojans and I will never be anything other than #teamtrojans. It is hard for me to remember that Homer, as a Greek, and Telemachus, as the son of Odysseus, are going to be #teamgreeks. I wish I could explain to them that, with one major exception either way (Odysseus is great; Paris is terrible), the Trojans are just better. Athena seems to think that we should be sorry that Agamemnon got killed, and okay, fair play to Homer and Fagles, the scene where Menelaus finds out his brother’s dead is rather affecting:

So Proteus said, and his story crushed my heart.
I knelt down in the sand and wept. I’d no desire
to go on living and see the rising light of day.
But once I’d had my fill of tears and writhing there,
the Old Man of the Sea who never lies continued,
“No more now, Menelaus. How long must you weep?
Withering tears, what good can come of tears?
None I know of. Strive instead to return
to your native country – hurry home at once!
Either you’ll find the murderer still alive
or Orestes will have beaten you to the kill.
You’ll be in time to share the funeral feast.”

But TOO BAD. Too bad for you, Menelaus! Too bad for you, Agamemnon! Agamemnon, if you will recall, killed his daughter in order to gain favorable weather conditions to go a-sailing off to plunder Troy, and then he pissed off his best warrior by stealing his girl, and then he put himself completely beyond the pale by taking my girl Cassandra home with him. Where she got killed, more or less in the crossfire, by Agamemnon’s justifiably angry wife. Ugh, I can’t stand Agamemnon.

(This passage was also the point at which I noticed that reading Homer was putting me in that special Greek ‘n’ Roman headspace that bears no relation at all to my normal morality. My sublessor, whose copy of the book I’m reading, wrote in the margin “Beaten you to the kill? What an odd way of working”, and when I read that, I scoffed and sneered and thought about how my sublessor plainly didn’t know how to please the gods, and how Odysseus would kick his sissy ass at an archery contest.)

But I love Odysseus. When Odysseus comes on screen (as it were) (or on an actual screen comme Sean Bean in Troy, and not to be critical, but why wasn’t that whole film about Sean Bean being Odysseus, when he was plainly the best thing about it?), I am suffused with feelings of joy and love. I trace this back to the Latin class I took as a high school freshman, the translations for which were all Hercules stories first semester, and all Odysseus stories second semester. Do you know how tedious it gets reading Hercules stories three days a week for eighteen weeks?

World: Here is an obstacle.
Hercules: I will punch it with my fists.

When we got to the second half of the book I was so relieved to be done with Hercules I embraced Odysseus with my whole heart. And so it is to this day. I know he didn’t have to sleep with Calypso (and there’s Penelope waiting at home), and I know he’s #teamgreeks and is directly responsible for the fall of Troy with all its contingent miseries (Andromache’s kid getting chucked off a mountain, Cassandra being sent home with Agamemnon, etc.), but what can I say? He’s better than Hercules.

(Better than Aeneas too. Don’t tell Virgil I said so.)

Check it out. He’s just washed up from being shipwrecked and tempest-tossed; he’s naked and “all crusted, caked with brine”, and he’s still a silver-tongued devil.

Here I am at your mercy, princess–
are you a goddess or a mortal? If one of the gods
who rules the skies up there, you’re Artemis to the life,
the daughter of mighty Zeus — I see her now — just look
at your build, your bearing, your lithe flowing grace…
But if you’re one of the mortals living here on earth,
three times blest are your father, your queenly mother,
three times over your brothers too. How often their hearts
must warm with joy to see you striding into the dances–
such a bloom of beauty. True, but he is the one
more blest than all other men alive, that man
who sways you with gifts and leads you home, his bride!
I have never laid eyes on anyone like you,
neither man nor woman…
I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me.

I am so taken with Fagles’s translation that it’s got me genuinely wondering if I read it before. I thought I had, but maybe I was thinking of someone else, someone not as good. Like Lattimore. If you have not read Homer, may I suggest you acquire Fagles’s translation and get on that right away?

Meanwhile, are you #teamtrojans or #teamgreeks, and why? I particularly want to know why if you are #teamgreeks, what with the Trojans being better and all.