The City, the Spirit, and the Letter: On Translating Cavafy

Κωνσταντίνος Καβάφης (1863 – 1933)
α. όλα β. έργα γ. μελέτες / άρθρα δ. ξενόγλωσσα





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The City, the Spirit, and the Letter: On Translating Cavafy

Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), the Alexandrian Greek poet whose poetry dazzled E. M. Forster and cast a haunting, luminous glow over Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, left us some of the most outspoken homoerotic poems. They bristle with desire, with the anguish of desire, and desire recollected in tranquility. Yet, for all their candor, many of these poems are shot through with something far more poignant than desire: regret: regret for love lost, for loves that could have been and should have lasted a trifle longer that the one-night stands they were fated to remain. One has just to think of the numberless poems dedicated to a room, or to a night, or to a face half-perceived in the crowd, to a salesclerk, or to the days (and nights) of 1903, of 1908, or of 1909 to see how regret eats away at every instance of remembered bliss. Outside of these elusive encounters, Cavafy’s men, like the man Cavafy himself, live the most ordinary, fenced-in, walled-in lives-lives that say “no” when they could so easily have said “yes,” but for saying “no” have acquired the tragic scope of muted heroism. This, after all, is the paradox all of Cavafy’s men must sort out. Like the Greeks of Byzantium before the Turkish invasion, or like Alexandria’s citizens before the Arabs stormed in in Late Antiquity, or like Greek exiles who are fast losing their sense of Hellenism in new, transitional stations that turn out to be permanent homes, Cavafy’s men have nothing to look forward to and everything to look back on. Their back is to the sea, the barbarians are at the gates, and the daemon forever rages within.

There is no running away. Fate, like truth, hunts you down wherever you hide.

No poem by Cavafy is as simple or as complicated as “The City.” The “city” that the poet cannot escape is his albatross, his beast in the jungle, his secret sharer, his heritage, his sexuality, his cross to bear, his haven. But the “city” is Alexandria, too, an Alexandria that won’t go away but won’t let go of him either. It haunts him everywhere. There is no undoing the life he’s lived there, just as there is no land to turn over a new leaf in. The city that may never have been his home and which he can’t wait to leave behind as he yearns for his true Ithaca remains his one and only home.

Here is the “The City” in the original Greek.

Η Πόλις

ΕίπεςΘα πάγω σ’ άλλη γή, θα πάγω σ’ άλλη θάλασσα,

Μια πόλις άλλη θα βρεθεί καλλίτερη από αυτή.

Κάθε προσπάθεια μου μια καταδίκη είναι γραφτή

κ’ είν’ η καρδιά μου — σαν νεκρός — θαμένη.

Ο νους μου ως πότε μες στον μαρασμό αυτόν θα μένει.

Οπου το μάτι μου γυρίσω, όπου κι αν δω

ερείπια μαύρα της ζωής μου βλέπω εδώ,

που τόσα χρόνια πέρασα και ρήμαξα και χάλασα

Καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θάβρεις άλλες θάλασσες.

Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί. Στους δρόμους θα γυρνάς

τους ίδιους. Και στες γειτονιές τες ίδιες θα γερνάς

και μες στα ίδια σπίτια αυτά θ’ ασπρίζεις.

Πάντα στην πόλι αυτή θα φθάνεις. Για τα αλλού — μη ελπίζεις —

δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.

Ετσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ

στην κώχη τούτη την μικρή, σ’ όλην την γή την χάλασες.

English, like French, boasts many translations of “The City.” Among the most noted is Lawrence Durrell’s (1957) reworking of John Mavrogordato’s (1951) translation, appended at the end of Justine. Equally famous is the prose version in French by Marguerite Yourcenar (1959), the noted author of The Memoirs of Hadrian. In the U.S., the most popular versions are Rae Dalven’s (first published in 1943-76) and Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s translation (1975). Recently, there have been others (Theoharis Constantine Theoharis, 2001), and I understand there is yet another English translation in the works. The internet pullulates with many, many more.

What never ceases to baffle anyone studying the many translations of this one poem is that each is so different. And yet no one gets it quite right either-even though, on rereading this poem for the nth time, it is really quite a simple and straightforward poem. Why so many versions? Why the need for yet one more go at it? In some cases, it’s because certain verses can never quite be conveyed into English. In others, the translator(s) may have been reluctant to follow the word order in the original Greek. Then there are problems implicit to translation itself-problems of voice, of syntax, of double-meanings, etc. Then there is the genuine desire to “niceify” the translated version of the poem, to make poetical what, but for a few touch-ups, comes out sounding rather flatfooted in English. Add to this the complications in Cavafy’s highly resourceful and idiosyncratic braiding of demotic with Katharevousa Greek, and the difficulties begin to proliferate. Marguerite Yourcenar’s poem is set down in prose, but it aims to be more poetical than the Greek. Not good. Keeley’s version, though set in verse, sounds so prosaic that one wonders why he didn’t simply write it in prose. Pontani’s Italian version of the poem sounds maudlin. Other French translations I’ve consulted sound either arch or pinched. Something is always very “off.” I should be wary of passing myself off as an expert in the field. As a child I used to know some Greek. Now, with only a few years of Ancient Greek taken during my undergraduate days, I rely on friends and on Gina Lorando’s very useful Italian dictionary of Cavafy’s language, Lessico di Kavafis (1970).

I will not try my hand at this poem. Instead, before listing some of the available translations, let me hastily quote the one provided by “Babel Fish,” Alta Vista’s free online translation service. It has its awkward turns, but by and large, most of the poem is there-albeit in the raw. The computer-generated word order-insofar as it does not offend natural English word order-has been retained. There are no startling or inexplicable reversals; nothing extraneous is added that does not belong.

The City

You said; “I’ll go away to another land, I’ll go away to another sea,

A city other will be found better than this.

My each effort is a condemnation written;

And is my heart-as dead-buried.

My mind, until when in this decay will remain?

Wherever my eye I turn, whatever I see

Only the black ruins of my life I see here,

where so many years I passed and ruined and wasted.”

New places you will not find, you will not find other seas.

The city will follow you. In the same streets

you will return. And in the same neighborhoods you will age;

and within the same houses you will turn gray.

Always in this city you will come. For elsewhere-do not hope-

There is no boat for you, there is no road.

As your life you ruined here

in this tiny corner, in all earth you ruined it.1

Let me now quote a slightly altered rendition of Rae Dalven’s translation, which I found on the Internet.

The City

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.

Another city will be found, better than this.

Every effort of mine is condemned by fate;

and my heart is-like a corpse-buried.

How long in this wasteland will my mind remain.

Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look

I see the black ruins of my life here,

where I spent so many years, and ruined and wasted.”

New lands you will not find, you will not find other seas.

The city will follow you. You will roam the same

streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;

in these same houses you will grow gray.

Always you will arrive in this city. To another land-do not hope-

there is no ship for you, there is no road.

As you have ruined your life here

in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.2

Both poems end the first stanzas with something that does not quite sound right in English. “Ruined and wasted,” like “destroying and wasting,” are essentially transitive verbs and, therefore, need a direct object. The Greek, however, accepts this and, indeed, adds an extra ambiguity: the poet has not just ruined so many years of his life; he has also spent many years “ruining and destroying”-no direct object.

Now here is the first stanza of Keeley’s and Sherrard’s version.

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,

find another city better than this one.

Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong

and my heart lies buried like something dead.

How long can I let my mind molder in this place?

Wherever I turn, wherever I look,

I see the black ruins of my life, here,

where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

Here “Every effort of mine is condemned by fate” is rendered as

“whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong.” This latter version no longer refers to Cavafy’s failed attempts to leave the city, but rather it suggests something like “whatever I try my hand at is destined to fail”-almost as if he were trying various professions.

Human will is far stronger in Keeley than it is in Cavafy. “My heart lies buried like something dead” is wrong. σαν νεκρός means “like a corpse.” And as for “molder”-even as a verb-what an infelicitous choice this is. English can certainly provide something better than “to molder.” Besides, Cavafy’s Greek does not “molder” or do anything like it. The poet simply asks: Ο νους μου ως πότε μες στον μαρασμό αυτόν θα μένει. How long will my mind (my spirit) in this “marasmus” remain.” The French frequently translate μαρασμό as “marasme”-not very elegant either. Rae Dalven has very astutely solved the problem with “How long will my mind remain in this wasteland.” As for “wasted them, destroyed them totally”-this is an attempt to resolve the ambiguity of “wasting and destroying.” But it is such an awkward formulation that it turns out to be no solution at all. Theoharis Theoharis’ solution is perhaps more eloquent:

The black ruins of my life are what I see here,

where I have spent so many years, where I have botched and spoiled so many.”

“So many,” however, could just as easily refer, not just to years, but to people as well. Not right either!

Let’s now turn to Mavrogordato’s version: entitled inexplicably “The Town,” and not “The City.”

You said I’ll go to another land, to other seaways wandering,

Some other town may yet be found better than this,

Where every effort of mine is a writ of guiltiness;

And my heart seems buried like a corpse.

My mind-How long is it to be in this decay confined?

Wherever I turn, whenever I lift my eyes

The blackening of my life arise,

Where I have spent so many years spoiling and squandering.

“You’ll find no other places, no new seas in all your wanderings,

The town will follow you about. You’ll range

In the same streets. In the same suburbs change

From youth to age; in this same house grow white.

No hope of another town; this is where you’ll always alight.

There is no road to another, there is no ship

To take you there As here in this small strip

You spoiled your life, the whole earth felt your squanderings-”

“To other seaways wandering,” sounds antiquated and Byronic (“So, we’ll go no more a-roving, etc.”). “Where every effort of mine is a writ of guiltiness” may retain the automated notion of “My each effort is a condemnation written,” but it sounds fustian and priggish.

Similarly, the Greek says nothing about “My mind/How long is it to be in this decay confined?” The Greek suggests the verb to remain.

Lawrence Durrell’s “transplantation” of Mavogordato’s translation turns out into this.

You tell yourself: I’ll be gone

To some other land, some other sea,

To a city lovelier far than this

Could ever have been or hoped to be-

Where every step now tightens the noose:

A heart in a body buried and out of use:

How long, how long must I be here

Confined among these dreary purlieus

Of the common mind? Wherever now I look

Black ruins of my life rise into view.

So many years have I been here

Spending and squandering, and nothing gained.

There’s no new land, my friend, no

New sea; for the city will follow you,

In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly,

The same mental suburbs slip from youth to age,

In the same house go white at last-

The city is a cage.

No other places, always this

Your earthly landfall, and no ship exists

To take you from yourself. Ah! don’t you see

Just as you’ve ruined your life in this

One plot of ground you’ve ruined its worth

Everywhere now-over the whole earth?

This is by far the least faithful rendition of the poem and one no one should even attempt to pass off as Cavafy’s. But it does capture something of Cavafy’s spirit, which the others do not. There is, in the end, something at once dry and maudlin in each translation I’ve consulted, as though none of the translators can quite find the right pitch or calibrate the right tone. Durrell, on the other hand, conveys in a cadence that is uniquely English the rich tonalities of sorrow and regret as they have existed in the language of Shakespeare, Browning and Yeats. And this, perhaps, is the secret of translation: to capture in the “target” version (English) not just the spirit and the letter of the “source” version (Greek), but to do so in an idiom that the English reader would instantly recognize as bearing all the luster of an immortal poem.

And this is the paradox that all translators must face: when to overstep the letter to preserve the spirit? When to mistranslate in order to produce a poem that is worthy of the name?

1Special thanks to my doctoral student Michael Skafidas for his light touch in resisting to correct the automated translation.

2 Thanks to George Barbanis for permission to use his translation.