Amaris Cuchanski, David Wallace, and Laynie Browne converged on the Writers House one day recently to talk about a remarkable performance piece (later text) by Caroline Bergvall, “VIA.” In the piece, Bergvall intones forty-seven English translations of the opening tercet of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (1321): “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / ché la diritta via era smarrita.” She arranges the translations alphabetically according to first word, from “along” to “when,” reciting the translator’s name and date after each. Our PoemTalkers discuss the poem’s pre-textual state as aural performance, the remarkable title which seems to connect every manner of issue and mode, the relative literary value and literary-historical place of individual verse translators, translation itself as inherently open, and, of course, the ur-relevance of Dante’s always-interpretable infernal foray into the experience of being lost in words.
“Just the place to bury a crock of gold,” said Sebastian. “I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.” — Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
I wanted to draw out George Economou on the task of translating Cavafy as he was finishing up an extended project to be released, by coincidence, in the poet’s sesquicentennial year. I began by asking him to describe that project. (To conserve space, many of my subsequent questions are elided; they are implicit in George’s discursive responses.)
Economou: My current project consists of 162 poems, the 154 “Collected” or “Published” poems, seven poems from the group known as the “Unpublished” poems, and one poem from the “Repudiated Poems,” i.e., early poems that Cavafy withheld from publication. The title is Complete Plus, The Poems of C. P. Cavafy in English, to be published by Shearsman in early 2013.
In his 1961 introduction to Rae Dalven’s translations, W.H. Auden catalogued the poetic “conventions and devices” that Cavafy’s poetry fails to provide the English translator looking for equivalents: the imagery of metaphor and simile, a style or register of diction (English has “nothing comparable to the rivalry of demotic and purist” Greek, the mixture of which is the most characteristic aspect of Cavafy’s texture), ornament. Yet of the versions by several translators Auden had read, “every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could have written it.” So what is it, he asks, that “survives translation and excites?” Auden’s answer was a tone of voice, one that “reveals a person with a unique perspective on the world.” Later, in his 2006 introduction to Aliki Barnstone’s translations, Gerald Stern amends this to a sensibility, a “tender humanism, a humanitas supreme.” Peter Bien had called it an attitude of “resignation,” understood not as despair but a kind of wisdom.
C.P. Cavafy’s introduction to the English literary world was accomplished largely through the efforts of E.M. Forster. Forster met Cavafy during the First World War in Alexandria where, as a conscientious objector, he served with the Red Cross. Already a successful novelist, he was intrigued by both the poet (Daniel Mendelsohn characterizes Forster’s interest as a “crush”) and his work. He composed a vivid portrait of Cavafy, published in 1919 in The Nation and the Atheneum and again in his collection Pharos and Pharillon, which included the description — by now a cliché — of “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” This essay also featured a translation of “The God Abandons Antony.” After the war Forster brought Cavafy’s poems to the attention of T.S. Eliot, who published “Ithaca” in The Criterion in 1924, and Leonard Woolf, who published “The City” in The Nation and theAtheneum the same year. The translations of all these poems were made, with Cavafy’s involvement, by George Valassopoulo. Woolf also tried unsuccessfully for years to persuade Cavafy (who did not publish a book of his poems in Greek during his lifetime) to let the Hogarth Press bring out a collection of Valassopoulo’s English versions. Cavafy and Forster continued to correspond until the poet’s death.
But there is one unfortunate difference between us [the British and the Greeks], one little difference. We Greeks have lost our capital – and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital. — C.P. Cavafy to E. M. Forster, 1918
The proliferation of English translations of Cavafy’s poems in recent years has been remarkable, notable even for the work of a poet to whom recognition came belatedly and international acclaim largely after his death in 1933. The first extensive selection, by George Valassopoulo—presumed to be the only one seen by Cavafy himself—remained unpublished until 2009. John Mavrogordato’s versions, preferred by Cavafy’s executor, appeared in 1951; Rae Dalven’s volume, introduced by W.H. Auden, came out in 1961.
The long poem “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu” 大海停止之处 by Yang Lian 杨炼 and its transformation into the collaborative digital and performance piece Where the Sea Stands Still illustrate an iterativeresponse to digital technologies and globalization. The iterative structure of Yang Lian’s long poem produces an expanding sense of space and geography that, like the title, combines perpetual repetition with continuous change.
The long poem comprises four poems, each entitled “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu” (“Where the Sea Stands Still”). There is no numbering: each poem’s title is identical to all the others. Each has three sections and ends with “zhi chu” 之处 (where/the place where). These final characters combine stillness, spatial and temporal arrest with the sea’s ceaseless repetitive movements.
Like Place’s iterations of Gone with the Wind,Jonathan Stalling’s Yíngēlìshī 吟歌丽诗 also takes as its impetus the copying of another text and also addresses racial stereotyping and the negative attitude toward accents and dialects of English that differ from enforced norms. In Yíngēlìshī , Stalling appropriates an English phrasebook for Chinese speakers. The phrasebook uses standard characters for representing English speech. These characters are not meaningless but their use is conventionalized and in this context they are meant simply to stand for the English sounds––their meaning in Chinese is considered irrelevant. Stalling reproduces the Chinese and English from the phrasebook.
Eu son unha forasteira, sempre unha forasteira. I am a foreigner, always foreign. Loito nunha escuridade funxíbel con toda outra escuridade. I struggle in a fungible and obscure darkness alongside every other kind of obscurity. Son unha forasteira con historia, con historias multiples, historias que nunca vivín. I am a foreigner with a history, with multiple histories, histories I never lived. Historias xenéticas, de xenética. Genetic histories, of genetics. Sempre sei que idioma uso. I always know what language I speak in. Imaxino sen imaxes, senón con temperaturas e luz e vagaridades que me pican no pel. I imagine without images, but with temperatures and light and wanderings that prickle and disturb my skin. Indescriptíbeis. Indescriptible. Postures with furniture. And I age, I am aging. Limits of the body and mind.
And the text. It is here before me, in front of me, the text. É e está. It is in itself, and it is sited in time/space. And me, awake. With coffee. Without glasses. Light. The form of the letters in front of me.
This book is not an attempt to grasp the “essence” of Chinese poetry, nor is it an endeavor to produce an over-polished version of English that claims aesthetic superiority over other works in the same field. It grapples rather with the nature of translation and poetry, and explores poetic issues from the perspective of translation and translation issues from the perspective of poetry. Looking from such a vantage point, translation is no longer able to hide itself in our blind spot; instead, the often-invisible face of translation is being brought to the foreground of poetic texture and the traces of translation’s needle work are being exposed to the reader’s view. With its agenda hidden, translation is too often a handyman for the metaphysical, mystical, or universal notion of poetry. When emerging from obscurity, translation becomes an ally with poetic material and enacts the wordness of the words. And this book strives to strengthen the alliance between translation and poetry through various textual and conceptual means that I will discuss now.