W.H. Auden

The Kafka revival of 1960: Guilt, absurdity, forestalled post-trauma

Chapter 2 of my current book project — titled 1960: The Politics & Art of the Avant-garde — is about the delayed (post-traumatic) response to the mass killings of World War II precisely fifteen years later. Here, in presenting one section of this long chapter, I'm not going to describe in any detail why I think it took fifteen years before such a reckoning could occur. As I did my research and reading, I did discern such a rather sudden interest, saw it in fact everywhere. In this section I turn to a certain revival of Kafka in 1960. From this one can probably get a sense of the larger argument.

What survives translation

C.P. Cavafy
C.P. Cavafy (Cavafy archive)

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.

Syndicate content