Randall Couch

Cavafy in English: The sesquicentennium approaches

Translating Cavafy: eros, memory, and art

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

“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project consists of 162 poems, the 154 “Collected” or “Published” poems, seven poems from the group known as the “Unpublished” poems, and one poem from the “Repudiated Poems,” i.e., early poems that Cavafy withheld from publication.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.

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.

The Cambridge connection

King's College, Cambridge University
King's College, Cambridge (© Richard Humphrey, Creative Commons license)

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 the Atheneum 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.[1] Cavafy and Forster continued to correspond until the poet’s death.

Poet of aftermath

Study for bust of Cavafy by Michalis Tombros (detail)
Study for bust of Cavafy by Michalis Tombros, translating dimensions (detail)

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.