George Economou: 'Rough Trade Inside the Cello,' three poems and translations with comments and notes



“In representing more adequately what translation does, and in raising awareness even among translators of the implications of textual instability for their task, this book may encourage us to translate differently — to expand our notion of what translation can do, and to imagine modes of translating that break the mold in which the reigning (if often disguised) discourse of originality and derivation seems to have trapped us.” — Karen Emmerich, Literary Translation and the Making of Originals (Bloomsbury, 2017), 31.


Having explored the possibilities off and on for several years of translating poems from ancient Greek in stages I thought of as rough, rougher, and roughest, I made a firm commitment in the early spring of 2017 to the effort by formalizing it in two sets of translations following this three-way paradigm entitled “Theocritus: Rough, Rougher, Roughest Trade and Commentary” for a special issue of Golden Handcuffs Review: “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou Art Translated” (Vol. 11, #23, 2017). Put directly, the idea behind doing what I have come to call the “rough stuff” involves starting with a rendition that presents a version that is as faithful to the content and form of the original as I can make, followed by two more versions guided by the comparative and superlative degrees of “rough,” levels conceived and executed with the intention of exploring new and unexpected contexts and textures for the poem rather than by a wish to produce a more finished adaptation or do-over of the level of “rough.” As the respective “roughest” versions in the two latest additions to this project from Nossis and Cavafy (my first attempt beyond ancient Greek) presented here beg, these final renditions could hypothetically be read as independent poems if removed from their original contexts. My urge to reiterate — to tell again and again but with a difference — the poem in translation mirrors in its own way the very textual condition of variance of the original that Karen Emmerich so brilliantly explores in her rich and important new book Literary Translation and the Making of Originals. Though arriving a year later, it comes in good time for me to enjoy a sense of confirmation and newfound inspiration for this work in progress.


In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that work on the poem “Inside the Cello” was going on at the same time as work on “Theocritus: Rough, Rougher, Roughest Trade and Commentary” with its focus on a combination of experiments in poetic translation and relevant propositional remarks. The poem, with its numerous references to the mythical, thematic, and topographical conventions that define the Greek poet’s book of Idylls and its legacy, appropriates as a pivotal element the tragic death of the foundational pastoral poet Daphnis as a point of origin for its pervasive and unifying elegiac voicings, articulations that recapitulate the historical reception in literary and artistic traditions of pastoral elegy. However, more than a few of the poem’s other allusions and citations do not enter it as straightforwardly as Daphins and depend upon compositional maneuvers such as translation, paraphrase, juxtaposition, and syntactic modification, more akin, perhaps, to some of the ways at work in “the rough stuff.”



                   TWO MORE ROUGH TRADES


NOSSIS (third century BC)

The Greek Anthology 5, 170



“Nothing’s sweeter than love. All life’s other gifts

come in second. I’ve even spat out honey.”

Nossis says so, but if there’s one Kypris has not kissed,

she’s one who won’t know what roses her flowers are.



Though love’s life’s big winner, there’s no dearth of losers.

So I, Nossis, decree that any she who’s missed

the kiss of Kypris never breathes its rosy scent.


(Note: Kypris is a name for Aphrodite, after the island of Cyprus, her birthplace.)



Because Aphrodite’s boy

set down his bow and arrow

to melt the wax

                             the deep red wax

for her writing tablets

Nossis knows who’s hot and not

who shall and shan’t

share and sing

                          la vie en rose.


(Note: The first five lines of this poem are based on the remark by the poet and anthologist Meleager in the Proem to his Garland, which constitutes Book IV of The Greek Anthology, that the wax for Nossis’s writing tablets was melted by Love himself.)




C. P. CAVAFY (1863–1933)


DAYS OF 1903



I never found them again — that were so quickly lost …

the poetic eyes, the pallid

face … in the street’s nightfall …


I never found them again — what I came by wholly through luck,

and so easily gave up,

then later longed for in anguish.

The poetic eyes, the pale face,

those lips I never found again.




Found and lost — lost so fast …

those eyes, that face …

flashed in the darkened street …


Lost for good — gift of pure luck

so easily given up

then yearned for in grief.

Lost, lost for good at last.



Lost and Found? —

I’m looking for the voice

that moaned, “Oh, Dad!”

as I sipped my Jameson

at a sidewalk table

in downtown Athens, GA.

I barely got out an “Oh, Girl!”

before the boyfriend tugged

her back into the crowded street.

— So can you help? 


Yeah, I know.







Stavros, i’ vorrei che tu e Luis ed io

could find ourselves enchanted

together inside an enormous cello

immersed in its numinous music

to sustain us against the pinch of sorrow

to come in Poussin’s shepherds’ quizzing

the tomb that’s signed Et in Arcadia ego.

Read right “Even in Arcady am I”

or wrong “I lived in Arcady also” 

it sets a fine modulation from one key

of grief to another from memento

to remembrance in a final conflation

of how brief it is and so long tomorrow.





Ξέρεις τί άτιμο είναι το κρίκ αυτό


a treacherous creek my father called it

the one named Hound for its driving flow

that could have drowned and haled away

Daphnis down the cascading undertow

of Love into Hades in time uncontained

and place omnipresent because long ago

has nowhere to go but the here and now.

So the Fates still snip the threads of a callow

boy or girl as readily as of one the Muses love

and Hound will drag them down into zero

again and again from any and everywhere  

we leaf and then leave incommunicado.




Now the Seine’s flow sous le pont Mirabeau

floods out of control dimly unveiling

a sign for this time Maxime in Aleppo ego

read in splayed infant bodies washed ashore

read right reads wrong right down to its marrow.

An idyll whatever that is this isn’t

but a short sweet spot a fateful sparrow

flies through from one dark night into another

only one fleet spot of light just one though

cures for this inborn incongruous term

have been prescribed through divine placebo.

Better this patchy light of Arcady

our intermezzo inside the cello.




The first line of “Inside the Cello” borrows that of Dante’s Rime 52, “Guido, i’vorrei che tu e Lapo ed io,” in which he wishes that he and his poet friends, Guido Cavalcanti and Lapo Gianni, could be magically carried off with their respective ladies to speak of love forever. I have substituted the names of two friends of my own for whose presence with me I once wished at a performance of the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall, whose design emulates the interior of a cello.


The first line (in Greek) of the second part, explained in the following line, is a recalled remark by my father after one of his fishing trips, literally, “You know what a treacherous creek that is,” referring to Hound Creek in Cascade Country, Montana, a new world addition to the waters of the underworld of antiquity and their guardian hound Cerberus.


And the first line of the third part, in which the order of the two halves of the first line of Guillaume Apollinaire’s “chanson triste,” Le pont Mirabeau, have been switched in order to maintain the controlling signature rhyme of lament.