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project consists of 162 poems, the 154 “Collected” or “Published” poems, seven poems from the group known as the “Unpublished” poems, and one poem from the “Repudiated Poems,” i.e., early poems that Cavafy withheld from publication.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. On the cover and the title page I will recognize my good friend and reader, Stavros Deligiorgis of Athens, who diligently read and critiqued my translations in their first and second drafts, by adding his name to mine, “Translated by George Economou with Stavros Deligiorgis.” The translations are mine and I must take responsibility for them, though I am convinced they are the better for his close reading of them, just as the two earlier small collections were.

As I worked on a book of translations of ancient Greek amatory poetry, mostly from The Greek—also known as The Palatine—Anthology for the Modern Library imprint of Random House (published in 2006), I was struck again by a certain resonance of the ancient Greek love poems in Cavafy’s poetry. As everybody knows, Cavafy was deeply familiar with these poems (as well as the work of the Greek writers of the Second Sophistic (first three centuries C.E.), but it seemed to me that while it may have been noticed it had not been thoroughly explored. This awareness might have instigated my interest in doing more translations of Cavafy, but the whole range of my concerns with his opus has led me to try to accommodate all of it with new translations. Meanwhile a number of friends kept urging me to do this book and, as it turns out, I have finally acquiesced with great pleasure and gratitude.

I have been reading Cavafy since 1956 when I moved to New York to do graduate work at Columbia (in medieval literature, which is another story). I remember picking up a used copy of Mavrogordato’s book of translations at a bookstore in Greenwich Village and becoming intrigued. Then In 1957, after earning my master’s degree, during my first trip to Greece, I was introduced to the poetry of C. P. Cavafy in Greek by my mother’s eldest brother, a long-retired general and chief justice of the court martial in the Greek army. Delighted to learn that I considered myself a poet and would-be translator, my Thio Stathi sat me down in the study of his Athens apartment and began to read the poetry of Cavafy with me, a practice that came to occupy many an afternoon. I still have vivid memories of us following in the footsteps of the early evening stroll and adventure of the central character in the poem entitled “He Asked About the Quality” and of the two of us joining the speaker of the poem “In the Month of Athyr” in trying to decipher the eroded fragmentary inscription on a stone marking the burial place of a young man named Lefkios.

I believe the persistent calling for translations of Cavafy is a clear indication of the power of his work. May they continue. I definitely suppose part of the attraction to his work is due to the important changes taking place in our society, changes that he seemed to hope for in the closing lines of his poem “Hidden Things.” Cavafy’s hopes for a world without intolerance adds yet another dimension to the profound humanity of his poetry.

In translating I aim first and foremost to write a poem in English that partakes, as much as it is within my power to achieve, of the salient qualities of the original. This is and always has been my guiding principle, whether I am translating poetry from ancient or modern Greek, or a Middle English dialect, as in my translation of Langland’s Piers Plowman. I do not follow any particular theory of translation though I have read my share, I guess, of Benjamin, Venuti, and others. I have always chosen as my motto the statement of my late friend Paul Blackburn that “much depends on the translator,” in both of its senses. Since I am a poet-practitioner of the art, I strive to write as good a poem, in the American English of my time, as did—in this case—Cavafy. I want to give readers not only Cavafy’s intellect and sensibility but also something of its art as defined by Paul Valéry, “constraining language to interest the ear directly.”

There is something to be said about wanting to check out the translations that Cavafy read and, as you say, “tacitly tolerated,” at least because he probably didn’t find them absolutely intolerable. I don’t think we have any way of knowing what he really thought of them. I believe a prospective translator of Cavafy should read and appraise as many of the previous translations as possible, but when the time comes to do the job should set them aside, with the exception of occasionally consulting about how a special problem was solved.

The long period of work on my translation of Langland’s C-text of Piers Plowman has had a transformative effect on my way of going about my work as a translator. By concentrating on the original text, word by word, phrase by phrase, line by line or more, looking for “salient features” such as wordplay, allusions, rhetorical devices, registers of voicing, sound (alliteration of course) and cadence—everything in my ability to ascertain, including what I believe to be the most salient feature of all, the intelligible sense of it—I found myself confidently and easily slipping or sliding the South West Midlands dialect of 14th century Middle English into a 20th century American English double or mirror-like version of it. Sure, there was some of the inevitable distortion in the translation, but for me it clearly partook of the very character and nature of its source to an unusual degree, a most satisfying feeling.

This approach guided my subsequent work on the two small Cavafy books, I’ve Gazed So Much and Half an Hour, and my Modern Library translations of ancient Greek amatory poetry, Acts of Love, though moving from ancient and modern Greek to contemporary English, more like a leap than a subtle shift, certainly does not duplicate the process of middle to modern English. I’ll take a look with you at how it informed my translation of the poem “Half an Hour.” For a relatively literal translation of this poem, see Keeley and Sherrard. This is one of those Cavafy poems that does not reveal the gender of the beloved—more out of the mechanics of the Greek language, I believe, than out of a deliberate desire to withhold it by the poet, though I’ve nothing against ambiguity if it contributes something of significance. In any case, using the second person of the pronoun in the poem makes the question irrelevant to translating it. (A true story: A friend in Norman, Oklahoma printed elegant postcards of this poem, one of which I thumb-tacked alongside other literary and artistic curios on the front door of my office for student edification when I was teaching at the University of Oklahoma. I lost count of the number of times I had to replace it there after it was ripped off—carefully I trust—by passing students whose eyes were hooked by the poem and who, I imagined, may have also perceived it as an aid to their own making-out ambitions as a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac intermediary.)

Half an Hour

Never made it with you and don’t expect
I will. Some talk, a slight move closer,
as in the bar yesterday, nothing more.
A pity, I won’t deny. But we artists
now and then by pushing our minds
can—but only for a moment—create
a pleasure that seems almost physical.
That’s why in the bar yesterday—with the help
of alcohol’s merciful power—I had
a half-hour that was completely erotic.
I think you knew it and
stayed on purpose a little longer.
That was really necessary. Because
with all my imagination and spell of the drinks,
I just had to see your lips,
had to have your body near.

First, this poem is unusual among the erotic poems of Cavafy for its direct address to a single would-be and likely never-to-be lover, in the second person. This is, after all, one of the “hidden” or “unpublished” poems, which Cavafy might have held back because of its directness. I seriously doubt if he thought his Greek audience of the time wouldn’t know the gender of the person addressed. (Of course, my thieving students—did any of them consider themselves artists, too?—did not know or care, I daresay, whether it was a male or female, and that’s also to the good. If one of them becomes a serious reader of Cavafy, she or he will get it.) It is, above all, a love poem about frustrated but nevertheless insistently passionate desire. That’s why much of its intensity is conveyed by the rhythm of its discourse, short bursts of pleading words, breath-stopping line breaks, etc. This I had to retain in my version as a foundation. Then I wanted—could not see any other way of doing it—to make it idiomatically as contemporary as possible, for the sake of its urgency. This urgency is one of the reasons I believe Cavafy did not rhyme this poem, though there is, as one expects in Greek, plenty of assonance. The poem’s center of gravity, as well as source of title, is “icha misi ora teleia erotiki” (I had / a half-hour that was completely erotic), marked by the assonances of a’s and o’s and the internal rhyme of misi and erotiki. To translate this salient feature as fully as I could, I moved the verb back to the end of the previous line to continue the halting language. I also added the word “power” between “merciful” and “alcohol,” not really a big stretch of the literal sense “merciful alcoholism,” in order to gain a comparable center of the poem’s sound effect through the “power/ half-hour” slant rhyme of the line and the one that follows.

A couple of words at the end of the poem tell an interesting story. As you can see, I’ve translated the line Keeley & Sherrard translate “all the magic alcohol” (literally in Greek “the magic or magical wine-spirits”)  “the spell of the drinks.” My friend Stavros at one point wanted me to consider using the literal “wine-spirits” instead of “drinks” but I stuck to my guns because that’s what people drink in bars, whatever they’re drinking: “drinks.” Keeley and Sherrard’s use of “alcohol” again doesn’t cut it for me. Lastly, the last word of the poem––konta––means “near” or, followed by a noun or pronoun, “next to,” and Cavafy could have written konta mou, but for good reasons didn’t. The “near me” of Keeley and Sherrard seems to me to dilute (word-play not intended) the finality of “had to have your body near.”  Two last points––1) My sense that this poem requires a special directness and clarity also led me to simply use “artists” in the 4th line rather than something like Keeley and Sherrard’s “we who serve Art” for the literal sense of “belonging to Art” or “of Art” of tis Technis. This poem, like numerous others, demands that those who fail to recognize Cavafy’s melopoieia, granted his own brand of it, should listen carefully again. 2) Early invidious comparisons of his sound to that of his contemporaries, by Seferis and others, that he sounds flat or that his poetry is “as prosaic as an endless plain” (Seferis) need to be rethought if not abandoned. Why should he want to sound like Palamas or Varnalis or Greek surrealists like Elytis and Gatsos (not that there’s anything wrong with them) when he searched out and found his own way, possibly better heard today than then?

Let me say a couple of things about dealing with rhyme in translating Cavafy. The conventional way of translating poetry into English, including the way a good number of Cavafy translators have chosen, recommends avoiding rhyme because English is not a rhyme-rich language. As a translator, just as I have as a poet, I’ve looked for many different ways to go about my work. I’ve translated a lot of rhymed poetry without rhyme, or I’ve simply given some attention to rhyme in a more relaxed way, and in some cases I have just decided, after studying the poem, that I could really do this. I could actually preserve the rhyme scheme without distorting the poem. As an example here’s an early little Cavafy poem called “Prayer.” Now, Cavafy used rhyme in some, but by no means all, of his poems, though he rhymed a lot more than some people think. From most other translations, you’d never know it was written in rhyming couplets. After thinking about it, I decided that I could take my translation closer into the original by using several kinds of imperfect, or as some prefer, near rhyme.  


The sea took a sailor down to her depths.
His mother, unaware, goes and lights

a tall candle before the Virgin Mother
for his quick return and for good weather—

and ever towards the wind she cocks her ear.
But while she pleads and says her prayer,

the icon listens, sad and solemn,
knows the son she awaits will never come.

To be truthful, I have to say all this happens almost intuitively after the hard study of the original and not as if one is planning moves in a game of chess. I’ll give two more examples of translations of poems that seemed fine after working over their originals but which I later decided lacked the élan I felt Cavafy’s texts demanded of me. In these two sets, the first version given is the earlier, carefully worked out but eventually discarded one. Each second version “slipped” or “slid,” so to speak, out of its anglo-predecessor. Neither of these poems fits into the accurate but perhaps too-comprehensive description of Cavafy’s work as one of decline. But more about this, briefly I promise, below in closing.


Just because we’ve broken up their statues,
just because we’ve chased them out of their temples,
the gods are by no means dead for all that.
O land of Ionia, it’s you they still love,
you their souls keep on remembering.
When an August morning breaks its light over you
a force from their life pervades your atmosphere,
and at times an ethereal, youthful figure,
indistinct, moving fast,
glides across your hills.



So what if we’ve smashed their statues,
so what if we’ve thrown them out of their temples,
the gods are not dead on account of that.
Ionia, Ionia, they love you still,
in their souls they remember you still.
When an August morning breaks light on you,
the power of their lives fills your air,
and at times a young unearthly form,
hazy and fleeting,
glides above your hills.


One of their Gods

When one of them passed through Seleucia’s
marketplace around the time of nightfall
like a tall and utterly handsome youth,
with the joy of incorruptibility in his eyes,
with his scented black hair,
the passersby looked at him
and asked one another whether they knew him,
if he was a Syrian Greek or a stranger.
But some, who observed with greater care,
caught on and stepped aside;
and as he disappeared under the arcades
among the shadows and the evening lights,
heading for the quarter that comes to life
only at night, with orgies and debauchery,
and every kind of “high” and lechery,
they’d wonder which of Them he was,
and for which unnamable desire of his
he’d stepped down into the streets of Seleucia
from the Worshipful Hallowed Mansions.


One of their Gods

When one of them rushed through Seleucia’s
center of town round about dusk time
like one of those tall, fabulous looking young men,
his eyes ashine with his incorruptibility,
with his black hair perfumed,
those he encountered stared at him
and asked each other who he was,
a Syrian Greek, maybe, or a stranger.
But those who looked more sharply
got it and got out of his way;
and as he disappeared through the arcades
into the shadows and lights of the night,
making his way to the zone that lives
only after dark on orgies and debauchery
and all kinds of “highs” and lechery,
they wondered which one of Them he was,
and for what questionable pleasure
he’d descended onto Seleucia’s streets
from that high and hallowed home of his.


Finally, Cavafy as poet of decline. Well, yes, but recognizing that there are some exceptional poems. But perhaps a twinge or two of loss or sadness can be squeezed out of even those poems. How about Cavafy as the modern poet par excellence of lacrimae rerum? The Virgilian handle is one I think he would have liked, a truly Roman element comfortably at home within his deeply Hellenic- and Hellenistic-informed vision of the world.