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. I put the question to two experienced translators, both familiar to readers of Jacket2, who know Cavafy’s work, and one of whom has ably translated him: Murat Nemet-Nejat and George Economou. Is there still today a je ne sais quois, a Cavafy “magic” as Forster called it, that survives translation? If so, how would you characterize it? Is there a parallel with the quality in modern Turkish poetry that Nemet-Nejat calls eda?

Nemet-Nejat: Yes, I very much see such a parallel between eda and the tonal quality or “attitude” Auden and Stern are writing about. (I had immediately made the same connection reading the comments in your e-mail).

Though the idea of “attitude” is part of it, the concept of eda is more complex. As you mention, it has to do with a conceptual, a psychic essence—an otherness and sacredness—which is linked to an almost fetishistic obsession/love with a specific place (in this case Istanbul), to the agglutinative essence of the Turkish syntax (which gives the language an incredible ability for tonal shifts and for nuance, an elusive intimacy) and to a spiritual essence which I call “a godless Sufism.”

Of the three qualities of eda, the one most relevant to translating Cavafy into English, in my opinion, has to do with agglutinative syntax. Greek also is highly agglutinated. In agglutination, meaning emerges from cadence, more specifically the movements of thought and feelings the sentence creates (I write about it in “The Idea Of a Book”). As has been observed, Cavafy uses almost no metaphors. The essence of the poetry, which is a spiritual one, derives from the modulations of thoughts and feelings it embodies, the tonality it creates. Without capturing that motion no translation can succeed in my view. Almost everything else is secondary.

This creates a dilemma for the English translators of Cavafy in two ways: first, English syntax has a strict word order, the very opposite of agglutination. Second, meter traditionally in English is based on syllable stress patterns whereas in eda the music derives from cadences. Syllables in words in isolation are flat with no intrinsic stresses. I think these two differences create the “lack” (the sacred distance or the iron gate) Cavafy’s translator into English must negotiate. He/she can do so, in my view, by creating distortions in the English language, making it “grow a new limb,” something I tried to do in my own translations from Turkish.

There is a Turkish poet who, on the points we discussed, is very close to Cavafy. He is Orhan Veli. Like Cavafy, he also uses almost no metaphors. On the surface totally bare, the power of the poetry derives from the cadences of the language, the profound, but humorous, melancholy the poetry creates. I have an entire book of Veli translations, I, Orhan Veli (Hanging Loose Press, 1989). In its preface, I do discuss the challenges of translating Veli's poetry into the rigid syntactical structure of English.

Couch: Would you apply your idea of a meta-language (a third term between source and target languages, or a style created by translation) to Cavafy translation? If so, what should we look for to glimpse it in the English of the translations? How does Cavafy's work specifically challenge contemporary Englishes?

Nemet-Nejat: I would. In my response to the previous question, I partly described how. The meta-language is basically a synthesis of source and target languages, a third space very close to Walter Benjamin's “ideal language” where the intentio of both languages come together. In this synthesis both languages change in the light of each other. I discuss this in my short essay “Ideas Towards a Theory of Translation in Eda.”

Couch: Cavafy’s family origins were in Constantinople and he spent three years of his youth there, and while he ultimately repudiated several of his poems of “Byzantinism,” a number of his historical poems treat hellenized Asia Minor and especially the decline of those civilizations. Do you have any observations on Constantinople/Byzantium/Istanbul as a presence or influence in Cavafy’s work, and/or any useful comparisons about its aura or shadow in Turkish poetry and Cavafy’s?

Nemet-Nejat:  Culturally, I would put Cavafy within the Levantine tradition, Levantine being those lands and their populations, mostly but not necessarily around the Mediterranean—Greeks, Romanians, Jews, Armenians, some Africans, etc.—under the domination of the Ottoman Empire during the latter's declining years from the 18th century onward.

Both as a Greek and a homosexual, Cavafy was an outsider; that is I think where his melancholy comes from. He is a quintessential “minor poet” in Deleuze’s sense of the word, and there lies his profound connection in “aura” or “shadow” to modern Turkish poetry and eda. Turkish poetry represents the greatest and richest body of minor poetry, in the Deleuzean sense, in the 20th century, a subversive poetry of the outsider. The theme of homosexuality is at the heart of eda, which is in latent but still present form in its early years, and rises more and more to the surface. In that sense, the persistently developing theme of eda in the 20th century is one of psychic liberation.  

I think both Auden’s and Forster’s attraction to Cavafy is due to his open treatment of his homosexuality.

Couch: Cavafy spent seven years, from age nine to sixteen, in England, wrote his first verses in English and reportedly spoke Greek with an English accent until he died. He had a substantial familiarity with the English poetic tradition. He was employed most of his adult life in the Anglo-Egyptian bureaucracy of the Ministry of Public Works. Apart from (or including, if you like) the thematics of imperialism, colonialism, and exile in many of the poems, do you have any thoughts on the effect of linguistic and cultural “double vision” on his poetry? Might it have an effect on the translatability of the poems into English?

Nemet-Nejat: In relation to this issue I think the most revealing writer to compare Cavafy to is Jabès. Jabès, who is also basically a Levantine writer/poet, chose to identify himself with the centrality of the French culture, leaving behind, essentially erasing, the Arabic culture in which he lived for forty years. Cavafy identified himself with his Levantine world (writing in Greek) and, what is crucial, took a confrontational stance (that of a “minor poet”) in relation to the cultural center. My essay "Questions of Accent," first published in The Exquisite Corpse in 1993, starts with a critique of Jabès as a Jewish Levantine writer. When first published, it caused a great deal of controversy.

The center of Cavafy's poetry, at least to me, is an erotically infused psychic isolation, the almost ecstatic melancholy of itinerant aloneness. Modern Turkish poetry also registers the victim’s, the outsider’s point of view though, because of its more directly Sufi connections, the ecstatic side of this melancholy—an ecstasy achieved through tears and suffering—has a more prominent place. (Gayness also, its gradual coming to the surface—is key to the reading of modern Turkish poetry.)

Not knowing Greek, my suggestions about translating Cavafy into English will necessarily be circumspect and subjective. I think there are two key points in translating him into English. One is the scarcity of metaphors. The translator should be very careful NOT to translate what is non-metaphorical in Cavafy’s language into metaphorical poetry. Second, the tonal modulations of Cavafy’s language—particularly derived from the agglutinative nature of Greek syntax, as in Turkish—must be preserved. The result, as I understand Cavafy, is a very subtle poetry of lists, actions, and thoughts—a private encyclopedia of psychic moments.

Economou: I can’t say that the introductions by Auden (a poet for whom I have the deepest respect) and Stern of translations by Rae Dalven and Aliki Barnstone have ever given me much food for thought. I’m interested in conveying Cavafy’s humanity, his sensibility, his intellect, and, I would add here, his unique historian’s perspective—a vision that deals specifically with the difficulties that the artist experiences, most notably with the problem of the effects of time upon the artist’s ability to memorialize in his work a person or experience, invariably recalled for their erotic significance, for which he cares profoundly. My 1981 review article “Eros, Memory, and Art” on Cavafy in The American Poetry Review, parts of which I have revised for the introduction in the Shearsman book, explores his unique perspective on the human condition through the trifocal lens of eros, memory, and art.

One of the first things that struck me as a young man when I began reading Cavafy in Athens was that Cavafy’s language seemed to be somehow different from the language of the other modern Greek poets I had begun to study on my own before making that trip: Greek like their Greek, yet in some instances and ways undoubtedly a different Greek. Specifically, the experience of reading Cavafy differed notably, if not distractingly, from that of reading Odysseus Elytis and Nikos Gatsos, favorite poets of mine who were to become sort of unofficial poet mentors, along with my uncle, during my six-month sojourn in Greece. Let me emphasize that the difference of which I speak was linguistic and not one born of an obvious and definitive difference of poetic predilection or literary tradition, Gatsos and Elytis having entered the scene among the earliest Greek surrealists. The main source of this difference in the way I had been receiving Cavafy’s language sits in the middle of one of the most important chapters in the history of the Modern Greek language. I was to learn that Gatsos and Elytis wrote predominately in demotic Greek, dimotiki, the kind of Greek that reflects the continuity of the common speech of the Greek people over the centuries and which ultimately competed strenuously with the purist, written form of Greek, known as katharevousa, which, contrary to the argument that it had been constructed as a means to strengthen the ruling class, had been in use and evolving with some changes for centuries.

At the risk of oversimplifying this complex history, aspects of which persist in various forms to this day, the supporters of the demotic did battle during the previous century with those of the purist for the honor of expressing the literary voice of mainland Greece; the language of the people, the dimos, won out over that of the government, church and officialdom in general. But this was not necessarily the case for Greeks everywhere, especially for those, like Cavafy, of the long enduring Greek diaspora, though some of them may have been aware of the issue. Essentially, Cavafy wrote and reads differently from poets like Elytis and Gatsos, even if we take into account that he was born about forty years earlier and died when they were young men just starting their careers, because he was born in Constantinople, raised there and in England, and lived most of his adult life in Alexandria, which is to say he belonged to a class and culture within the Greek diaspora known for its cosmopolitan and sophisticated character and a predominately formal Greek, whose speakers did not feel compelled to make a strong distinction between its elements from the dimotiki and katharevousa. This was the Greek out of which Cavafy made his splendid life’s work of poetry, and while the long view of his career shows him generally more dependent on the purist element in its earlier stages and moving more and more towards the demotic as he matures, it remains the base of his beloved Greek, his devotion to which in fact transcends all periods and geographic provenances. It also doesn’t hurt to recognize that he was quite apolitical when it came to the great Greek language controversy and to listen carefully for the implications of a remark he was reported to have made about it in which he complained that “the two sides aimed to throw away half of our language.”

It is part of the task of every translator of Cavafy’s poetry to come to terms with his poetic diction. When they discuss the subject, and not all of them do, some translators choose to emphasize a sharply contrastive, even jarring effect that comes from Cavafy’s juxtaposing, or simply just using, words from the purist and demotic traditions within the same poem. In 1978, Kimon Friar, viewed by many as the dean of translators of Modern Greek poetry, wrote: “In order to transfer into English Cavafis’s play between demotic and formal Greek words taken from the long historical development of the Greek language, the translator, I contend, should use an Anglo Saxon base (for his “demotic”) and play it off against polysyllabic words, as in Milton, derived from Greek or Latin (for his “purist” words).” Some translators have taken a similar approach, including Daniel Mendelsohn, while numerous others either do not perceive or explicitly articulate this challenge in the first place, and others acknowledge the issue but prefer not to address it specifically in their translations, believing it puts the English translator in an untenable and ultimately unrewarding position. I should add that this suppositional question of tension in the lexical texture of Cavafy’s poetry is quite different from the clear-cut one with which we are confronted by the citations, mostly within the historical poems, in the Greek from various periods and authors, such as Plutarch, one of the poet’s favorite authorities. My response to this matter has been simply to translate the citation, especially when it’s in the form of an epigraph, into idiomatic modern English.

When I approach translating Cavafy, I do not especially focus on his language as one in which katharevousa and dimotiki appear in high relief to each other, much less as competitive lexicons, nor do I worry about reflecting this so-called problem in the language of my translations. Certainly the Anglo-Saxon and Latinate components of our lexicon do not accurately reflect the condition of his Greek or provide parallels that survive the tests of everyday usage and comparative linguistic and literary history. (Some Greek poets, like Sikelianos and Kazantzakis for example, invented a dimotiki so strange at times it was as little spoken by Greeks as was pure katharevousa.) Indeed, translations that try to attend to or impose  (I will not say preserve) this dichotomy turn out to be stilted and overwrought. My personal experience, as reader or writer, has been that this concern does not enhance the text of the translation.

Couch: Another factor contributing to Cavafy’s poetic attitude or sensibility is the characteristic way he positions the controlling intelligence of the poem (whether a speaker or an authorial narrator) in relation to the events depicted and to the reader. Unlike the texture of his Greek, this set of rhetorical relationships can usually be reproduced in English. It’s a commonplace that his historical poems often depend for their effect on dramatic irony; the speaker, the poet, or a character in the poem knows something that the other characters don’t, and that knowledge undercuts or inverts the significance of the principal action or pronouncement represented. In these poems Cavafy doesn’t spell out the crucial fact—say, the date of the battle that is about to bring a Hellenistic kingdom under the domination of Rome—but rather assumes that the reader is in the know. Treating the reader truly as un frère, un semblable in this way sanctions the poet’s laconic and understated descriptions; there’s no need to paint in lurid colors. Such rhetorical positioning creates a sense of intimacy with—and in—the reader at the same time it distances both poet and reader from the events treated.

Even in the first-person erotic poems a similar positioning operates. Cavafy posits not just a sympathy on the part of the reader but a fully developed capacity to understand and share in the retrospective delectation of his (homosexual) desire and its consummation. He never explains or persuades, and seldom even gives a fully rounded portrait of the young man who is the object of desire. A glimpse is sufficient; all is hint and metonym. That’s enough for the trusted reader-twin at the poet’s elbow. In these poems it’s time that gives the sense of distance—the interval of recollection. Cavafy seldom immerses the reader in a vivid present-tense scene; indeed the paucity of physical descriptions in his poetry has led some critics to contend that he has no appreciation of visual beauty. All the intensity of emotion is invested in the act of remembering. Once the memory is triggered, the poet counts on the reader to respond in kind, identifying with his philosophical valorization of sensual experience and his sadness at its mutability and loss.  

The extraordinary degree of trust that Cavafy imputes to readers through his rhetorical positioning has been rewarded by reciprocal loyalty on the part of many. It may be that the sensory charms of the verbal structures in the original language—which include quantitative metrical effects, assonance, often rhyme, and the lexical texture George Economou discusses above—counterbalance the directness of their rhetorical strategy: George Seferis, who was not generally a great admirer of Cavafy, claimed that one of Cavafy’s poems is the most beautiful in the Greek language. So perhaps the Cavafy magic that can be translated is partial; but that already is a great deal.