The Tomb of Translation

Christopher Robinson is professor of European literature at Oxford University and the author of several books, including "C.P. Cavafy" and "French Literature in the Twentieth Century."

It is an odd fact that poets tend to be either larger-than-life figures of rebellion, as Lord Byron and Allen Ginsberg were, or that they happen to lead lives of (at least outward) banal conformity: Mallarme the schoolmaster, Philip Larkin the librarian, Wallace Stevens the insurance man. Constantine P. Cavafy belonged firmly to the latter group. Apart from the periods spent in England and Constantinople, he hardly left Alexandria, where he led an uneventful existence, punctuated only by occasional family dramas, as a clerk in the Irrigation Office: Irrigation is of course an issue of some importance in Egypt, but hardly the stuff of which a poet's dreams are made. Nor is there any evidence of a secret life of debauchery. He was probably seduced, in his early 20s, by an older male cousin in Constantinople and may well have followed up this initiation by exploring the night life of the Ottoman capital. But on his return to Egypt he evidently capitulated to the social demands of respectability.

Yet he is the poet of nonconformity and marginality par excellence. The gap between life and art typifies the Cavafean paradox as a whole. Cavafy is the only modern Greek poet who is so well-known that his work has virtually become part of English, indeed of European, literature. Writers as diverse in generation and context as the Irish poet Cathal Searcaigh, the Portuguese Fernando Pessoa and the American Mark Doty pay open tribute to him. Yet it would be difficult to find poetry more deeply rooted in the byways of Greek history and culture, more evocatively referential to events and subcultures outside the ken of the average non-Greek reader. He is fascinated with the post-classical Greek East, with the artists, aesthetes and lads-about-town of Hellenistic and Roman Alexandria, Antioch and Beirut. What interests him in history is its shadowier or at least its less familiar figures: Caesarion, son of Caesar and Cleopatra; or Julian, the Roman emperor who tried to bring back paganism as a corrective to the frivolity of contemporary Christianity. Even when he deals with a well-known event such as the battle of Actium, he focuses on its unimportance to the man-in-the-street.

The paradox goes beyond questions of his range of reference. His rejection of socially constructed morality, his ironic debunking of ambition and his exposure of hypocrisy, his frank cult of momentary sensual pleasures, seem absolutely 21st century. Yet his emphasis on life as a series of fragmented experiences and sensations whose significance is limited to the person undergoing them, links him directly to the European Decadents of the late 19th century, as does his faith in the supremacy of art. For Cavafy, as for writers from Baudelaire to Wilde, only art, particularly poetry itself, can preserve the fragments of experience and give them lasting value. So, while evoking, in "Permanence," the aftermath of an episode of what he elsewhere refers to in invisible quotation marks as unlawful pleasure, he asserts:

Pleasuring of the flesh between

our half-open clothes,

rapid baring of the flesh--the ideal vision of it

has crossed twenty-six years, and now has found

permanence in this poem.

In an age in which confidence in the survival of high art is evaporating, there is a hint of smug elitism in this assertion of the eternal value of the poem, the same overestimation of the self-as-creator that characterizes Proust. Not surprisingly then, what makes Cavafy's poetry appeal to a modern readership is sometimes less what he says (though his vignettes of a variety of social misfits, his reflections on the nature of time and the power of memory, his sheer delight in young male beauty and in the electrifying quality of moments of sensual pleasure all square with a certain contemporary sensibility) than the way he says it. What Auden called "his tone of voice."

This fact presents a major problem for a translator. Theoharis C. Theoharis' predecessors tended to opt for one of two approaches: Either, like Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (1975, revised 1992), they settled for privileging matter over form, or like John Mavrogordato (1951) or Memas Kolaitis (1989), they were far more observant of verse forms, lineation and other technical effects. Only Rae Dalven, in a translation that originally appeared in the late 1940s but was reissued in 1961, struck a compromise between the two dimensions. Unfortunately, her versions are prone to small errors and the poetic qualities are sometimes hers rather than those of the original, but it was a translation that greatly influenced the liberated young readers of the '60s and still commands a certain affection.

Cavafy's distinctive tone depends on the interplay of a very precise sense of language, particularly register, with a variety of techniques for veiling the distinction between the poet's voice and that of his characters, the whole being cast into a form in which every word is placed with due attention to its contribution to the rhythm and sound. Central to his poetic practice is the way he shapes a poem, since it is from patterning, in the aural form of rhyme, half-rhyme and all forms of assonance, in the visual form of the arrangement of key words and concepts at line end or at the midpoint of lines, and in various kinds of syntactic and semantic repetition and echo, that he creates the subtexts and ironic interplays essential to his meaning.

Theoharis unfortunately avoids the big stylistic issues. I sympathize with his reluctance to attempt rhyme, but that is no reason, for example, to set out "Julian in Nicomedeia," a poem in rhyming couplets, in a single, unshaped stanza. The rhyme words in this poem move from banality to theatricality as the theme of the poem moves from stuffy advice to gross playacting. If you establish the translation set out in couplets, it is perfectly possible to keep a visual sense of that movement even if the aural play has to go. I am still less inclined to pardon the refusal to reproduce the idiosyncratically Cavafean form of verse, which splits physically at the half line. Take the first two stanzas of "In Desperation" for example (the version is mine):

He lost him for good. And now on the lipsof each new lover he seeks his lips.Uniting his flesh with each new loverhe tries to deceive himself, to believethat he's giving himself to the same young man. He lost him for good, as if he were dead,because he wanted --he said--to be savedfrom sensual pleasure branded as sick,from sensual pleasure branded as shame.There was still time --he said--to be saved.

In Theoharis' version the line divide disappears:

He's lost him utterly. And now he seeks

in the lips of every new lover

his lips; held by every new lover

he seeks to be deceived

that it's the same youth, that he gives himself to him.

He's lost him utterly, as though he never existed.

Since he wanted--that one said--wanted to be saved

from the sin-marked, deathly pleasure;

from the sin-marked, the disgraceful pleasure.

There was still time--as he said--for him to be saved.

Although some of the repetition is still there, most of the insistent rhythm of the original, both visual and aural, has gone, and with it the sense of desperation, which the words of the original embody rather than merely state.

How you transfer the physical effects of a poem from one language to another is inevitably a matter of taste and is open to debate. But one quality that can reasonably be demanded of a translation is that it should not distort any of the basic details. On this score alone Theoharis could be said to fail. In the oft-anthologized "Waiting for the Barbarians," Cavafy evokes a civilization waiting for an outside force to settle its fate but frustrated even by that solution to its problems. In so doing, he allegorizes the danger of dependency on anything outside the self, and to allow for this broader reading he creates a scene with a deliberate imprecision of time and place but whose general setting hints at late antiquity. The speakers of the poem are assembled, as the opening line shows, in the agora, the Greek equivalent of the Roman forum, a public space connected with political deliberations.

Now in modern Greek, the word usually means "market." So Theoharis regrettably translates it as "bazaar." At first I thought that this was a misguided attempt to make the poem refer to the Egyptian context of writing, misguided in that it betrays the temporal reference point of the original. But he calmly continues with references to the Senate, such that the poem becomes culturally incoherent. He might as well have written the Arabic for marketplace, souk.

Such misrepresentation occurs more generally, if less obviously, in the form of myriad small distortions of detail and errors of register. In "From the School of the Renowned Philosopher," the bored young man devotes his energies to a life of sensual pleasure, "haunting every discrete den of debauchery," a phrase that Theoharis renders as "every hidden, debauched pit." Instead of envisaging the classical equivalent of a nonstop round of hot encounters in saunas and gay bars, the reader is left wondering how one debauches a pit.

The effect is more disastrous when it involves a climax. At the end of the same poem, reviewing what the future will hold for him when he is no longer young and beautiful enough for a life of hedonistic indulgence, the central character inwardly reflects (the version is mine):

Or finally he could always go back to politics

commendably mindful of his family traditions,

one's duty to one's country, and other such

resounding claptrap.

The high-sounding language of private and national duty is carefully deflated by the final phrase. Theoharis' version remains commendably close to the shape of the original:

Or in the end he possibly

could still go back to politics--

commendably mindful once again of his familial tradition,

what is owed the country, and other noisy maxims.

But noisy (for "resounding") means nothing at all. The deflation is subverted and the poem trails off flatly.

"Before Time Could Change Them" does have its merits. Theoharis has translated not just the canon but a significant number of poems from outside it as well. He arranges the poems with scholarly thoroughness into the order which he believes fits Cavafy's intentions. His introduction draws attention to significant aspects of Cavafy's worldview.

But there is not much point in reading a translation that neither reproduces the essential material nor captures the spirit of the original. Theoharis' claim to have "worked to bring Cavafy's tone of voice into a new English key here, primarily to render his decorous intensity, and to convey the urbane clarity of his learned engagement with elemental experience" (whatever that means) cannot be substantiated. There are too many infelicities of detail, too many errors of judgment in the choice of key words or formal focus.

If you want to have a sense of what Cavafy talks about, the Keeley and Sherrard translation is more reliable. And to get the feel of Cavafy, you would be better off reading Doty's "My Alexandria."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World