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Mixing History and Desire: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy | The Nation

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Mixing History and Desire: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy

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"For Ammon" is partly about translation's impossibility, which is also a metaphor for the way words can't hold life: the "foreign tongue" (in this case, Greek) itself becomes Ammon's tomb. As a poet who lived in several languages, Cavafy knew this well; Mendelsohn feels it, too. Writing about mirrors in The Elusive Embrace, he thinks of Catullus' (heterosexual, Latin) version of Sappho (bisexual, Greek): "If you hold Catullus up to Sappho, an infinitely long corridor of reflections opens up. If you lose yourself in it, you can learn something about desire." Translation is the most intimate form of criticism, requiring you to inhabit another's verbal skin, try out his gestures, guess how he would move if your mother tongue were his.

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Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis
Maria Margaronis writes from The Nation's London bureau. Her work has appeared in many other publications,...

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Mendelsohn wants nothing less than Ammon's friend: to offer, "as much as possible, a Cavafy who looks, feels, and sounds in English the way he looks, feels, and sounds in Greek," which means translating meter as well as meaning. Dalven, Keeley and Sherrard dispensed with rhyme and made Cavafy sound modern; Forster announced in an essay that Cavafy didn't use rhyme at all. Until now, only the early versions by John Mavrogordato and the poet's brother John (worth reading, and available on the website of the Cavafy Archive: cavafy.com) tried extensively to reproduce the poet's formal choices. Mendelsohn analyses them in detail in his introduction and sometimes manages to find English approximations--for instance in "Walls," where rhymes (in Greek, homophonous line endings) add to the feeling of being trapped, or in the Symbolist-influenced poem "Chandelier," where blazing candles evoke the bliss and danger of consuming passion:

The light that appears is no ordinary light.
The pleasure of this heat has not been fashioned
for bodies that too easily take fright.

Mendelsohn also appreciates Cavafy's subtle use, in almost every poem, of Greek's different registers--the formal katharevousa, or purified tongue, invented by Enlightenment scholars, and the colloquial demotic--and does his best to find English equivalents: Latinate words and formal syntax versus Anglo-Saxon phrases.

But every translation involves inevitable loss. Some of my reservations about Mendelsohn's are admittedly pedantic, and wouldn't arise had he not set the bar so high. History is visible inside the Greek language like gradations of blue in deep water; the very useful division into formal and demotic can't quite account for that continuity. As a classicist, Mendelsohn tends to favor the root meanings of words, many of which have changed over the centuries, rather than the medieval or modern ones. Often this is enriching; sometimes, though, it seems unnecessarily fussy. In the great poem "The God Abandons Antony," the painful, ordinary word apetychan ("failed") is rendered as "ill-starred" because its root is tychi, "luck" or "fortune"; something of the poem's pathos is diminished. Not surprisingly, he is also less attuned to Cavafy's Byzantine resonances. A meter Cavafy favors in which short half-lines are vertically broken by white space is not just "jaunty," as Mendelsohn puts it (following, to be fair, the Greek poet George Seferis, who called it a "tango" rhythm), but also evocative of the Orthodox liturgy, adding a further twist to Cavafy's ironies.

A larger problem, for me, has to do with Mendelsohn's ear for English iambic rhythms. Music, as he acknowledges, was vital for Cavafy, whose Greek iambs have such fluency that early critics dismissed him as prosaic. At times, Mendelsohn catches this perfectly, as in his version of the short poem "Voices," which is the best I've read:

Imagined voices, and beloved, too,
of those who died, or of those who are
lost unto us like the dead.

Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us;
sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.

And with their sound for a moment there return
sounds from the first poetry of our life--
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.

Elsewhere, though, the lines seem to limp and trip--like the last line of "Ithaca"--often because they stay too close to Cavafy's syntax. Here, for example, is the last stanza of "Sculptor From Tyana":

But this work here is my favorite of all,
which I made with the greatest care and deep feeling:
him, one warm day in summer
when my thoughts were ascending to ideal things,
him I stood dreaming here, the young Hermes.

The natural stress of the words ("favorite of all," "deep feeling," "young Hermes") pushes against the meter in a way that contributes nothing to the sense; Cavafy's metrical variations are precisely placed, reflecting the sculptor's slightly nervous efforts to impress the visitors he is showing around his studio. In Greek it is common to begin a sentence with an accusative pronoun ("him") for emphasis, and "dream" is often used as a transitive verb; in English both feel awkward and undermine the suggestion at the poem's close that the sculptor's feelings soar before the image of his desire. As an inflected language, Greek has a very variable and expressive word order, which means quite differently from word order in English; to reproduce it literally only flattens the English verse and makes the poem seem construed rather than reimagined. Cavafy's delicately delineated characters--confections of tone and nuance, allusion and elision--don't always survive their journey into a foreign tongue.

Mendelsohn's may not be a great poet's Cavafy. (For a hint of what that could be like, read the small handful of translations by James Merrill, first published in Grand Street in 1987.) But it is perhaps the next best thing: the Cavafy of a brilliant critic who has a true and deep affinity for the poet--and who has succeeded in giving him to us whole for the first time. Somewhere, in some neo-Platonic heaven, the Greek and English tongues may touch in a more perfect union. In the meantime, as the Alexandrian knew so well, every great labor carries its flaws within it. And if that labor was undertaken for love, as this one surely was, they are all the more poignant and forgivable.

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